The New York Giants made a dramatic if not unexpected lineup decision to start Week Three, naming rookie Daniel Jones their starting quarterback over 16th-year vet Eli Manning. That means, this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense will be facing a 22-year-old quarterback in his very first NFL start, with all of four regular-season passes under his belt, plus 34 (very good) preseason throws.
You couldn't blame the average Buccaneers fan if they fail to get excited about the possibility of their team's defense feasting on an overmatched rookie. That situation hasn't necessarily produced the expected results in recent years. The Bucs did beat rookies Nick Mullens and Baker Mayfield last year, though only by the skin of their teeth in that latter case. But they lost to Baltimore rookie Lamar Jackson.
Prior to last year, Tampa Bay had lost its previous four games against rookie starting passers: Dak Prescott, Paxton Lynch, Marcus Mariota and Teddy Bridgewater. The not-too-distant memory could bring up unhappy outcomes against rookies Geno Smith, Nick Foles and Cam Newton. Tampa Bay's only backup quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, won against the Bucs as a rookie with Jacksonville in 2011, though to be fair the Buccaneers weren't stopping anybody in the second half of that lost season.
There is something new in the Bucs vs. rookie passers equation in 2019, however. Or someone new. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, contrastingly, has seen his teams do quite well against rookie quarterbacks in the past, thank you very much.
In his roles as a defensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL, Bowles has seen his team go against rookie quarterbacks on eight occasions, including starts by Baker Mayfield, Marcus Mariota, Josh Allen, DeShone Kizer, Derek Carr and Mike Glennon and a pair of relief performances by Cardale Jones and Kevin Hogan. Those eight quarterbacks combined to throw 199 passes in those eight games, exactly one of which went for a touchdown. Seven were intercepted and only 56.3% were completed. Those rookies combined for a 61.8 passer rating. Coincidentally, that lone touchdown pass went into a Raymond James Stadium end zone, courtesy of Glennon in his first career start, a 13-10 Arizona Cardinals win.
Perhaps most importantly, only one of those rookies got his team a victory; Mayfield and the Browns beat Bowles' Jets last year, 21-17, with the rookie QB coming in in relief of Tyrod Taylor. None of the five rookies who started against Bowles' teams won, and four of those five failed to lead their teams to more than 14 points.
Defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh said there are "lots of ways" for Bowles to put the Bucs in position to take advantage of a rookie quarterback, if they take care of one other task first.
"As I said before, it's most important that we've got to stop the run," said Suh. "If we allow them to run the ball and have a two-headed monster, that's going to be very difficult for us. So we shut down the run, and then Coach Bowles is a great defensive backs coach and DC and he's going to have a lot of things for us to do up front as well as in the back end to confuse that rookie quarterback."
Given Bowles' well-deserved reputation for varied and confusing blitz packages, one might think that turning up the heat on Jones and trying to force him into rookie mistakes will be the key to getting a win against this next rookie. And that would certainly be a good turn of events for the Buccaneers. But Suh hinted at the larger point above. To get into position to focus on the rookie passer and hopefully befuddling him, the Bucs will need to do something about Saquon Barkley first.
"I think the biggest thing is just keeping him off balance," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of what the Bucs hope to do to Jones. "First and foremost, stop the run. Stop the run, try to take the easy bootlegs away and make them play from the pocket."
Of course, that's easier said than done. Barkley already has 274 yards from scrimmage through two weeks and he's averaging a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry. The Giants have been the most efficient offense in the NFL on first downs, for which we point you back to that Barkley rushing average we just mentioned. If New York's running game (and short passing game) with Barkley can put Jones into manageable second and third downs, the Giants will have plenty of options to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly.
"He's hard to bring down. He doesn't run over many people – he runs around them and runs past them," said Arians of Barkley. "The size and the speed combination are extremely rare."
Barkley has already recorded nine plays of 50 or more yards in just 18 career regular-season games, which is remarkable, and a good indication of what he can make out of any small mistake from an opposing defense. Buccaneer defenders know they can't afford to be in the wrong place on Sunday when the ball is handed to the Giants' back.
"It's all gap integrity with this guy," said linebacker Kevin Minter. "You talk about a guy with vision? The only other guy I've ever seen with vision like that was probably AP, Adrian Peterson. He sees everything. If that guy's out of his gap…it could be a run to the right but if a guy way out to the left in the D-Gap is out of his gap, he's hitting it. He sees it."
Barkley might be the toughest challenge the Bucs' rejuvenated run defense faces all season, so Barkley has obviously been a focal point this week. But they would be emphasizing stopping the run as the key to making things tough on a rookie quarterback no matter who the opponent. And they're right to feel that way.
Since the 2000 season began, 62 NFL quarterbacks have won their first regular-season start, a list that starts chronologically with Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper in 2000 and extends most recently to Carolina's Kyle Allen in last year's season finale. The vast majority of those game-one winners were supported by a good to very good rushing attack. Fifty of the 62 had ground games that got them over 100 yards, including 38 that were over 125 yards and 29 that were over 150 yards. The average number of rushing yards per team on that list is 145.5, and the mean is 147.5.
There are some forgettable names on that list, like Craig Krenzel or Clint Stoerner or Stephen McGee. There are also some all-timers. Tom Brady got 177 yards of run support in his career-opening win. Aaron Rodgers got 139; Ben Roethlisberger, 153; Philip Rivers, 194; Matt Ryan, 318; Tony Romo, 156. As the sixth-overall pick in the draft, Jones is looked at – by the Giants, at least – as a player who could eventually fit into that latter list. For him to get his career off to a winning start, it would help if Barkley can break through a good Bucs' run defense. If that happens, Jones will have a greater chance to shine.
"I think Daniel Jones is a very bright guy," said Arians. "He had a heck of a preseason – they wouldn't be making this call if he didn't have a great preseason and them thinking he could do the job."