Make no mistake: The Bruce Arians-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers that come into Seattle on Sunday, ironically, are nothing like the swashbuckling Cardinals that found joy at CenturyLink Field repeatedly during Arians’ time at the helm. Arians seemingly left his “no risk it, no biscuit” approach at his forever home in Georgia upon coming out of retirement, as he has all too often this year come across as disinterested, or worse for followers of Arians before 2019, disingenuous.
We got examples of Arians’ newfound conservative approach, and lack of fire, last week: First, Arians passed up a 4th and 1 from the Titans’ 43-yard line, punting the ball away. Then after the game, Arians had the gall to refute any claims of Jameis Winston being at fault for any one of his four turnovers on the day. Uh huh. And those crab legs just appeared in Winston’s pocket.
Tampa Bay is a below average team capable of passing for a ton of volume. However, they turn the ball over a ton (17 times on the year) and hemorrhage yards on defense. The Seahawks should win handily at home, with these matchups being key.
Tyler Lockett vs Sean Murphy-Bunting
The Buccaneers have been one of the worst teams in the NFL at defending slot receivers in 2019, so much so that last week M.J. Stewart—a 2018 second-round pick and their nickelback to open the season—was a healthy scratch, with Murphy-Bunting coming into the lineup in Stewart’s place. It’s tough to gauge whether it improved things or not, with Tampa Bay playing a Titans passing attack that’s beyond lifeless, but Tennessee's tight ends still worked the middle and underneath parts of the field, accounting for 121 of Ryan Tannehill’s 193 yards passing (slot receiver Adam Humphries added another 24).
The Buccaneers have allowed an average of 83.7 yards per game to slot receivers in 2019, with five touchdowns. Murphy-Bunting will now face his first legitimate test, in the form of Lockett and one of the league’s deadliest combinations. Lockett has caught a ridiculous 85.2 percent of his targets on the season, which is nearly a four point increase from last season’s incredible efficiency. And while his 615 receiving yards place him 12th in the league, only Cooper Kupp and Chris Godwin sit ahead of him among receivers who work predominantly from the inside. Russell Wilson and Lockett’s connection has been one of the league’s most lethal for a season and a half now, and they will test Murphy-Bunting at every opportunity.
Lockett’s performance in Week 9 will be similar to—and as important as—DK Metcalf’s in Week 8. Like the Falcons, Tampa Bay excels at defending the run (first in DVOA) but cannot defend the pass (26th). Seattle will run the ball insistently, and it may not be all that effective to do so—Lockett’s splash plays against Murphy-Bunting will end up being key, just as Metcalf’s two touchdowns were a week ago.
Duane Brown vs Shaquil Barrett
Though Barrett has slowed down since his great start, which saw him post eight sacks in the first four games and look like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, he remains atop the leader board in sacks, and a total threat off the edge. Jason Pierre-Paul, healthy once again, has now joined him on the opposite side, meaning Barrett can go back to seeing one-on-ones as he did to start the year, benefiting the entire defense. Barrett is ninth in pass-rush win rate, at 26 percent; as a team, the Buccaneers are first, at 59 percent.
While Barrett may not hang onto his lead in sacks, nor the absurd pace he began the season on, he has proven to be the complete package rushing off the defense’s right; the former Bronco has won with speed, great bend around the edge, the occasional bull-rush and even a spin move. It’s the first trait mentioned, Barrett’s speed off the edge, that is his most effective, and the one that will cause Duane Brown the most trouble. Even before Brown popped up on the injury report with a knee injury, the 34-year-old looked every bit of 34, as he was consistently slow to drop into his set, and was beaten by speed again and again. Though he did have a nice moment pulling in front of Rashaad Penny on a pitch last week, Brown’s knee injury continues to plague him, and as a result, speed rushers will continue to find joy against him.
The Seahawks’ offensive line have slowly been climbing towards mediocrity in pass protection in recent weeks, and now sit 17th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. It’s an improvement on their early season form, but they’re going to need an even stronger showing on Sunday to not allow Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib from wrecking Seattle’s gameplan.
Seahawks’ secondary vs Mike Evans and Chris Godwin
Despite their quarterback being nothing short of a turnover factory, Tampa Bay wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have established themselves as the NFL’s best receiver duo in 2019. On the season, Evans and Godwin have combined for 85 receptions, 1367 yards and 12 touchdowns—with their six touchdowns apiece seeing them tied for the league lead. The duo accounts for 53 percent of Tampa Bay’s total offense, and 45 percent of their first downs; even more impressive is that 69.1 percent of Godwin’s targets have resulted in a first down.
Evans, currently seventh in DYAR and 12th in DVOA, sees time on the outside both on the right and left. Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers, both playing well in 2019, will see time against the Bucs’ perimeter threat. (If Flowers doesn’t play in Week 9, Seattle will need to do something to adjust beyond rolling out Akeem King, who got toasted last week, in his place.) Both Griffin and Flowers have the physicality to combat Evans, and the length to disrupt his massive frame. Crucially, they’ve both been tackling incredibly well in 2019, too.
Godwin, like Lockett, shifts inside for Tampa Bay in their three wide receiver sets. A budding star, Godwin is first in both DYAR and DVOA, and has been a walking explosive play in 2019—he will torch the Seahawks if they don’t adjust accordingly. However, for all the criticism Seattle’s rightfully taken for depending on their base defense in 2019, they have adjusted to their opponent at times; in Week 8, Jamar Taylor played 44 percent of the defensive snaps, compared to Mychal Kendricks’ 61. It’s still not quite where it needs to be, but it’s an encouraging sign nonetheless.
We may not see the Seahawks go back to nickel on a nearly full-time basis in 2019, but if that adjustment is coming, it will be this week. Flowers and Griffin should comfortably handle Evans, as much as any cornerback can, but Godwin needs to receive the focus from players and the defensive coaching staff. An adjustment needs to be made, and executed, or else the Buccaneers will be able to stick around for far too long.