IT’S CHRISTMAS IN THE DESERT!
The Buccaneers are once again heading west for an NFC West road game, but this time it’s against the 4-10 Arizona Cardinals. Last week, the Bucs let the defending AFC champs off the hook by giving up a 17-3 halftime lead and 34 unanswered points in a heartbreaking home loss to the Bengals. Tampa Bay is now 6-8 and somehow still leading the NFC South division by a game over the 5-9 Carolina Panthers. With a win on Christmas Day, the Bucs would be one step closer to clinching a division title and hosting a wildcard playoff game. However, the Cardinals will try to spoil what little hope the Bucs have left for a postseason run by winning for just the second time at home this season. So let’s take a deeper look into this Christmas Day Sunday Night Football matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Arizona Cardinals.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (4-10)
The Cardinals are another NFC team that has drastically underachieved this season, along with the Buccaneers and the Rams. They were supposed to be a guaranteed playoff team and possibly even a Super Bowl contender, just like the Rams and Bucs, but that obviously didn’t happen. They play host to the Buccaneers at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona where they are just 1-7 this year. They have the 21st ranked offense in the league averaging 327 total yards and 21 points per game. The 18th ranked passing game averages just 215 yards through the air, while the 20th ranked rushing offense averages 112 yards per game on the ground. Both Kyler Murray AND Colt McCoy are “OUT” for this game, so that means that 2019 sixth round pick Trace McSorley will get his first career start on Sunday. He’s played in just 4 games going 15 of 29 for 166 yards, zero touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Their leading rusher is James Conner with 624 yards and 6 touchdowns in 11 games of action. The Cardinals have four players with 400+ receiving yards, even though one of them (Rondale Moore) is now on IR for the rest of the season. The others are wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins (713 yds/3 TD’s/8 games), Marquise Brown (584 yds/3 TD’s/9 games) and tight end Zach Ertz (406 yds/4 TD’s/10 games). They also have future Hall of Famer AJ Green on this offense, but he hasn’t been very involved totaling just 128 yards and 1 touchdown in 12 games this season. It’s hard to know what the Cardinals game plan is going into Sunday with McSorley at quarterback. My guess is that they will use Conner to hammer away at the middle of a Buccaneers defense that will not have Vita Vea up the middle.
Their 20th ranked defense is allowing 352 total yards and 27 points per game. The 23rd ranked passing defense is giving up 238 yards per game through the air, while the 13th ranked rushing defense is allowing 114 yards per game on the ground. Their leading tackler is actually safety Buddha Baker with 102 tackles and the next closest player is linebacker Zaven Collins with 87 tackles. Veteran defensive end JJ Watt leads the team in sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (12). Cornerback Marco Wilson and defensive end Zach Allen are tied for the team lead with 8 passes defensed, while safety Buddha Baker and linebacker Isaiah Simmons are tied for the team lead with 2 interceptions each.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
OFFENSE : WR DeAndre Hopkins
Due to his suspension for PED use to start the season, Hopkins has only played 8 games this season. Despite that, he’s totaled 63 catches on 86 targets for 713 yards and 3 touchdowns while averaging 11 yards per catch and 89 yards per game. That’s why he’s widely considered the best in the game today. The Bucs defense will once again be without cornerback Jamel Dean, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Carlton Davis III following Hopkins around the field instead of sticking to one side of the field.
DEFENSE : S Buddha Baker
Baker is just one of the many talented young players on the Cardinals defense. He leads the team in tackles and interceptions. He’s a game-wrecker. He’s a hard hitter. He’s a ballhawk. And he’s a player that Tom Brady needs to be aware of at all times.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (6-8)
After winning three of four games in the month of November, the Bucs have now lost two straight in December. One was a soul crushing blowout on the road to the 49ers and the other was the heartbreaking blown lead to the Bengals at home. Now sitting at 6-8, Tampa Bay needs to do some soul searching to figure out who they are, who they want to be and where they want this team to go. Then they need to make that manifest on the football field. Apparently, that’s easier said than done. All year we’ve heard the same post-game speeches and comments. “We just need to get better.” Well, no shit. We’ve been hearing it over and over again, week in and week out. From the players to the coaches, it’s all the same broken record. Now here we are in Week 16 and they are still trying to “find their identity“. Let me see if I can help. Your identity is a really bad football team. There, now stop with all the contemplating and just play football.
The once prolific offense is now ranked 18th averaging 343 total yards and just 18 points per game. The 4th ranked passing offense averages 268 yards through the air, while the 32nd (dead last) ranked rushing offense averages just 74 yards on the ground. Tom Brady has completed 66% of his passes for 3,897 yards, 20 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Leonard Fournette still leads the Bucs in rushing with 568 yards and 3 touchdowns. Mike Evans leads the team with 888 yards, which is 112 yards short of his ninth straight 1,000 yard season. Chris Godwin leads the team with 81 catches and 116 targets. After two scores last week against the Bengals, Russell Gage Jr now leads the team with 4 touchdowns while three other players (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette) have 3 touchdowns each. This group played a great first half last week against the Bengals, but really dropped the ball in the second half turning the ball over four straight possessions. They have to get things rolling soon or this team won’t go anywhere, including the postseason.
Their 7th ranked defense is allowing just 315 total yards and 21 points per game. The 5th ranked pass defense is giving up just 195 yards through the air, while the 17th ranked rushing defense is giving up 120 yards per game on the ground. The leading tacklers on the team are linebackers Devin White (106) and Lavonte David (103) with the next closest player being safety Mike Edwards with 69 tackles. Defensive tackle Vita Vea still leads the team with 6.5 sacks with Devin White (5.5) just behind. White also leads the team with 8 tackles for loss with David (7) and Vea (7) just behind him. Cornerback Carlton Davis III leads the team with 11 passes defensed, while safety Mike Edwards and cornerback Jamel Dean still lead the team with just 2 interceptions each. This group has to start forcing turnovers at some point. The Bucs have fallen all the way down to 29th in the league in turnover differential with a -5 ratio. For the most part, this defense has played well enough to keep the team in ball games but they could be better, especially against the run.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
OFFENSE : QB Tom Brady
Being the perfectionist that he is, last week can’t be sitting well with him. His four turnovers (2 fumbles, 2 interceptions) in the 3rd quarter against Cincinnati was the main reason the Buccaneers lost that game. I’m expecting him to come out guns blazing against the Cardinals on Sunday night. Look for him to have his best statistical game of the season.
DEFENSE : S Mike Edwards
For the first time in a long while, the Bucs defense will have all three starting safeties on the field at the same time. With Antoine Winfield Jr and Logan Ryan back in the lineup, Edwards should be free to be his usual ballhawking self. Look for him to come out of this game with AT LEAST one interception, if not multiple, against the Cardinals quarterback making his first career start.
1. Tristan Wirfs vs JJ Watt
That’s right folks, Wirfs is back at right tackle where he belongs. This should be a fun matchup to watch throughout the game between the old, crafty vet and the young, athletic stud.
2. Carlton Davis III vs DeAndre Hopkins
Whether Davis follows Hopkins around or just gets matched up when he’s on his side, this will be a fun battle to watch in the secondary. Especially if Davis comes out firing on all cylinders like he did against Ja’Marr Chase last week.
3. Todd Bowles vs Trace McSorley
No doubt at all that Bowles is going to throw anything and everything at the young, inexperienced quarterback. I expect him to blitz and blitz and then blitz some more in this game, especially in the first half, to try and get this kid rattled from the start.
The Bucs have five players already officially ruled “OUT” for this game including outside linebackers Genard Avery (abdominal) and Carl Nassib (pectoral), cornerback Jamel Dean (toe), left tackle Donovan Smith (foot) and defensive tackle Vita Vea (calf). They also have six players listed as “QUESTIONABLE” including safeties Mike Edwards (hamstring), Keanu Neal (toe) and Antoine Winfield Jr (ankle), offensive tackles Josh Wells (back) and Tristan Wirfs (ankle) and wide receiver Julio Jones (knee).
The Cardinals have three players already officially ruled “OUT” for Sunday including defensive end Zach Allen (hand), quarterback Colt McCoy (concussion) and cornerback Byron Murphy Jr (back). They also have five more players listed as “QUESTIONABLE” including offensive linemen Kelvin Beachum (knee/ankle) and Max Garcia (shoulder), safety Charles Washington (chest), cornerback Antonio Hamilton (back) and wide receiver Marquise Brown (groin).
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. BE AGGRESSIVE ON DEFENSE!
With a 27-year old quarterback who’s thrown 3 interceptions in 39 career pass attempts starting on Sunday, Todd Bowles needs to be aggressive from the start with his defense. Dial up the crazy blitz schemes. Play press-man on the outside. Make the kid as uncomfortable in that pocket as possible until he makes a mistake and then crank it up another notch. This defense has to start creating turnovers if they want to win the division and make it past the first round of the playoffs.
2. BE CREATIVE ON OFFENSE!
We have been asking, if not begging for it all season. PLEASE GET CREATIVE WITH THE PLAYCALLING! They finally did. More play action passes. More motions and misdirection plays. That’s what this offense has been missing. They proved they could do it last week and be successful. If they can just keep from shooting themselves in the foot so much with turnovers and penalties, they would probably be just fine. Oh and GET MIKE EVANS THE DAMN BALL PLEASE!
3. BE UNMERCIFUL!
Last week against the Bengals when they were up 17-3 at halftime, it felt as though the Bucs took their foot off the gas and got conservative. They started playing to protect their lead instead of increasing it. SCREW THAT NOISE! I say when you get a team down, you step on their damn throat until they stop squirming. I’m not about that playing not to lose crap. I PLAY TO WIN! The Bucs need to start playing like that too.
ODDS & ENDS
Odds : Bucs -7.5/Cards +7.5 and the Over/Under is 40.5 points
WHEN & WHERE TO WATCH
When : Sunday, December 25th @ 8:20p ET
Where : State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona
TV : NBC/NFL+ Radio : 97.9 FM, 98 Rock
High of 70 and partly sunny with 0% chance of rain; Temperature at kickoff should be in the low-to-mid 60’s; stadium has a retractable roof that can be closed in 12 minutes as well in case of inclement weather
The Cardinals are 1-7 at home this season. The Bucs are 2-4 on the road this season. Something has to give here. Common sense tells me that there’s no way a guy named Trace McSorley making his first career start is going to get the best of this top ten defense of the Bucs. History tells me otherwise. The Buccaneers have lost five straight games to quarterbacks making their first career start, including the 49ers Brock Purdy just two weeks ago. I’m never comfortable picking the Bucs to win anymore, but I’ll go with them this week against a bad Cardinals team without Kyler Murray. I still refuse to give them more than 17 points though. Bucs win, but barely.
Bucs 17 Cardinals 13
THE WRAP UP
Unless they just want to play the role of spoiler, this game doesn’t mean much to Arizona. They’ve already been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. On the other hand, it means a ton to Tampa Bay. They need this one. Maybe not necessarily to get into the playoffs, but for their morale. They need a boost. They need a game where they play a full four quarters of quality football and come out with a solid win. They need that to prove to themselves that they can do it. They haven’t yet this season. Here we are 14 games in and this team is still struggling to find themselves. That should’ve been done in training camp. It wasn’t. Now they’re at a point where it’s Week 16 and they need to get on a roll. They need to get hot and start playing good football so that they can hit the postseason full steam ahead. They need to start that now. Right here in this game. On primetime Sunday Night Football. On Christmas night. With the whole world watching. They need to come together and become the team we all thought they were before this season started. No more excuses. No more playing around. No more goofing off. It’s time to get serious. It’s time to start playing playoff worthy football.
So now that you know everything there is to know about the Buccaneers Week 16 matchup against the Cardinals, there’s only one thing left to say…