Coming into the year, Tampa Bay was a safe bet to miss the playoffs, and I can only imagine that Jameis Winston’s 4 games suspension for groping an Uber driver was a blow to morale. Nonetheless, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s career-performance led the Bucs to 48 points and a 1-0 start.
Does that change any expectations for Tampa Bay this season? Not for me, but that doesn’t mean we should totally dismiss them. When the schedule was released I circled this matchup as a possible let-down game early in the season, and I would still have that feeling if it weren’t for their upset win over the Saints blowing up their “under the radar” status.
Here are four key matchups that will decide Sunday’s game in Tampa:
1. Gerald McCoy vs the interior offensive lineman
Just as I could put Cox on this list each and every week, the Bucs have a similar game-wrecker in the middle of their defensive line in Gerald McCoy. McCoy is a three-time All-Pro who is in the midst of his prime and is arguably two or three high level seasons away from owning a feasible Hall of Fame argument.
He recorded three tackles and two QB hurries/hits last week against the Saints—getting off to a strong start in a 2018 campaign that has seen high expectations since the additions of Jason Pierre-Paul, and two former Eagles in Vinny Curry and Beau Allen. McCoy has spent most of his career fighting double and triple teams thanks in part to a lackluster supporting cast—after a summer focused on surrounding him with veteran defensive lineman, the Bucs star no longer has that excuse.
With the absence of Alshon Jeffrey (and obviously Wentz) clearly having an impact on the passing attack, any hope of success on offense hinges on the running game and a clean pocket for Foles—keeping McCoy in check is the only way of accomplishing that against Tampa Bay.
2. Ryan Fitzpatrick vs Regression to the Mean
If you’re in a suicide pool then odds are you picked (or at least considered picking) New Orleans last week. In a week without any “locks,” the Saints seemed like a safe bet to roll over a middling-Buccaneers team without their starting quarterback. Insert gunslinger Ryan Fitzpatrick—417 yards and 4 touchdowns later—and the Bucs steal a win against a team that was one play away from the NFC Championship game last year.
This week, Fitzpatrick is up against a much more formidable front seven than what the Saints offer, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of putting up a similar effort. I think a lot of fans forget the amount of time he has spent as a starter in this league.
With that being said, Fitzpatrick’s electric performance last Sunday feels more like a flash in the pan than anything else. Logic, reason, and rational analysis all indicate that Fitz will regress to the mean of his play—which is to say, average. And that Buccaneers team without a 400 yard-4 TD QB under center is a cake walk.
3. Ronald Darby/Jalen Mills vs Mike Evans/Desean Jackson
Of the 417 yards that Fitzpatrick threw for, 147 of them were to Mike Evans over 7 catches and 1 TD. More surprisingly, Desean Jackson recorded 5 catches for 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The dynamic skillset of this duo is what allowed them to create the wide open offense that we saw last week, and it’s not clear how we’ll be able to answer that any better than the Saints—at least in regard to our secondary.
While I have confidence in our trio of cornerbacks to find a way to cover these two, I have to admit some concern. Ronald Darby typically struggles against bigger, more physical receivers—which is exactly how I would classify Evans; and Mills is widely understood to be lacking the requisite speed or quickness to hang with the league’s more vertical, fast receivers—which describes Jackson to a tee.
For this reason, I think you’ll see Darby and Mills line up across both receivers until Schwartz finds the combination he’s comfortable with. It’s definitely possible that, if need be, the team kicks Jones outside to slow down either Jackson or Evans. All three corners bring something slightly different to the table, and it’ll be interesting to see how they defend one of the more dynamic receiving corps in the league.
4. Fletcher Cox vs the Tampa Bay offensive line
Best of luck to the opposing offensive lines who have to face Fletcher Cox each week, because if last week is any indication he is on his way to an All-Pro season. Cox is the main reason that it’s so difficult to run the ball against our defensive front, and he complements that with an ability to get to the quarterback that few tackles possess.
Tampa Bay’s interior lineman are uninspiring, and it’s a safe bet to expect Cox to wreak more havoc this week. While the battle between their receivers and our secondary is going to be important, a strong performance from Cox will make the secondary’s job that much easier.