The Buccaneers have looked awful in their two road games so far
Sunday afternoon’s game at Buffalo feels like a turning point for the 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The question is, which direction will that turn send the Bucs into?
In the most basic sense, to improve on their 9-7 campaign last year, the Buccaneers can only lose six games. They’re halfway to that mark already, just over a third of the way into the season, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier. This afternoon, Tampa Bay takes on the Buffalo Bills in a game as critical as any out of conference game is likely to get in October.
Complicating matters, the Buccaneers’ star quarterback Jameis Winston is battling an AC joint injury in his throwing shoulder. He has been cleared to play, wants to play, and will get the start at New Era Field, otherwise known as Ralph Wilson Stadium.
If the plan is for Winston to start moving forward, the Buccaneers’ training staff must be confident that this injury will not get worse with added wear and tear on the throwing arm. After all, since Hurricane Irma led to the Buccaneers essentially losing their bye week, Winston will now need to start eleven games in eleven straight weeks, including all six of their NFC South matchups.
This is not the best week to have a quarterback who might not be at full strength. The Buffalo Bills have a way of bringing out the flaws in a QB, and that puts a lot of pressure on both Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers’ offensive coaching staff. It is extremely important for the Bucs to come out with a game plan that doesn’t put Winston in a bad position, and to come prepared.
That Buffalo defense will aim to take away the run, as the Bills sport one of the best run defenses in the league, allowing just 87.6 yards on the ground per game. This puts the Buccaneers’ playcalling to the test, as Dirk Koetter has had a habit of abandoning the run early if the run is ineffective early. With Winston fighting an injured shoulder, Tampa Bay has to give Doug Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers a higher-than-normal number of carries in order to take pressure and stress off their young quarterback’s throwing shoulder.
The Bills’ offense is considerably less intimidating. Buffalo comes in ranked 31st in total offense so far this season. This should give Mike Smith and his defense an opportunity to show up on the road prepared and ready to play NFL football. It will help that Smith has his full defense ready to go, with TJ Ward, Lavonte David, and Kwon Alexander all expected to play. Still, a lot will come down to the play of Vernon Hargreaves III, who has really struggled in 2017.
Preparedness is a major issue. Tampa Bay has played two road games on the year, and in both of those contests they were blown out in the first half. Last week, the Arizona Cardinals scored on their first six possessions while the Buccaneers’ offense looked out of sync and ineffective. A showing like that this week, and it could mean more than having to play from behind. The Bucs have not showed a strong ability to play from behind this season, changing their game plan quickly and going into a sort of “panic mode” when trailing, especially in the second half. Getting an early lead, then, could be critical. Dirk Koetter’s squad simply cannot afford to spend all day looking up at their opponent.
While it is still early in the NFL season, falling to 2-4 creates a major issue for the Buccaneers’ already-in-danger playoff hopes. The schedule only gets tougher from here. After Buffalo, the Bucs come home to take on the Carolina Panthers, who look more like their 2015 Super Bowl participant selves than the disjointed 2016 edition. After that, the Bucs head to New Orleans to take on a Saints team that has been more competitive than expected so far this season. With the Bucs in last place in the NFC South after six games, those division games will be mission critical to getting back into the playoff race.
The fact of the matter is that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven’t lived up to any semblance of their potential since halftime of their first game, week 2 against Chicago. Since then they’ve looked like a team still figuring things out. It’s unexpected for a team that had a winning record last year and had a positive offseason by just about every metric. This was supposed to be the season that the Bucs made a leap, and all year their feet have been firmly planted on the ground.
The Buccaneers win if: They show up with a game plan that doesn’t put too much on their quarterback, the defense handles an offense that hasn’t been any good to this point in the season, the special teams minimizes their errors, and the Buccaneers play well with a lead.
The Bills win if: Winston throws the ball up where the Bills’ vaunted defensive backfield can take it away, Koetter abandons the run game before halftime, Winston is asked to win the football game on his injured shoulder entirely by himself, and the defense shows up with a gameplan that involves hoping the opponent takes a knee for the entire first quarter for the third straight road game.
Bottom line: The Buccaneers’ best performance on the road so far involved piling up garbage time points in the second half of a game that had all but already been decided. The other three halves of road football that they’ve played have been nothing short of atrocious. The Buccaneers and their fans still hope for this team to make a run at the playoffs for the first time since 2007, but without some kind of performance to build on they could come home to a critical game against Carolina backed up to the edge of the cliff.