Two division leaders clash on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium when the 9-4 Cincinnati Bengals and the 6-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers meet at 4:25 pm. The game features two teams that are heading in opposite directions. The Bengals enter on a 5-game winning streak, having won 9 of their last 11. Conversely, the Bucs have lost 2 of their last 3 and are coming off a 35-7 thrashing at the hands of Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers.
While it’s always important to establish the run, be sound on special teams, limit penalties, avoid turnovers, etc etc., there are a few distinct things that need to happen for the Bucs to come away with a win on Sunday evening.
1. Get the Bengals’ offense off the field on third down
I say this specifically because the Bengals are one of the best teams in the league in converting third downs, sporting an impressive conversion rate of 48.7%. They have converted 177 first downs through the air, seventh most in the league. They’ve also totaled 32 first downs by penalty, which is second most. So Joe Burrow is good at getting his weapons the ball and moving the sticks through the air on third down by either completion or a defensive penalty. To make matters tougher for the Bucs’ defense, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins – both listed as questionable – both practiced in full on Friday and have a legitimate chance to suit up on Sunday.
Tampa Bay MUST get pressure on Joe Burrow and force some errant throws, and they must cover the Bengals’ weapons tightly. Getting pressure will be difficult without Carl Nassib, Vita Vea, and possibly Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (who may be limited even if he is active), but disrupting Burrow is a must because he’s proven to be very efficient this year on the money downs.
2. Throw the ball on first down, implementing play action more
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Byron Leftwich loves to run the ball on first down. Predictably so. And it’s resulted in a bunch of 2nd and 7s, 8s, and 9s this season. Todd Bowles has even talked about getting to third and manageable recently, which seems counteractive to the goal of moving the sticks before you get to third down.
So why not shake it up and throw the ball more on first down? Cincinnati would be a good team to test this suggestion. While they aren’t quite as much of a meat grinder as the 49ers, the Bengals still rank 11th best in the league in stopping the run, allowing 4.3 yards per attempt. The Buccaneers have had a tougher time running against fronts who allow more (i.e., Cleveland, Green Bay, New Orleans). The Bengals’ defense is middle of the league in net yards allowed per pass attempt (6.2) as well as third down conversion percentage (39.8). Thus, there are plays to be made through the air against the Bengals’ defense, which will be a little bit easier to do without standout DE Trey Hendrickson (wrist) and CB Mike Hilton (knee) ruled out for the game.
It’s been a little bit odd seeing Todd Bowles’ reluctance to rely on Brady in key situations (i.e., late in the Cleveland game). Brady’s completion percentage has been low on deep balls this season (34.5%), but he’s only totaled 13 turnover-worthy plays in 579 passing attempts, per Pro Football Focus, so the risk of negative plays has been low this year.
Brady has also dropped back in play action on just 15.3% of his throws this year. But when he has, he has a 7.8 yards per attempt average (almost 2 full yards better than regular drop backs) with 4 touchdowns and no picks. As such, it’s time to implement play action more often down the stretch, particularly on first down.
3. Win the point of attack between the tackles in run defense
Last week Christian McCaffrey had a field day after nose tackle Via Vea left early with a calf injury. The speedy back tore off 119 yards on only 14 carries. That’s got to change for Tampa Bay to have a decent shot on Sunday. Akiem Hicks is going to have to hold the middle against the Bengals, who found success in October by implementing more shotgun RPO in their game plan. And they’ll spread them out and use it Sunday against the Bucs. The Tampa Bay defense will have its hands full trying to cover all of the Bengals’ weapons, so the interior of the line will have to hold its own without as much help as it otherwise might get from behind.
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