The Tampa Bay Buccaneers make their return to the playoffs when they take on the Washington Football Team on Saturday night, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:15 p.m. ET kickoff at FedExField. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Tom Brady. As we've noted before, you could put the quarterback on the watch list every week, which is why we don't often do so. But the Buccaneers are now in the playoffs, and that's Tom Brady's stage. The Buccaneers made one of the boldest free agent moves in league history in March not only to help them get over the hump and back into the playoffs but also to have the perfect leader when they got there. Brady has played in and won more postseason games than any other figure in NFL history, and he has six Super Bowl championship rings to show for it. Obviously, all of those games and titles came with the Patriots, and Brady is now in his 21st season, but he's shown no signs of slowing down in his age-43 campaign. Rather, he's tapped into the Buccaneers' incredible cast of pass-catchers to post the second-highest touchdown pass total (40) of his career and his fifth-highest yardage total (4,633). Brady charges into his 12th straight postseason off the most prolific final month of any season in his career, as he has thrown for 1,333 yards, 12 touchdowns and a 126.9 passer rating during the Bucs' four-game winning streak. Tampa Bay currently has 18 players on the roster who have postseason experienced, combining for 107 playoff appearances, but that still leaves a large majority of Buccaneers who will be tasting the second season for the first time. Many of those players will be looking toward Brady to guide them with his vast January and February experience. The Buccaneers are back in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, and all eyes are on Brady.
ILB Lavonte David. To be specific, Tom Brady has played in 41 career postseason games, nine more than the next most experienced player (Adam Vinatieri). That is also 41 more playoff games than Lavonte David has played in a career that began in 2012 and now sees him as the longest-tenured Buccaneer. David has started 137 regular-season games, tied for the fifth-most in franchise history, and through it all he has remained one of the most underrated stars in the league. David deserves the playoff spotlight as much as anyone on the Bucs' roster, and it will be fascinating to see what he does under it. He heads in following yet another all-around dominant regular season in which he filled up every part of the stat line with 117 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits, one interception, six passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. His sideline-to-sideline range is going to be critical against an Alex Smith-led Washington offense that doesn't throw downfield very often and tries to get a lot of yardage after the catch. That's doubly true because David won't have his usual inside-backer running mate with Devin White not yet off the COVID list. Kevin Minter filled in very nicely for White in the season-capping win over Atlanta and has a great grasp of the Buccaneers' defense, but of course White was one of the main sources of splash plays for Tampa Bay this year. It may be up to David to provide those on Saturday night.
WR Chris Godwin. To be fair, we have already been watching Mike Evans all week. The Bucs' leading receiver went down in the end zone with a scary-looking knee injury in Week 17 but has a chance to play on Saturday night after practicing in a limited fashion on Thursday. His status will remain up in the air until hours before the game and that's obviously a key storyline for the game. But no matter how much Evans is able to contribute, the Bucs know they can count on Godwin to step up and deliver big plays, as he did in such impressive fashion against Atlanta. The fourth-year receiver has had to fight through three different injuries that have cost him time this season but he's healthy heading into the playoffs and he may be the most versatile weapon in the Bucs' passing attack. Godwin can provide quick-hitting plays out of the slot, is able to make stunningly acrobatic plays on balls thrown downfield and rivals Antonio Brown as the best Buccaneer receivers after the catch. According to Next Gen Stats, Godwin is the only receiver in the NFL who has recorded 150-plus yards each on nine different types of routes since the start of the 2019 season. He also provides a lot of hidden dirty work as one of the NFL's best blocking receivers, not just in keeping cornerbacks out of the play but in actively getting involved in blocking schemes at the point of attack. Another Buc who's sizzling as the playoff begins, he had 10 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns in the last two games of the regular season.
OLB Shaquil Barrett. The Buccaneers had three players with at least 8.0 sacks in 2020, but they only had one of them available against Atlanta last week and they did not generate as much pressure as usual. Barrett (8.0 sacks) returns this week, however, to rejoin his fellow edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul (9.5 sacks) in an effort to make things difficult for Smith or whoever is under center for the Football Team on any given play. Barrett's eight sacks seem like a precipitous fall from last year's league-leading total of 19.5, but beyond those numbers he has been every bit as impactful in his second year as a Buccaneer. According to NFL Next Gen stats, Barrett's pressure rate of 13.9% on his pass rushes in 2020 is actually better than it was last year. Barrett is one of those 18 current Bucs who have been to the playoffs before, and he even won a ring with Denver in 2015, but he did not start any of the four games he played in 2014 and 2015 and only saw sparing playing time. This time, he's a starter and one of the most important defenders on the field for the Buccaneers. The Football Team has performed well when Smith has been the quarterback, winning five of his six starts, and he has a lot of playoff experience as well. However, he's not the NFL's most mobile quarterback and he's currently trying to play through a calf injury that kept him out in Week 16 and seemed to hamper his movements last week. The Buccaneers tied for fourth in the NFL with 48 sacks and ranked seventh in sacks per pass play; Tampa Bay's defense can definitely get after the passer. With Barrett back to help lead the charge, that could be a deciding factor in Saturday's outcome.
T Donovan Smith. Speaking of defenses that can get after the passer, the Buccaneers are about to face perhaps the most dangerous defensive front they've encountered all season. Washington has five first-round picks on its defensive line, four from the last four years, and that group is led by NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young. The Football Team's defense ranked fourth in the NFL with an 8.88% sacks-per-pass-play rate. How well the Buccaneers' offensive line, which seemed to be playing its best ball in December, handles that Washington front will determine how prolific of an evening Brady can have. When it comes to Young in particular, Smith will likely have to do most of the heavy lifting. Young and Montez Sweat form a dynamic pair of ends and they do switch sides at times, but Young most frequently rushes over the left tackle, which is the spot Smith occupies. The only team in the NFL that allowed less pressure on its quarterback, based on sacks per pass attempt, than Tampa Bay was Pittsburgh and Brady's incredible final month was made possible in large part by outstanding recent protection. Smith has received some criticism at time for his consistency from game to game, but he has shown the ability to put together a dominating performance for 60 minutes. If he can do that on Saturday night it will be very obvious because it will mean Young isn't spending much time around Brady, the quarterback he has made clear he most wants to get to the ground.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 59/79/42.1%. We noted the importance of Barrett's presence above; according to Next Gen Stats, he had 59 quarterback pressures in 2020, ranking third in the NFL in that category for the second year in a row. Ndamukong Suh complements that with good pressure from the inside, ranking fifth among NFL interior linemen with 79 pressures since the start of the 2019 campaign. However, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles doesn't rely solely on his designated pass-rushers to put pressure on the quarterback. The Buccaneers brought five or more defenders at the quarterback on 42% of opposing dropbacks this year, again according to Next Gen Stats, and that was the second-highest rate in the league.
- 37.1%/36.0%, 154. If the Buccaneers' defense wants to keep Washington's passing game in check, it has to start with keeping the ball away from wide receiver Terry McLaurin as much as possible. McLaurin jumped right into a lead role as a third-round rookie last year, accounting for 37.1% of his team's receiving yards, the sixth-highest percentage of any player in the NFL. It was the same story this year even as Washington cycled through four quarterbacks, as McLaurin was good for 36.0% of the team's receiving total. One of the reasons for that is the yardage that the former Ohio State standout routinely tacks on the end of his catches. According to Next Gen Stats, his 509 yards after the catch in 2020 was sixth among all NFL wideouts.
- 10-2/1-3, 2-4/9-1. These numbers indicate how important pass protection has been to the Buccaneers' 2020 success on both sides of the ball. Tampa Bay's line kept Brady from being sacked more than twice in 12 of the 16 games and the Bucs finished 10-2 in those contests. When Brady was sacked three or more times, the Bucs only went 1-4. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers were just 2-4 in the six games in which their defense was held to two or fewer sacks, but 9-1 when it got to at least three.
- 12%, 5.0. Tampa Bay's defense better be ready to defend some screen passes on Saturday. Since he returned to action in Week Nine, according to Next Gen Stats, Alex Smith has thrown a screen on 12% of his passes, the highest rate in the league and double the NFL average. Smith's passes have traveled an average of 5.0 yards downfield in the air, the shortest distance for any qualifying quarterback this year. However, the Bucs also can't get lulled to sleep because Smith has actually been very effective on intermediate throws (10-19 yards downfield), with a 124.3 passer rating on such passes. The Football Team simply has not thrown a lot of those passes…not yet, at least.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- Cornerback Carlton Davis is considered questionable for Saturday's game due to the groin injury that has kept him out two weeks, but he did practice in full on Thursday. If he is able to return, the Buccaneers would go back to their usual trio of Davis and Jamel Dean on the outside and Sean Murphy-Bunting in the slot, though Murphy-Bunting could also hold onto his outside snaps in the base defense, as he is coming off one of his best games of the season in Week 17.
- The Football Team listed Smith, McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson as questionable on their Thursday injury report but all were able to practice to some extent on Wednesday and Thursday. It seems likely that all three will play, but Washington Head Coach Ron Rivera has mentioned the possibility of using two quarterbacks in the game, with Taylor Heinicke coming in at times to give Smith a chance to rest his injured calf.
- The Buccaneers get edge rusher Shaquil Barrett back after a one-game absence, pushing second-year man Anthony Nelson back into the third spot in the OLB rotation. However, ILB Devin White, who was named a second-team Associated Press All-Pro on Friday, remains out and that means veteran Kevin Minter will make his second straight start next to Lavonte David (also a second-team Associated Press All-Pro this year).
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE FOOTBALL TEAM
As noted, the Football Team is 5-1 in Smith's six starts and he has a trio of reliable targets in McLaurin, tight end Logan Thomas and running back J.D. McKissic, all of whom finished with 70-plus catches. Washington's defense ranked in the top five in the NFL in a wide variety of categories, including points allowed (4th), yards allowed (2nd), passing yards allowed (2nd), yards allowed per play (2nd), interception percentage (5th), sack percentage (4th), first downs allowed (3rd) and red zone TD efficiency (4th). The Football Team's special teams feature an outstanding punter in Tress Way, who had a 44.3 net average. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Saturday night.
The biggest challenge for the Bucs' offense: Deciding which of the Football Team's pass-rushers to double-team. The aforementioned edge-rush duo of Young and Sweat combined for 16.5 sacks but the two former Alabama tackles between them, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, are dynamic players as well. Neither Payne nor Allen has huge sack totals this year – 2.5 and 2.0 respectively – but they still get a lot of pressure up the middle. Allen, in particular, has generated pressure on 11.1% of his pass-rushes, which is fourth-best in the NFL among interior linemen according to Next Gen Stats. Allen is also an outstanding run defender, which means the Bucs might sometimes need more than one blocker to get him off his spot. The Bucs will understandably be focused on keeping Young and Sweat away from Brady as much as possible, but they can't do so at the expense of paying too little attention to Allen and Payne.
Bruce Arians said the Buccaneers were contemplating taking Memphis running back Antonio Gibson in the second round of the 2020 draft before deciding upon Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. That proved to be an outstanding selection, but now the Bucs find themselves facing Gibson as the playoffs begin. The rookie running back was a bright spot for a Washington offense that didn't put up big numbers, gaining 1,042 yards from scrimmage and scoring 11 touchdowns despite missing two games with the toe injury that is still bothering him now. Gibson led the Football Team with 795 rushing yards and also caught 36 passes, and he's a versatile athlete who played a lot of snaps at receiver in college. That versatility is what will keep the Bucs' defense guessing quite a bit more when Gibson is on the field than when fellow backs McKissic and Peyton Barber get snaps. When McKissic is on the field, the Football Team throws on 74% of its snaps, and when Barber is on the field, it swings to 68% running plays. However, with Gibson in the game Washington has run it 51% of the time and thrown it 49% of the time. Gibson has also been quite a weapon in the red zone, which is reflected in those 11 rushing touchdowns. According to Next Gen Stats, he has succeeded on 58.6% of his carries in the red zone, which means getting at least four yards on first down, at least half of the necessary yards for a first down on second down, and a first down on third or fourth down.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On if he would consider the Buccaneers' 2020 season a success:
"We'll see how far this goes. It won't be [a success] if we don't win this one. Really, it's not going to be if we don't put rings on our fingers, because once you're in the tournament, that's what you're playing for. We did enough to get here and it will not be satisfying unless we finish it."