The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Washington Football Team in Week 10 on Sunday afternoon, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 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
Mike Evans. The Buccaneers won't have Antonio Brown or Rob Gronkowski on Sunday. Chris Godwin is questionable for the game, though the signs point to him being active. If Breshad Perriman plays, he will be coming off a long period of inactivity. And yet we are also talking about Tampa Bay's top-ranked passing attack going against the NFL's 32nd-ranked pass defense. The catches and yards are likely to be there, and Evans is a good bet to be in Tom Brady's crosshairs. He certainly has a strong history against Washington. In three career games against the Football Team, Evans has caught 18 passes for 424 yards and three touchdowns. That's an average of six receptions for 141.3 yards and one score per outing, and he has also averaged 23.6 yards per reception and 15.7 yards per target in those contests. There's also reason to keep an eye on Evans from a historical standpoint. Evans goes into Sunday's game with 70 career touchdowns scored, just one shy of the franchise record set by Mike Alstott. Evans could become the only active player who is currently the touchdowns leader for the team he is on.
Richard Sherman. Tampa Bay's cornerback group has the same current level of flux on and off the injury list, and it appears that Sherman will be one of the players returning to action on Sunday. He sat out the two games before the bye week due to a hamstring injury but was a full participant in practice this week and did not have a game-status designation on the injury report. Sherman could return to the starting lineup opposite Jamel Dean, playing left cornerback as he did in his first three games with Tampa Bay before his injury. The Bucs signed Sherman after losing Sean Murphy-Bunting to an elbow injury in Week One and believed the long-time NFL star would use his experience and intelligence to grasp the Bucs' defense quickly and hold his own immediately, and he did just that in his first few games in red and pewter. Now the Bucs hope that same experience and veteran savvy will help him make some big plays in the secondary, which have largely been lacking outside of a three-interception game against Chicago and rookie quarterback Justin Fields in Week Seven.
Ryan Jensen. Washington's best pass-rusher this season hasn't been Chase Young or Montez Sweat but fifth-year man Jonathan Allen, who brings the pressure right up the gut. Allen's 19 quarterback hits are second in the NFL only to potential Defensive Player of the Year Myles Garrett, and he has 3.0 sacks and five QB hits in the Football Team's last two games. Allen's quick get-off and powerful moves will be a challenge for all three of Tampa Bay's interior offensive lineman, including center Ryan Jensen. Jensen is a tone-setter for the Buccaneers' blocking wall and one of the NFL's most relentless centers. In his own words, he plays "nasty, old-school football" and doesn't care who likes it and who doesn't. When Jensen is at the absolute peak of his game, such as he was in last year's playoff win in New Orleans, he can be found blocking players all over the field and either sustaining those blocks right to the whistle or bouncing off one defender to engage with another. The Football Team has another very strong and impactful defensive tackle in Daron Payne, so Jensen and his buddies between the tackles will have their hands full on Sunday. That's exactly how Jensen would want it.
Lavonte David. David returned to action in the game before the bye after missing two contests with a high-ankle sprain, but he admittedly was not at 100 percent in New Orleans. As the Bucs returned to work this week after their bye, David said he was closer to being fully recovered, which is good news for a defense that needs its veteran leader in the season's second half. David could also be a key defender this week in particular as the Buccaneers prepare to take on Taylor Heinicke, a very mobile quarterback who had a strong game against Tampa Bay in last year's playoffs. When a play breaks down, Heinicke can very quickly get into the open field, particularly if the pocket opens up in front of him. An important part of the team's coverage efforts in the middle of the field, David will need to recognize quickly that Heinicke is on the move and try to close in on him before he can break off big chunks of yardage.
Leonard Fournette. Fournette has averaged exactly 100 yards from scrimmage and scored four touchdowns in Tampa Bay's six wins. In the team's two losses, he has averaged 38.5 yards from scrimmage and has not found the end zone. That's not necessarily cause-and-effect, but Tampa Bay's offense has been tougher to stop when Fournette has gotten going, both as a runner and a pass-catcher. Fournette is also performing well as a pass protector in the backfield, which will be crucial in Sunday's game against Washington's talented and aggressive group of pass-rushers. As noted above, the Bucs' high-octane passing attack gets a crack against a Washington pass defense that, at least in terms of yards allowed, has surprisingly been the NFL's worst in 2021. Obviously, the Bucs will try to take advantage of that with Tom Brady's ageless right arm, but Head Coach Bruce Arians prefers to attack with a balanced offense, including a running attack that is at least effective if not necessarily overly prolific, in part because it sets up more effective play-action.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 16.9%/31.4%. Will Washington's loaded defensive front – which is now a little less loaded thanks to Montez Sweat's broken jaw – be able to get to Tom Brady and disrupt his timing? Few opposing defenses have been able to do that this year, thanks to both a strong offensive line and Brady's extremely quick release. Brady has been pressured on just 16.9% of his dropbacks this season, the lowest rate for any quarterback in the league. However, while Washington's overall defensive numbers and the surprisingly low sack total for star edge rusher Chase Young suggest a backslide for the team's pass rush, it has still been very good at pressuring quarterbacks this year. Washington's quarterback pressure rate of 31.4% is third-best in the NFL.
· 49.0%/56.5%. This one isn't complicated. When the Buccaneers have the ball on Sunday and get to third down, they should be confident about keeping the drive alive. Tampa Bay's third-down success rate of 49.0% ranks second in the NFL and, if maintained, would easily break the team's single-season record. The Bucs have converted more than half of their third downs in three of their last four games. Meanwhile, Washington's defense is allowing an astonishing conversion rate of 56.5% on third down, the worst in the NFL by a wide margin. Atlanta has the second worst mark at 47.9%.
· 2.76/4.28/2.8%. Jonathan Allen, the first of four defensive linemen taken in the first round by Washington from 2017-20, has taken his game to another level in 2021. The team leader with 6.0 sacks, Allen is turning more of his good pass rushes into harmful plays this season. The average time it takes him to record a hurry of an opposing quarterbacks is 2.76 seconds, as compared to 3.04 seconds in 2020. Allen has also quickened his time to getting sacks from 5.19 seconds on average last year to 4.28 this year. Overall, his sack rate per pass rush has jumped from 0.5% in 2020 to 2.8% this year.
· 58-12/0-16. The Buccaneers generally win when they are on top in the turnover department, which is not a surprising note to anyone who has watched much NFL football. Specifically, the Bucs tend to get points off their turnovers in wins and to give up points off turnovers in losses. In their six victories so far, the Buccaneers have scored 58 points off takeaways and allowed 12 off giveaways, and all 12 of those points came in the season opener against Dallas. In their two losses, the Bucs have zero takeaways, which also means they have zero points off turnovers and are down in that battle, 0-16.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Antonio Brown remain out for Sunday's game with back and ankle injuries, respectively, and wide receiver Chris Godwin is questionable with a foot ailment. As noted above, Godwin very well could still be in the lineup. Tom Brady could be looking to some new targets in Week 10, with wide receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Darren Fells both being elevated for the game after signing to the practice squad on Wednesday..
· Washington lost one of the stars in its defensive front in Week Eight when edge rusher Montez Sweat suffered a jaw fracture, and injury that could sideline him for a month. Second-year man Casey Toohill, a 2020 seventh-round pick out of Stanford, is likely to start in Sweat's place; Toohill has one sack and three QB hits so far this season. Another seventh-round selection, rookie Shaka Toney out of Penn State, could see some more action as well; he has only played in two games so far but they came in Weeks Six and Eight.
· The Football Team could get two of its starting five offensive linemen back on Sunday, as both right tackle Sam Cosmi and right guard Brandon Scherff returned to practice this week. On Friday's injury report, Cosmi was listed as questionable and Scherff did not receive a game-status designation. Cosmi, a rookie second-rounder who was in the starting lineup from Week one, has missed the last three games with an ankle injury. Scherff, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, has been out the last four games due to a knee ailment. On the less positive side for Washington, starting center Chase Roullier was placed on injured reserve during the team's bye week after suffering a leg fracture in Week Eight. Sixth-year pro Tyler Larsen is expected to start in his place.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE FOOTBALL TEAM
Washington's offense has a group of young and ascending skill-position stars, including wide receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson. If tight end Logan Thomas, who had a breakout season in 2020, returns from injured reserve that will give quarterback Taylor Heinicke another dynamic weapon. Overall, Washington has run the ball well, ranking 12th in yards per game (118.1) and 10th in yards per carry (4.57). The Football Team's defense has not gotten the expected results this season after a superb 2020 campaign, but it still features a dangerous inside-outside pass-rushing duo of Jonathan Allen and Chase Young. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
The Buccaneers unexpectedly found out what a challenge it can be to defend against mobile young quarterback Taylor Heinicke in last year's playoff when the since-retired Alex Smith was an 11th-hour scratch in the Wild Card round. Heinicke had an outstanding game, throwing for over 300 yards and adding 46 yards and a touchdown on a series of drive-extending scrambles. As Bruce Arians emphasized this week, Heinicke is not just fast but very quick, and if the Buccaneers' pass rush leaves the middle of the field open he's going to dart out of the pocket and get upfield in a hurry. Tampa Bay defenders will focus on staying disciplined and in their lanes when rushing Heinicke, and they'll have to put in extra effort to get him on the ground. Heinicke has been sacked 14 times this season, but most notably the average amount of time from the snap to getting him on the ground on those sacks has been 5.0 seconds. That's the second-longest average "time to sack" of all players in the NFL this season who have thrown at least 100 passes, behind only the 5.03 average TTS of Jacksonville rookie Trevor Lawrence.
If any player on Washington's underperforming defense is primed for a second-half breakout, it's second-year edge-rushing star Chase Young. Young burst onto the scene last year with an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year season and then happily accepted the postseason spotlight by telling a postgame camera that he wanted a crack at Tom Brady in the playoffs. Expectations were obviously very high for Young in his second season but so far he has produced just 1.5 sack, four quarterback hits and, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, 20 pressures. His quarterback pressure percentage through the first eight games has dipped to 7.9% after he put up an impressive 11.2% figure as a rookie. However, all of the talent that made him the second-overall pick in the 2020 draft remains, including an average get-off at the snap of 0.84 seconds. Washington Head Coach Ron Rivera studied Young's tape during the bye week and came back with some specific ideas to help get the young pass-rusher back on track. In particular, Rivera thinks Young is cutting inside too often and too early instead of setting the edge, which is giving quarterbacks a path to escape and reducing Young's sack opportunities. Young calmly absorbed the criticism of his season so far this week and said, "Just wait until down the road. Just keep watching." A return to star status is almost certain for the former Ohio State standout; the Buccaneers will try to delay that by at least one more week.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On if the Buccaneers were in danger of being rusty on Sunday after coming out of their bye week:
"No, I think the way we practiced all week there wasn't rust, that's for sure. A lot of energy. Both show teams did a hell of a job, and when they bring that energy to practice everybody has to step it up. It was an excellent week on the field."