Are the Bucs a Surprise Team? We Will Find Out Sunday

Bucs’ offense was great in week one, but Philadelphia presents a new challenge

Most NFL fanbases talk themselves into some kind of rosy scenario just before a season starts. Talented roster or no, people begin to talk about paths to the postseason and players that could emerge as stars out of thin air. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coming into week one there was very little of that.

Since Sunday’s 48-40 win over the New Orleans Saints to start the season, however, the hype machine seems to be getting back into gear. Now that the Buccaneers come home for week two, against a defending champion Eagles team sure to bring a better defense than New Orleans, optimists and pessimists alike will learn more about whether this Buccaneers team is, in fact, a pleasant surprise.

While the more optimistic take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coming into the NFL season was that the offense could have the potential to be very good, few were expecting the offensive explosion the Bucs put forward in New Orleans for week one. Tampa Bay spread the ball around in the passing game, including some long touchdown connections, while running well enough to keep the Saints honest at the defensive line. The 48 points tied a franchise record and finally brought enthusiasm to a fanbase that had come into the season a bit dejected.

On Sunday afternoon, as the Bucs play their home opener of the 2018 season, it will be time to learn whether that surprise win in the Superdome is truly a sign of things to come. Tampa Bay will be up against one of the best defenses in football in the Philadelphia Eagles, coming off a gritty opening night win over the Atlanta Falcons that involved several stops on the goalline.

Ryan Fitzpatrick will have his hands full. Historically, Fitzpatrick has not been tremendous following his best performances, often falling back to Earth with a thud the next week. This week, he may be without DeSean Jackson, who is listed as questionable. The Buccaneers will also be without Ronald Jones II, the second round draft pick who is listed as ineligible on Sunday.

The Tampa Bay offense will likely get some form of a boost from the weather. September in Florida is not really Autumn as most people know it, after all. It will be hot on the field at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, and the longer Philadelphia’s defense is out on the field the more Tampa Bay can use that heat to their advantage.

The Buccaneers, after all, trained in August heat right next door. While they too will be vulnerable to the temperature, the Bucs are certainly closer to acclimated to the heat than the Eagles would be. This means the offense needs first downs, long drives, and time running off the clock all the while.

Peyton Barber is a back well-suited to wearing a defense down in the heat. When he is in the backfield, the running game is largely about power and pushing a defense back. Power running is often likened to a boxer concentrating on body blows to wear down an opponent, and in the Florida sun those body blows will have an impact.

The downside of this is that the offensive line will also have heat to deal with. Their job on Sunday would be tough in air conditioning, and just the same way that the Philly defense could be worn down in high temperatures, so could the Bucs’ offensive line. The trenches on Sunday will be more like a furnace, and as so often is the case the game will likely be won or lost right there.

If this happens to any degree, Bucs fans should also be rooting for clear skies above. A weather delay, always possible in a place with what seems like daily thunderstorms, would give the Eagles’ vaunted defense time to rest and cool off. The closer to 100% Philadelphia is, the wose it will be for Tampa Bay.

Defensively, the Buccaneers will have their hands full with the Eagles. Philadelphia may have looked a bit out of sorts with Nick Foles under center in their first game, but a smart team will make adjustments, and the Eagles have proven under Doug Peterson that they are indeed a smart football team.

Tampa Bay will be without much of its defense. First round draft pick Vita Vea is still not even practicing with the team, and his arrival is still uncertain. Jason Pierre-Paul is questionable with a knee injury. Vernon Hargreaves is now on injured reserve, and Brent Grimes will not play on Sunday, leaving the Buccaneers to start rookie cornerbacks against both of Philadelphia’s top targets.

Despite the best offseason efforts of Jason Licht and the front office, once again Tampa Bay comes into a game with a defense of Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, and a bunch of question marks. This suggests strongly that, if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to win football games early in this season, they will have to win them in shootout fashion.

M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis will have to grow up fast on Sunday. Nick Foles is not the scariest quarterback they can face, but much like Fitzpatrick, Foles is a backup capable of more than a simple caretaker’s role. Everybody saw that in the Super Bowl. Foles’ job on Sunday will almost certainly be to pick on the rookies. At times in week one, Drew Brees did this to great effect, and it is likely to be a popular strategy.

While Philadelphia’s offense looked off in week one, for the Buccaneers to keep them from scoring they may have to rely on unforced errors.

The Buccaneers will also have to make good use of their talented linebackers to try and compensate for what injuries have cost their defensive unit. Alexander and David have both proven capable of being effective blitzers as well as solid additions to coverage schemes, and for Tampa Bay’s defense to be good on Sunday they will have to do both.

Expect a raucous crowd. With the Eagles having finally broken through as a champion, their fans everywhere will flock to see their birds. For many of Philadelphia’s fans, 2018 will be a victory lap win or lose.

Likewise, Buccaneers fans have a bit of a chip on their shoulders about both transplants and Eagles fans in particular. Some of the organization’s most frustrating moments have come in games with Philadelphia, and some of the franchise’s great triumphs also came against the Eagles. Rivalries, even secondary ones across divisions, may lay dormant, but they never die. Eagles fans still cannot erase Ronde Barber from their memories, nor can Buccaneers fans forget Tony Dungy’s last game as their team’s head coach. Matt Bryant will be mentioned, as will Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid.

Do not expect a “neutral site atmosphere” as some have suggested, but rather something closer to two local college rivals. Both teams will get roars of approval on good plays. The contingents will spend much of the time trying to out-do one another. In a close game, a crowd like that could contribute to something special.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.