Saturday, April 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Three-and-out, Week 2: Bucs-Cardinals preview

The Bucs' season-opening victory over the Falcons in Atlanta was also an announcement: They are a team on the rise.

Now comes another away game, against an opponent that fell a game short of the Super Bowl.

The Bucs are in Arizona on Sunday seeking their first road win against a West division opponent since 2012 (four games). Beating the Cardinals seems to be a tall order, but consider the strides Tampa Bay has made since the start of last season. It:

• ended a seven-game losing streak to the Saints

• snapped an 11-game home losing streak that spanned 22 months

• posted a .500 record after 12 games for the first since 2012

What's in store for Sunday? Here are some things to watch.

1. Jameis Winston vs. the blitz

While Winston had a strong rookie season, he struggled against the blitz, completing 50.7 percent of his passes when teams rushed an extra defender. That's Sam Bradford and Ryan Tannehill territory.

Although the Falcons blitzed Winston on 35 percent of his dropbacks, they failed to rattle him. He completed 8 of 12 passes for 97 yards against the blitz.

Arizona won't just blitz Winston — it'll look to rip him apart like a pair of Kanye West's jeans. Last season, the "no risk it, no biscuit" Cardinals rushed four defenders on less than half of plays (only the Jets used a four-man rush less often). Arizona also was among the league leaders in six-man rushes, averaging more than four a game.

• • •

2. Bucs pass defense

Because the Bucs beat the Falcons, we've been talking about Winston's four touchdown passes and the team's ability to finish. We've overlooked a pass defense that remains vulnerable.

Matt Ryan's numbers — 69.2 completion percentage, two touchdowns and a 112.6 rating — were in line with opposing quarterbacks last season. In 2015, the defense allowed a 69.9 completion percentage (highest in the league), 31 touchdowns (tied for fifth-most) and a 102.3 rating (second-highest).

In Week 1, the Bucs allowed a league-high 239 yards after the catch, a chunk of which came on a 59-yard pass to Mohamed Sanu in the first quarter. How did Sanu get so open? Let's take a closer look.

The Falcons come to the line in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), with Julio Jones out to the left, Sanu in the slot and Justin Hardy out wide to the right. The Bucs are in man coverage.

Brent Grimes runs step-for-step with Hardy on a deep vertical route, and Alterraun Verner follows Jones on a crossing route. Vernon Hargreaves lines up opposite Sanu, but Sanu initially acts as though he's staying in to block in front of running back Tevin Coleman.

As Hargreaves bites on the play-action fake, Sanu starts running down the right sideline.

Even with Hargreaves selling out to the run, Sanu should not have been able to pick up 59 yards because the Bucs had two safeties deep. This is where you see how much of an impact Jones can have even when he's not catching the ball.

After the run fake, Ryan looks to Jones just as he's about to cut across the field. Safety Bradley McDougald is watching Ryan's eyes and anticipates a pass to Jones. That leaves the right sideline wide open.

Ryan then turns and finds Sanu without a defender in sight. Sanu goes untouched until about the Tampa Bay 20-yard line, when Chris Conte makes a touchdown-saving tackle.

• • •

3. Beware of David Johnson

Over the last quarter of the 2015 season, Johnson's 658 yards from scrimmage were the most in the NFL, ahead of both Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. His 107 touches were second-most in the league, behind only Falcons running back Devonta Freeman.

We saw Sunday that the Cardinals are going to keep feeding him the ball. He was on the field for all but three snaps, carrying 16 times for 89 yards and catching four passes for 43 yards. His six targets were third-most on the team.

When not rushing, Johnson, usually lined up next to Carson Palmer in the shotgun, runs a route on most every play. On occasion, the Cardinals line him up as a receiver and go with an empty backfield. Against the Patriots, however, Palmer didn't target him in those formations, an indication that when the Cardinals move Johnson around, they're using him as more of an instrument to read the defense.

• • •

And out …

After the Cardinals lost at home to a depleted Patriots team, there is some urgency surrounding the Bucs game. "The sky's falling Monday," general manager Steve Keim said this week on 98.7 FM in Phoenix, "and that's the feel that all of us should have and use that as a chip on our shoulder to make sure that doesn't happen again."

Since 1990, only 26 teams, or 12.1 percent, made the playoffs after starting 0-2. While it's certainly a hole to climb out of, two teams did it last season (the Seahawks and Texans) and at least one has done it in each of the past three seasons. Only one team, however, reached the playoffs after starting the season 0-2 when its first two games have been at home — the 2003 Eagles, who lost to the Bucs and Patriots.

The Cardinals are already finding that the road back to the NFC championship game is one fraught with danger. That's why 10 of the past 11 teams to lose it didn't return the next season. Eight failed to even reach the playoffs.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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