The New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are two teams who suddenly seem to be heading in different directions. While the Giants went into their bye week having won two of their last three games, the Buccaneers lost two of their last three games (with a bye week in the middle).
That being said, the reigning Super Bowl champions still have a well-rounded and complete defense balanced by a potent offense.
When they have traction, the Buccaneers’ defense is both aggressive and disciplined. At its best, the Buccaneers’ defense flies around the field, but they also have the fewest penalties of any defense in the NFL. However, the Tampa Bay defense isn’t playing as well as they did a year ago as they deal with some aging players and injuries at key positions.
So what can the Giants’ offense look forward to against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense?
More defensive line worries
Another week, another stout defensive line for the Giants’ beleaguered offensive line to contend with.
The match-up between the Buccaneers’ defensive front and the Giants’ offensive line was always going to be one of the toughest of the season. The Buccaneers have a deep line, mixing talented rookies with players in their prime, and savvy veterans who have been making blockers’ lives miserable for a decade.
The Buccaneers overwhelmingly use an unconventional 2-4-5 nickel defense, with a 3-4-4 as their other go-to look. But while they typically only use two or three down linemen, they routinely crowd the line of scrimmage.
EDGE Shaquil Barrett currently leads the team with 5.5 sacks as well as 5 tackles for a loss. He’s followed by veteran defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and rookie EDGE Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Former Giant Jason Pierre-Paul is third on the team with 2.5 sacks. While none of the Buccaneers’ sack production is particularly high, they spread the production around, with 10 different defenders having at least one sack so far this year.
The Buccaneers’ front offers a tough combination of skill sets for opposing blockers. Barrett and Tryon-Shoyinka both feature excellent get-offs with the ability to beat blockers with speed around the edge. And while age and multiple career-threatening injuries may finally be starting to catch up with Pierre-Paul, JPP remains a well-rounded and disruptive EDGE. He is still able to threaten blockers with his explosiveness as well as push the pocket and defend the run. He’s also been disruptive when he can’t get to the QB, matching Barrett’s three passes defensed on the season.
Veteran defensive tackles Suh and William Gholston are both powerful players who can bull blockers into the backfield.
All told, the Buccaneers are 5th in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate metric with a 47 percent win rate. The news is a bit better on the run defense side of things, where Tampa Bay ranks 17th with a 30 percent stop rate. Though it’s also important to note that the difference between the best and worst run defenses in the NFL is just eight points — as opposed to the 25-point win rate difference between the best and worst pass rushes.
There are a couple bright spots (at least from the Giants’ perspective) with regards to Tampa’s defensive front.
The first is that while the Buccaneers’ front is very good and should not be underestimated, they aren’t quite playing up to their standards from previous years. While they are still winning their pass rush at a high rate, their rushers don’t seem to be generating much pressure with those wins.
The other is that nose tackle Vita Vea had to be carted off the field after an injury suffered on the final snap of the Buccaneers’ loss to the Washington Football Team. Vea has had an excellent season and has been extremely disruptive on the inside of that front. His injury isn’t as bad as immediately feared, suffering “just” a bone bruise and MCL strain.
Giants fans shouldn’t breathe too easily, because as of this writing, Vea has not yet been ruled out. Also, the Buccaneers still have solid depth behind Vea at NT in Rakeem Nunez-Roches. Nunez-Roches isn’t as big as Vea and doesn’t push the pocket quite as well. However, he seems to be a bit more dangerous as a 1-gap penetrator and flashed in opponent’s backfields multiple times on tape.
Todd Bowles has always been one of the more creative and aggressive defensive coordinators in the NFL. So it shouldn’t really be surprising that the Buccaneers like to blitz, and blitz often. Tampa Bay currently leads the NFL in blitz percentage, sending extra rushers on 40.3 percent of passing plays.
And while some defensive coordinators prefer to send either linebacker or defensive backs as blitzers, Bowles will send pressure from just about any position. Linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White are frequent weapons, but so are safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead, as well as slot corner Ross Cockrell.
The mixture of pressure sources as well as the raw athleticism — in addition to the pass rushers on the Buccaneer’s defensive front — make for a dangerous combination.
Not only will the Giants’ offensive linemen need to be sharp in their pass protection technique, but their backs and tight ends will need to be on point in their blitz pickups. Based on everything Bowles has shown this year, and throughout his career, it would be stunning if pressure wasn’t coming.
As mentioned above, the Buccaneers almost always play out of a 2-4-5 or a 3-4-4 front. But whether they’re using two or three down linemen, they almost always have four linebackers on the field.
But that’s also a little bit deceiving, as they use their EDGE defenders as true “EDGE”s. Both Shaq Barrett and JPP are listed as outside linebackers (SLB and WLB, respectively). In reality, the EDGEs are basically defensive ends and Bowles uses two off-ball linebackers. Those are almost always David and White.
White is one of the most athletic linebackers in the NFL and is an absolute whirlwind coming downhill. He currently leads the team in total tackles with 79 (23 more than the next most), while also leading the team with 12 quarterback hits.
David isn’t quite as athletic as he used to be, but he more than makes up for that with elite instincts and football IQ — not to mention most of a decade’s worth of experience. David mans the MIKE position and does a little bit of everything in the middle.
Between White’s ability to run and David’s anticipation, and the presence of nickel DB, the Buccaneers have a lot of flexibility in the middle of the field.
That said, both White and David are allowing more than 80 percent of passes to be completed, which could present an opportunity to move the ball in a positive direction for the Giants. These usually seem to be either short, quick passes or dump-offs when passes further down the field aren’t there. However, most of the Giants’ weapons specialize in attacking that area of the field, so that might be one area they should lean into.
A young and talented secondary
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one of the best young secondaries in the NFL — at least on paper.
They feature a trio of big, young, cornerbacks in Jamel Dean (25), Carlton Davis (24), and Sean Murphy-Bunting (24). Behind them are safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. (23), Jordan Whitehead (24), and Mike Edwards (25).
Dean and Davis are already one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL, while the three safeties have 10 passes defensed, 4 interceptions, and 3 forced fumbles between them (with Edwards adding a pair of defensive touchdowns as well).
They’re joined by long-time veteran Richard Sherman.
The problem? Davis, Murphy-Bunting and Richard Sherman are all on IR.
As of this writing, Murphy-Bunting could return to action this week. He “had a chance” to play against Washington, but wasn’t quite ready to return from the dislocated elbow he suffered in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys. Murphy-Bunting is a good corner who started 23 games over the previous two seasons for the Buccaneers. While he hasn’t officially returned yet, a return would help take the pressure off of Dean.
And while that would be good news for the Bucs, it would be bad news for the Giants, as Dean happens to be playing excellent football. He is currently allowing just 47 percent of passes to be completed and has given up no touchdowns while notching 2 interceptions (and 7 passes defensed). Quarterbacks targeting Dean have a quarterback rating of just 43.3.
Cockrell usually mans the slot for the Buccaneers’ defense, and that could be an opportunity for the Giants. As Giants fans well know, Cockrell is a solid corner who is a reliable tackler and run defender — and a solid blitzer in Bowles’ scheme. But he largely specializes in off coverage and tackling in space. That should be an area of concentration for the Giants with Kadarius Toney, Evan engram and perhaps Sterling Shepard if he is in the lineup.
While the Giants need to figure out ways to push the ball further down the field, that might be tough against the Buccaneers’ defense.
Not only are their safeties athletic, disruptive, and opportunistic, but the defense as a whole plays a wide variety of coverage schemes.
Bowles’ defense is most frequently in Cover 3, but they play that scheme less often than the rest of the NFL. Instead, they play a relatively high rate of Cover 2, 2-Man, Cover 4, and Cover 0 (all out blitzes).
Between the ability of their young corners and how good their safeties are at taking away deep shots, the Buccaneers face the third-lowest average depth of target of any defense in the NFL. The average target against the Buccaneers is just 6.6 yards downfield. That could be a reaction to Bowles’ coverage schemes, offenses looking to avoid Whitehead and Winfield Jr, or it could be offenses taking more favorable matchups against Cockrell, LeVonte David, and Devin White.