On Sunday, the 3-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 4-4 New York Giants at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. It will be the 20th meeting between the two teams, including one postseason matchup, and a chance for the Buccaneers to snap the Giants' three-game winning streak in the regular-season head-to-head battle. The Giants are making their second straight visit to an NFC South locale after engaging in one of the wildest shootouts in NFL history in New Orleans last Sunday. Despite losing two of its last three, New York stands atop the NFC East standings, a half-game ahead of Philadelphia and Washington.
To achieve both a second straight win and a second straight home victory, the Buccaneers will need to slow down the prolific Eli Manning-to-Odell Beckham connection and try to keep the Giants from padding their league-best turnover ratio. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when the Giants visit Raymond James Stadium for the first time since 2009.
Tom Coughlin has been at the Giants' helm since 2004, making him the third-longest current NFL head coach behind New England's Bill Belichick and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis. That job security is no surprise given that his first 11 seasons included two Super Bowl-winning campaigns (following the 2007 and 2011 seasons) and a 104-83 record, including the postseason. That mark is now 108-87 after the first half of the 2015 season, and Coughlin got his 100th regular-season win as the Giants' head coach two weeks ago against Dallas.
Coughlin was also the first head coach for the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995, and he held that post for eight years, guiding the Jaguars to the postseason in four of their first five years of existence. Overall, in 20 years as an NFL head coach, Coughlin owns a 168-144 record in the regular season and a 12-7 mark in the postseason. He is one of just 13 head coaches in league history to win multiple Super Bowls. He has won six division titles and taken four teams to conference championship games.
Photos of the Bucs vs. the Giants over the years.
When Coughlin took over the Giants in 2004, he returned to the site of his third NFL job, as he coached wide receivers under Bill Parcells from 1988-90. Those Giants also won a Super Bowl following the 1990 season, after which Parcells left to take over the New England Patriots and Coughlin returned to the college ranks as the head coach at Boston College. Coughlin first got into coaching as a graduate assistant at his alma mater of Syracuse, eventually rising to the post of offensive coordinator before leaving for a three-year stint at BC. His first NFL position was as the Philadelphia Eagles' wide receivers coach in 1984; after two years in that post and two in the same job with the Green Bay Packers, he joined Parcells in New York. Altogether, he has nearly 50 years of coaching under his belt.
Though he worked for Marion Campbell in Philadelphia and Forrest Gregg in Green Bay first, Coughlin is generally thought of as a Parcells disciple. He is considered a stern disciplinarian with an unwavering attention to detail. However, after taking a particularly hard-nosed approach with a young squad in Jacksonville, Coughlin has gradually adopted a somewhat lighter touch in New York.
New York's offense gave a good indication of what it is capable of producing with a 49-point explosion last Sunday in New Orleans…albeit in a three-point loss. Quarterback Eli Manning led the charge with a career-high six touchdown passes without an interception, increasing his season-long TD-INT ratio to an excellent 17-4. That also upped his passer rating in 2015 to 99.9 and he ranks in the top eight in the league in both touchdown percentage and interception percentage.
Manning might not have thrown six TD passes in one game before last weekend, but he has certainly thrown more than his share over 12 NFL seasons…276 of them, in fact, to rank 10th in league history. He was at the helm of Super Bowl championship teams in both 2007 and 2011, but his current numbers represent the best of his career. He has been incredibly durable throughout his career, as he'll bring a streak of 175 starts into Sunday's game, the third-longest streak ever for an NFL quarterback and the longest active streak for any player at any position.
"He's never rattled, he's seen it all and we've had an opportunity to compete against him a lot of times, so we know what we are getting," said Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith of Manning. "We have to be on top of our game. It will be a big challenge."
Manning's 2013 season, in which he threw an NFL-leading 27 interceptions, represented the worst struggles of his professional career by a wide margin, but his performance in the season-and-a-half that has followed (47 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 64.0% completion rate, 272 yards per game) are as good as any stretch of his very successful career. It might not be a coincidence that that run has coincided with the arrival of Odell Beckham, one of the most dynamic receivers in the game. Beckham missed the first four games of his rookie season due to injury and then was eased back in for three more contests. However, since Week Nine of 2014, Beckham has averaged 109 yards per game and scored 16 touchdowns in 17 outings. He has more receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns than any other player in the NFL in that span. Beckham's freakish athleticism was announced to the nation at large when he made an unforgettable one-handed touchdown catch against Dallas last year.
Beckham is obviously Manning's top target, with 75 targets in eight games – and that's especially true in the continued absence of Victor Cruz – but the Giants have a nicely varied passing attack that ranks 11th in the NFL in both yards per game and yards per passing play. The addition of former New England pass-catching back Shane Vereen has gone well; he has 30 catches for 280 yards and Giant backs in total have caught nearly 50 passes and scored three touchdowns. Top tight end Larry Donnell and second receiver Reuben Randle give the Giants four players with 29 or more catches already.
The Giants' rushing attack hasn't fared as well, averaging 94.5 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry to rank 27th and 25th in the league, respectively. New York splits the carries mostly between starter Rashad Jennings and reserve Andre Williams, though Williams contributions have tapered down in recent weeks as the Giants have given second-year man Orleans Darkwa a look. Vereen pitches in with about five carries a game in addition to his strong work in the passing game. Jennings leads the team with 316 yards on 81 carries but hasn't had a single-game total higher than 63. No Giants running back has more than a single rushing touchdown.
Still, New York's rushing attack has done the job on first down, getting at least four yards on 44.1% of its tries, good for 12th in the league. With Manning's accurate arm helping the Giants' offense to succeed for four yards or more on 58.9% of their passing plays, the team is fifth overall in the NFL in first-down success rate (51.1%). That in turn has helped the Giants convert 38.5% of their third downs, just a bit above league average. They've also not hurt their defense with giveaways, as New York has surrendered just 21 points off turnovers in eight games. In contrast, Tampa Bay's offense has scored 41 points off takeaways in just its last three games combined.
Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, November 4th, at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
Manning's protection has been up-and-down this season, but more good than bad. He's been sacked just 12 times in 312 dropbacks, an excellent 3.8% rate that is fifth-lowest in the NFL (by team). He's taken nine of those 12 sacks in the Giants' four losses, however. The Giants drafted the University of Miami's Ereck Flowers with the ninth overall pick last May and have dropped him directly into the critical left tackle spot, just as the Buccaneers have done with second-round pick Donovan Smith. According to Manning, Flowers has handled the responsibility well.
"It hasn't been too big for him," said Manning. "Even from the first game, opening night on Sunday night in Dallas, it wasn't – the scene, the environment. He's done well. He's handled everything. He knows his assignments, he works hard, he comes to practice every day, showing some toughness, showing being a leader on that offensive line."
The Giants brought in Marshall Newhouse from Cincinnati to start at right tackle, allowing them to kick Justin Pugh inside to left guard. Starting center Weston Richburg was a second-round pick a year ago, while starting right guard Geoff Schwartz has bounced around the league a bit but could be on his way to starting 16 games for the first time since 2010 in Carolina. Football Outsiders ranks the Giants' offensive line as the league's 18th-best run-blocking unit and 15th-best pass-protection group. Both Pugh and Richburg rank among the top five players at their position on the Pro Football Focus grading sheet.
While Manning has done a good job of protecting the football, the Giants' defense has excelled at taking it away, which is how New York has ascended to the top of the league's turnover-differential chart. The Giants have a sparkling plus-11 ratio; no other team in the league is better than +7.
Thirteen of New York's 18 takeaways have been interceptions, which is tied with Arizona for the most in the NFL. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has led the way with three picks, giving him 24 in his eight-year career, but eight different Giants have contributed to the avalanche of interceptions. That includes one for rookie safety Landon Collins, the first pick of the second round of the 2015 draft and an instant starter at free safety. Around Collins is a very seasoned secondary – Rodgers-Cromartie, nickel Trumaine McBride and starting strong safety Brandon Merriweather are all eighth-year players with extensive starting experience. The Giants have already been credited with 45 passes defensed, with Collins, Merriweather, Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara all getting at least five.
Of course, that secondary did just give up 500 yards and seven touchdown passes to Drew Brees last Sunday, and the Giants rank last in the NFL passing yards allowed per game and 29th in yards allowed per pass play. This is clearly an opportunistic bunch capable of coming up with big defensive plays – including three defensive touchdowns between Rodgers-Cromartie and McBride – but also potentially susceptible to giving up the big play. New York also ranks 31st in third-down conversion rate allowed overall (47.7%) and 30th on third downs of less than four yards (70.3%). That has contributed to opposing teams recording 13 scoring drives of five minutes or longer against the Giants, the highest total of the league (albeit in eight games, while the majority of teams have only played seven).
The Giants operate out of a 4-3 front with former Carolina Panther Jon Beason manning the MIKE position in the middle. However, Beason has run into some injury troubles this year (he's been unfortunate in that regard throughout much of the last five seasons) and the Giants have relied quite a bit on young linebacker Uani 'Unga, who went undrafted out of BYU in 2014 after he suffered a knee injury on his final collegiate play. Unga spent most of last season recovering from that mishap, but he's played in seven games with three starts this year and is second to Collins with 47 tackles. Unga has also recorded two tackles for loss, two interceptions, four passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one quarterback hurry as he has made plays all over the field.
Devon Kennard and J.T. Thomas man the outside linebacker spots, and Kennard's four quarterback hits would suggest that he has been sent into the backfield on occasion. Kennard rushed the passer at USC and, at 6-3 and 251 pounds, certainly has the size to be a situational edge rusher. Thomas possesses above-average speed and has the fifth-best pass coverage grade among 4-3 outside linebackers in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Giants' run defense is allowing 112.1 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry, which rank 19th and 17th in the league, respectively. The Buccaneers, who have relied heavily on a rejuvenated Doug Martin and the league's fourth-best rushing game, may try to establish the ground game early, as New York's defense has allowed 45.5% of opposing running plays to gain at least four yards, the fifth-worst mark in the league. However, it won't necessarily be that easy, as that total drops to 43.3% on first-down carries alone, which is actually very close to league average.
New York has long been known for a robust pass-rush, and that was a key element in each of their last two championship runs (52 sacks in 2007, 48 in 2011). Over the 10 seasons prior to 2005, the Giants averaged nearly 41 sacks per game, second in the NFL in that span only to the Miami Dolphins. Double-digit sack stars like Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and of course Michael Strahan dotted those rosters and kept opposing QBs on the run. However, the current iteration of the Giants' defense is having a bit more trouble getting to the quarterback, recording just nine sacks through its first eight games. Reserve third-year end Damontre Moore has a third of those nine sacks and veteran defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins has two, but neither player has a double-digit sack season under his belt. The Giants are currently last in the league in sacks recorded per pass play.
However, that pass rush may soon be getting back another one of those double-digit sack stars of the last decade, as defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul could make his season debut on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Pierre-Paul, who played his college home games in that venue for South Florida, hasn't suited up for a game since a fireworks accident severely damaged his right hand on July 4. He returned to practice this week and he believes that he can still rush the passer with the same effectiveness that got him to 12.5 sacks last year and 16.5 in the last Super Bowl campaign. If Pierre-Paul is right, that would be a significant boost in a department where the Giants seriously need one.
In addition to creating turnovers, the Giants' defense has been relatively strong in the red zone, ranking 17th with a touchdown-allowed percentage of 58.3. Teams have found it difficult to move the ball once reaching New York's red zone, as the Giants have allowed just 2.37 yards per play inside the 20, the fourth-best mark in the NFL.
Kicker Josh Brown has been a fantastic weapon for the Giants on special teams this year, both dependable and dynamic. Brown has made all 15 of his field goal tries, and 19 in a row dating back to last season, and he's already hit from 45 yards away or farther four times. Overall, Brown has made 35 50+-yard field goals in his career (in 52 attempts), the third most among all active NFL kickers. On kickoffs, he ranks towards the bottom of the league pack with a touchback rate of 46.8%. He has missed one extra point try from the new longer distance, but he's already tried 23 PATs (third-most in the NFL) and he's still well above the league-wide PAT average of 94.8%.
Punter Brad Wing ranks 24th in the league in gross average (44.7) and 17th in net average (40.3) but he has been an excellent situational punter for the Giants. That's reflected in his 17 punts downed inside the 20, tied for the league high, against just three touchbacks. Nine of those 17 inside-the-20 successes have actually been downed inside the 10-yard line.
New York's special teams crew also possesses a major weapon in fifth-year wide receiver Dwayne Harris. Harris leads the NFL with a kickoff return average of 34.1 yards on 11 runbacks, and while that average is spiked by a 100-yard touchdown return against Dallas, it is no fluke. Since the start of the 2012 season, Harris ranks eighth in the NFL with a 27.3-yard average on a very large sample size of 53 kickoff returns. He's also tied for fifth in that span with an 11.4-yard punt return average, though it stands at just 7.8 on 17 tries so far this season. Harris played for the rival Cowboys for four years before heading to New York, and he owns three combined punt and kickoff return touchdowns in his career.
New York's coverage units have been very effective, too. Opposing return men are getting just 6.8 yards per punt return and 21.0 per kickoff return, good for 11th and seventh in the NFL, respectively. The Giants' special teams have also recovered two fumbles on returns and blocked a punt, that latter feat pulled off by Jennings, the team's starting running back.