Friday, October 19, 2018

Brace for another scorefest

 The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who greet the Browns Sunday down in Florida, might be just 2-3 this season, but they also might be the best 2-3 team in the National Football League. On offense, that is.

Defense? Forget it. That’s why they are 2-3.

The buzz saw that is the Bucs’ offense is sixth in the league in average points per game at 28.2, which ordinarily would suggest their record should be substantially better than it is.

That’s when you take a close look at the defense, or what passes for defense, and discover that side of the football has hemorrhaged nearly 35 points a game. That’s five touchdowns a game on average.

That, in theory, should be easy pickings for the Browns, who could use a break on offense after scoring just 23 points in the last two games. It also might be enough to break them out of their first-quarter doldrums, which have produced just two field goals this season.

But what about the Cleveland defense, which disappeared last Sunday at home against the Los Angeles Chargers? If the Chargers can plaster 38 points on the scoreboard, imagine what the high-powered Bucs offense can do against a Cleveland defense beset with injuries.

Then factor in the home debut this season for Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, who missed the first two home games while serving a three-game suspension for a personal conduct violation.

Winston took over the offense midway through game four after Ryan Fitzpatrick, who kept Winston’s seat warm while he was serving his suspension, guided the Bucs to stunning victories over New Orleans and Super Bowl champion Philadelphia and lost by only a field goal to Pittsburgh.

The veteran was so spectacular (78-of-111 for 1.230 yards, 11 touchdowns and four picks), Bucs coach Dirk Koetter stuck with him when Winston returned. For one half, that is. Fitzpatrick returned to his normal self in the first half of a brutal loss to Chicago and Winston took over.

It took him exactly one game to replicate Fitzpatrick’s outstanding statistical contributions early on, completing 30 of his 41 passes for 395 yards and four touchdowns in a loss to Atlanta. That’s what the Cleveland secondary can look forward to Sunday.

Winston has outstanding receivers in Mike Evans, Johnny Manziel’s favorite receiver at Texas A&M, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson, and tight ends O. J. Howard and Cameron Brate. They combine for 15 of the club’s 16 touchdowns through the air. Brate has only seven receptions, but three arrived in the end zone.

So who does rookie cornerback Denzel Ward cover? Zone coverage might be the best strategy against arguably one of the best receivers’ corps in the NFL. Or a combination of zone and man-to-man because straight-up man and/or press coverage won’t work against this group.

Evans, Godwin and Jackson are probably the most dangerous, which is two too many for a Cleveland secondary that is banged up and has been exposed as vulnerable the last few weeks. If the pass rush, which has registered only three sacks in the last two weeks, doesn’t improve, it will be a long afternoon for the guys in the back end.

The Bucs bludgeon their opponents almost strictly through the air. Their ground game is an afterthought. Just about everything about the offense, which produces 450 yards a game and a hefty 7.2 yards per play, flows through the forward pass.

Peyton Barber is the leading rusher for the Bucs, who run about a third of the time, with a paltry 230 yards. Fitzpatrick scored the club’s lone touchdown via the run. That tells you all you need to know.

The Browns lug a league-record 23-game road losing streak into Raymond James Stadium. The best shot they have at ending the road misery right there is to simply try to outscore the Bucs. Baker Mayfield will have plenty of opportunities against a pass rush that has only 11 sacks.

Veteran defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, the ex-New York Giant, owns five of those sacks and he’ll be squaring off mostly against rookie offensive left tackle Desmond Harrison all afternoon in what in all probability will ultimately be labeled an unfair fight.

The Bucs, however, have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 78% of their passes, an astounding statistic even by today’s standards. Their secondary has picked off just one pass . . . one pass . . . in five games.

All of which fits perfectly into the Mayfield profile. He is known for unerring accuracy when given time to throw, which has been problematic the last two outings. If he has the time and the cooperation of his receivers to actually catch the football when thrown their way, this one has all the earmarks of a scoring bonanza.

The Bucs defense was so bad, it cost defensive coordinator Mike Smith his job. Bucs fans probably wondered why it took so long to cashier the former Atlanta Falcons head coach. Mark Duffner takes over the thankless job of trying to make chicken soup out of chicken feces.

It will be interesting to see how the Browns attack the porous Tampa Bay defense, which has allowed 356 yards a game to opposing quarterbacks and just 84 yards a game on the ground.

The stodgy and boring ground game would have featured bulldozing running back Carlos Hyde in this one, but the bruising running back was traded unexpectedly to Jacksonville Friday for a fifth-round draft selection next year.

That means reps that would have gone to Hyde will now be shared by the more versatile and dangerous Duke Johnson Jr. and rookie running back Nick Chubb, who has delivered big time in his limited opportunities.

That means coach Hue Jackson, who has promised more carries for the rookie for a couple of weeks now, has to deliver on that promise. In fact, Chubb could possibly become the lead back.

Up to now, it was believed he was relatively forgotten because his pass blocking was a huge work in progress and threatened the safety of his quarterback. His pass-catching ability was an unknown since he rarely was thrown to at run-heavy Georgia. Fans will find out beginning Sunday.

With a wide receivers’ corps that is rookie laden and sort of stitched together, it should not be too much to expect offensive coordinator Todd Haley to give Johnson and Chubb more reps, especially now that Hyde is headed to Florida.

Unfortunately, I do not see the stubborn Haley changing the script much. The result will be a pass-heavy shootout that delights fans and television viewers, but will drive Cleveland defensive coordinator Gregg Williams nuts.

One other possibility: Both quarterbacks are also threats to run, which will add to the entertainment value should the respective pass rushes somehow find ways to cause them to leave the pocket.

Unlike last Sunday, this one could be determined by which team has the stronger second half. The Browns manage to hang in there, score some first-half points and stay with the Bucs through the better part of three quarters before fading in the final 15 minutes. Make it:

Buccaneers 38, Browns 24

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