4:05 PM EST, FOX – Line: Buccaneers -4, Over/Under: 52
A pair of improved teams clash today in Sin City, as the Las Vegas Raiders play host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. It may not immediately come to mind, but there are a number of ties that bind these two franchises together despite the fact that they have only met on seven occasions since the turn of the century. Of course, the most notable meeting came on January 26th, 2003 when the Buccaneers (4-2, 1st in NFC South) obliterated the then Oakland Raiders 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII, an event that was notable for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, Tampa was led that day by Head Coach, Jon Gruden, whom they had acquired during the previous Offseason from Oakland in a unique trade that consisted of a number of premium draft picks and other assets going the other way. Gruden would go on to make his former employer and charges pay dearly for their indiscretion, embarrassing them on the grandest of stages. He would spend seven years with the club, guiding them to a 57-55 record (.509), and to this day remains the last coach to take them to the Playoffs, which he did so in 2007. Fifteen years later, the skipper would find himself back with the franchise that gave him his first head coaching gig, leading them into their new era as they relocate to Las Vegas.
And then there is Tom Brady (64.1%, 1,541 YDS, 6.47 NY/A, 14 TD, 4 INT, 64.9 QBR), the six-time Super Bowl Champion whom the Buccaneers acquired in Free Agency. Brady had been the dominant player at his position during his twenty year stay with the New England Patriots, guiding them to seventeen division titles and nine Super Bowl appearances, while collecting three MVP awards along the way. Hungry for a fresh start, the 43-year old settled on the Gulf Coast, where the faithful hope that he can in fact end their club’s twelve-year postseason drought and perhaps even bring them what would be their second Lombardi Trophy. Of course, Brady was ironically the Quarterback whom ended the aforementioned Gruden’s first tenure with the Raiders (and paving his way to the Bucs), besting them in the 2001 AFC Playoffs in what would go on to be branded as the Tuck Rule Game, en route to beginning his historic reign in New England with the first of six championships. Even in the twilight of his career there is plenty of optimism that the future Hall of Famer could do the same for Tampa Bay, who have suffered from some of the most reckless Quarterback play imaginable in recent years. With former No. One Pick, Jameis Winston steering the ship over the previous five seasons, the Bucs stood by helplessly as their young Franchise Quarterback committed a league-worst 111 turnovers since 2105, including a staggering THIRTY-FIVE in 2019 alone. To put this into proper context, Winston tossed thirty interceptions last year, which is a figure that Brady wouldn’t match in the previous four years combined (29). So with that said, the Bucs add the always-efficient Brady to an Offense loaded at the skill positions, and continued to add to their power base in an attempt to better suit the supporting cast to Brady’s needs. With prolific Receivers, Mike Evans (23 REC, 281 YDS, 12.2 Y/R, 6 TD) and Chris Godwin (16 REC, 191 YDS, 11.9 Y/R, 1 TD) already in hand, the club added Tailback Leonard Fournette (24 CAR, 123 YDS, 5.1 Y/A, 1 TD) in Free Agency, drafted Left Tackle, Tristan Whirfs (14th Overall) in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and even coaxed Brady’s BFF, Rob Gronkowski (17 REC, 218 YDS, 12.8 Y/R, 1 TD), out of retirement, granting Head Coach, Bruce Arians, and Offensive Coordinator, Byron Leftwich, an embarrassment of riches to work with on this side of the football. And if that wasn’t enough, Tampa reportedly signed the mercurial Antonio Brown to a one-year contract earlier in the week; the prolific, four-time All-Pro Receiver endured a roller coaster of a season in 2019 despite only participating in one game, getting traded to the Raiders, who would outright release him following a series of highly-publicized meltdowns, only to be picked up by Brady’s Patriots thereafter, eventually releasing him as well due to similar reasons. Brown has remained a veritable pariah ever since, and will be available to return to play in Week Nine after completing an eight-game susupension. While the Offense hasn’t been nearly as explosive as it was last season, ranking twentieth in total yards (366.0), it’s been far more efficient, enjoying a plus-4 turnover differential through six contests, which has led to an average of 29.5 points per game (10th Overall), boosted by an excellent red zone percentage of 77.3% (4th Overall). With so many new faces, it’s only reasonable to expect this group to continue to grow as they spend more time on the field with each other. With that said, the Offense hasn’t been the only unit to benefit from Brady’s arrival, for the Defense has morphed into one of the league’s elite now that they aren’t forced to defend short fields anymore following egregious turnovers from their Quarterback. Defensive Coordinator, Todd Bowles, has his charges playing at a very high level in the early stages of 2020, relinquishing the fewest yards in the league (282.0), including an NFL-best 64.3 rushing yards per game on a scant 3.0 yards per carry (1st Overall). The Defensive Front has been hellacious, with Linemen, Vita Vea (10 TKL, 3 TFL, 3 QBH, 2.0 SK) and Ndamukong Suh (18 TKL, 3 TFL, 7 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD), wrecking havoc in the trenches, while edge-rushers, Shaq Barrett (24 TKL, 4 TFL, 4 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 SFTY, 1 PD) and Jason Pierre-Paul (21 TKL, 2 TFL, 7 QBH, 5.5 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR) have relentlessly hunted Quarterbacks, with Linebackers, Lavonte David (47 TKL, 5 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD) and Devin White (50 TKL, 5 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FR, 2 PD), cleaning things up behind them. It would become evident rather quickly just how big of a role that the Defense would play in their overall success, with last weekend’s meeting with the undefeated Green Bay Packers serving as their breakout party.
“The pick-six changed the entire ballgame…”Bruce Arians, Buccaneers Head Coach on Jamel Dean’s Pick Six of Aaron Rodgers
When we last saw the Buccaneers, they rebounded with a fury following a disappointing showing on the road at the Chicago Bears on a Thursday Night. Welcoming the unbeaten Packers to Raymond James Stadium, Tampa looked to make a statement against the NFC’s best, which is precisely what Arians’ charges did last Sunday. After the visitors opened the affair with ten consecutive points, the hosts went to work in manhandling Green Bay in a 38-10 drubbing that sent shockwaves throughout the league. In a matchup that was billed as a heavyweight fight between two of the greatest Quarterbacks of their generation, the contest was dominated by the Bucs’ Defense, which embarrassed Aaron Rodgers in a manner that we’re not quite used to seeing. Shortly after taking that early lead, the home side took hold of momentum as Defensive Back, Jamel Dean (28 TKL, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 TD), intercepted Rodgers and returned it thirty-two yards for a touchdown. It was the two-time MVP’s first pick-six since 2016, and it absolutely opened up the floodgates, as the Buccaneers would go on to score TWENTY-EIGHT unanswered points in the second quarter alone. In the end, the Defense relegated Rodgers and the Packers to a scant 201 total yards on thirteen first downs, with the Quarterback completing just 16-of-35 passes for a mere 160 yards and two interceptions, sacking him five times in the process. Brady on the other hand, managed the game deftly on 17-of-27 passing for 166 yards and two touchdowns, with Tailback, Ronald Jones (97 CAR, 472 YDS, 4.9 Y/A, 3 TD), rushing for a season-high 113 yards and two scores on twenty-three carries, while the aforementioned Gronkowski hauled in his first touchdown as a Buccaneer, along with eighty-one yards on five receptions. Even without Vea (on Injured Reserve with a fractured leg ), the Defense feasted with Pierre-Paul, Suh, David, and White all registering at least one sack, and hitting Rodgers a total of eight times.
Meanwhile, from the perspective of the Raiders (3-2, 2nd in AFC West), they would prefer to forget all about their ties to tonight’s opponent. Gruden’s departure was SEISMIC to say the least, for after they were embarrassed by their former skipper in Super Bowl XXXVII they would regress into one of the league’s persistent punching bags for the better part of the next two decades. From 2003 to 2019, this once proud franchise that had coined phrases such as “commitment to excellence” and “just win, baby” endured fourteen losing campaigns, with their only winning season coming in 2016, cycling through ten different Head Coaches before alluring Gruden back to the sidelines following a largely successful decade in television. Then again, it would have been difficult to see him, or anyone for that matter, turn down the offer that the Raiders would make, signing him to an unprecedented ten-year/$100 million contract, turning heads around the league. With that kind of job security, Gruden set about reshaping the franchise in his image, tearing down the preexisting foundation and building it back up into what he and the rest of Raider Nation hope will become a sustainable winner. Now after going 11-21 (.347) in his first two seasons, which were the final two played in Oakland, are the Raiders anywhere close to returning to prominence following their relocation to Las Vegas?
In most cases, the third year of any rebuilding project is usually when the fruits of labor become apparent, and now that Gruden is in the third year of his second tenure with the Raiders it’s becoming apparent that his vision is taking shape. After two seasons of uninspiring play on the offensive side of the football, this unit has really taken a major leap; Las Vegas has become a top-10 Offense in a slew of categories, including points (30.2), total yards (409.4), first downs (119), passing yards (288.4), net yards per attempt (7.6), and third down percentage (52.3%). Gruden, along with General Manager, Mike Mayock, have done a solid job of rebuilding the talent base, particularly at the skill positions, where they placed an emphasis on getting faster and more explosive. Tight End, Darren Waller (34 REC, 295 YDS, 8.7 Y/R, 2 TD) emerged from obscurity to post ninety receptions and 1,145 yards last season, and has feasted on opposing Linebackers week in and week out thus far, while Sophomore Tailback, Josh Jacobs (106 CAR, 377 YDS, 3.6 Y/A, 5 TD), has thrived behind one of the most physical Offensive Lines in the league, rushing for 377 yards and five touchdowns through five outings. Furthermore, veteran Receiver, Nelson Agholor (10 REC, 185 YDS, 18.5 Y/R, 3 TD), arrived via Free Agency , and looks happy to leave his time in Philadelphia behind him, averaging a robust 18.5 yards per catch, while reeling in three scores to boot. And then there is Henry Ruggs (6 REC, 177 YDS, 29.5 Y/R, 1 TD), whom Gruden and Mayock selected twelfth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft; the burner out of Alabama has speed to spare, bringing that missing commodity to the Raiders’ Offense, averaging a ridiculous 29.5 yards per reception, stretching opposing Defenses, which has allowed his teammates plenty of space to operate. Initially slowed by a sore knee, the rookie is finally making his presence felt on the gridiron, playing a HUGE role in Las Vegas’ surprising 40-32 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks ago. Ruggs only caught a pair of passes on that day, but man did he make them count, taking the first seventy-two yards for a touchdown and the other for forty-six. This of course, has been a Godsend for Derek Carr (73.1%, 1,442 YDS, 7.61 NY/A, 11 TD, 1 INT, 81.0 QBR), who is in the most important season of his career as the Raiders’ Starting Quarterback. Now in his seventh season with the club that drafted him thirty-sixth overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, Carr is in a precarious position to say the least; he’s 42-57 (.424) as the Starter, having never started in the Playoffs, was not drafted/acquired by the current regime, and has a favorable contract that can be expelled with minimal to no cap penalties in the Offseason. Management even brought in Marcus Mariota to compete with him in 2020, making the former Heisman the highest-paid Backup Quarterback in the league, further fanning the flames that Gruden was unhappy with his signal-caller and desired the opportunity to handpick his own man. So with all that said, how has the 29-year old performed thus far, you ask? Quite frankly, he’s never looked better.
“What we were able to do today, I’m so proud… Lose two in a row, be able to play the world champs and be able to score some points and our defense getting the stops. I hope they give (Raiders defensive coordinator Paul) Guenther a lot of credit. He had a tough week; I’ve had tough weeks around here, too. It is what it is, it’s part of the business… Again, we have to be able to win football games against these guys to make it a rivalry. We haven’t done that in a long time.”Derek Carr, Raiders Quarterback on his team’s victory at the Chiefs two weeks ago
Benefitting from a much stronger Supporting Cast, Carr is resembling the Quarterback that impressed everyone back in 2016, when his MVP-caliber campaign was cut short due to a broken leg suffered in the penultimate weekend of the Regular Season. Now in his third successive year in Gruden’s system, he’s posted career-bests in a slew of categories, including completion percentage (73.1%), yards per game (288.4), net yards per attempt (7.61), touchdown percentage (6.3%), interception percentage (0.6%), and QBR (81.0). However, throughout his tenure with Gruden the major criticism of his play was a reluctance to push the football downfield, but now that the Raiders have acquired speed at the skill positions, those critics have gone silent, particularly after his performance against the reigning Super Bowl Champions two weeks ago. This was the kind of showing that a young team can really build upon, as Las Vegas outgunned one of the most prolific teams the NFL has seen in years in Arrowhead Field no doubt, a place where they had lost ELEVEN consecutive games. Trailing 14-3 early in the Second Quarter, the visitors flipped momentum when Carr stepped up into the pocket and found the aforementioned Agholor downfield for a 59-yard touchdown. After the Chiefs struck back with another score of their own on the ensuing drive, the Raiders would go on to outscore the hosts 27-11 the rest of the way, with Carr completing 22-of-31 passes for 347 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, leading an attack that amassed a whopping 490 total yards on twenty-two first downs, possessing the football for a commanding 35:18, totaling five plays of forty yards or more. While most teams emerge from their Bye Week refreshed and healthy, Las Vegas has been thrown into chaos thanks to COVID-19; massive Right Tackle, Trent Brown, whom has missed all but two of the first five outings, was placed on the COVID-19/Injured Reserve List, and in part due to contact tracing, all FIVE of their Starting Offensive Linemen were sent home from the facility on Thursday, leaving each player’s availability in doubt. Needless to say, it’s not ideal to field an entire Line of backups, but that remains a distinct possibility for Gruden, who has stated that each player will continue to be tested, and if they are to pass the league’s health/safety protocols then they will compete against the Buccaneers.