Fresh off routing the Green Bay Packers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the lead in the NFC South whether or not COVID curtails Sunday’s game with the Raiders.
The Buccaneers (4-2) started their biggest gauntlet of the season with a 38-10 win over the Packers (4-1) in Week 6. The schedule stays tough with the Saints (3-2), Panthers (3-3), Los Angeles Rams (4-2) and Kansas City Chiefs (5-1) before December.
Five keys that will make or break the Bucs in the NFC South title chase include playing to the offense’s strengths, cutting down penalties and replacing a key loss on the defensive front.
Feed Ronald Jones & Leonard Fournette
Running backs Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette need to keep doing what they’re doing, carrying the load in the ground game.
Jones averages enough yardage for a 1,000-yard season, and Fournette provides a complement in the backfield with 5.1 yards per carry. LeSean McCoy will help if he can return to 2019 form at least.
Sporting News’ Vinnie Iyer wrote that rookie back Ke’Shawn Vaughn could also make something happen, especially as a pass-catching back.
Spread the Ball With Antonio Brown & Other Weapons
Antonio Brown makes the Buccaneers receiving corps deeper as quarterback Tom Brady has plenty of targets already. Brady found eight different receivers last time out.
Star wide receiver Chirs Godwin returned from injury and caught five passes for 48 yards. Fellow star receiver Mike Evans looks stellar with six touchdowns in six games. Receiver Scotty Miller emerged as another solid target with 16 yards per catch this year, and receivers Justin Watson and Tyler Johnson average more than 13 yards per reception.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski looked like his old self against the Packers with five receptions for 78 yards and his first TD of the season. The Bucs also have Cameron Brate, who has a TD this season, in mitigating the loss of O.J. Howard.
Avoid the Flags
Packers game aside, the Buccaneers committed 42 penalties for 410 yards in the first five weeks of the season.
Penalties have maligned the Buccaneers for a while as Iyer observed, being one of the most-penalized teams around. Tampa Bay did the Chicago Bears a favor in Week 5 with 11 penalties for 109 yards.
Replace Vita Vea
Tampa’s defense took a hit Oct. 8 when defensive tackle Vita Vea suffered an ankle injury late in the game at Chicago. ESPN’s Jenna Laine reported that Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians officially confirmed the likely season-ending loss Oct. 9.
Laine noted that Vea consistently drew double teams, freeing up linebackers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul to make plays.
Both Laine and CBS Sports’ Jared Dubin mentioned Rakeem Nunez-Roches as a replacement for Vea. Dubin added William Gholston or Khalil Davis could fill the void at that the Bucs could go with a four-man front more often.
Tom Brady vs. Trial
He’s still Tom Brady, who led nine New England Patriots teams to Super Bowls. As Iyer noted, some of those teams had slow starts and Brady thrived on facing such challenges.
In addition, Brady still shows glimpses of slinging the ball around as he did with five TD passes in a Week 4 comeback win over the Los Angeles Chargers.