Tampa Bay Buccaneers A prime-time stage gives the Buccaneers a chance to prove their mettle against a powerful Eagles team, and what happens in the trenches could go a long way towards determining the outcome Scott Smith
In the only battle of undefeated teams on the NFL's Week Three slate of games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take on the defending NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles before a national audience on the night of Monday, September 25. It's the second consecutive home game for the Buccaneers and the first game of a Monday Night Football doubleheader. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium, and the game will be broadcast by ABC. The Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals kick off an hour later on ESPN.
The Buccaneers and Eagles are both 2-0, with one home win and one road win. Each team has beaten the Minnesota Vikings, while the Eagles took down the New England Patriots in Week One and the Bucs topped the Chicago Bears in Week Two. Baker Mayfield was sharp in that 27-17 downing of the Bears, completing 76% of his passes and recording his first 300-yard game as a Buccaneer, while a swarming Tampa Bay defense sacked Justin Fields six times and picked him off twice. The Eagles were in control for most of their Thursday night game against the Vikings in Week Two, opening up a 27-7 lead behind three Jalen Hurts touchdowns (one passing, two rushing), though Minnesota did eventually close the gap to 34-28/
After two games, the Eagles are fifth in the NFL in scoring, with 29.5 points per game, and Hurts, who finished second in the NFL MVP balloting last year, has already thrown for touchdowns and run for two more. Philly's outstanding wideout duo of DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown have accounted for 22 of the team's 40 completions, with Smith turning 11 catches into 178 yards and two scores. On defense, defensive tackles Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter, the Eagles' top picks in the last two drafts, have set the tone up front with a combined 2.5 sacks. However, the secondary has dealt with injuries to cornerback James Bradberry and safety Reed Blankenship and has already given up a league-high seven touchdown passes against just one interception.
Here are four major storylines and four head-to-head player battles to keep an eye on as the Bucs try to prove their mettle in prime time and remain unbeaten in 2023.
Who Controls the Ground - After slipping last season from their former spot atop the NFL's run defense rankings from 2019-21, the Bucs have been impenetrable again to start the 2023 season, allowing just 54.0 rushing yards per game. That ranks second in the NFL after two weeks; the only team that has been better is the Eagles, at 52.0 yards allowed per contest. Both teams are clearly following the same motto: Shut down the run to make the opposing offense one-dimensional, then let loose a deep and talented stable of pass rushers. Week Three brings the toughest challenge yet for the Bucs' rejuvenated crew, as the Eagles ranked fifth in rushing yards last season and are currently second in that category in 2023 with 178.0 yards per game. Newcomer D'Andre Swift has taken on the lead role with 178 yards and 6.1 yards per carry, but the Eagles will get some combination of Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott and Rashaad Penny involved, too. What puts Philly's ground game over the top, though, is Hurts, who is second on the team with 72 yards and who has scored 31 rushing touchdowns in 40 career starts, playoffs included. The Bucs have clearly committed to running the ball more this year, too, and are averaging 33.5 carries per game. That worked to the tune of 120 rushing yards against the Bears in Week Two.
Ready for Prime Time? - The Buccaneers' 2-0 start has been met with a good amount of surprise outside team headquarters, as most analysts expected the team to struggle in the immediate aftermath of the Tom Brady era. Given that the two teams they have beaten are both off to 0-2 starts, it's likely that a good amount of skepticism remains at this early hours. Inside the building, the Buccaneers are as confident as they have been over their past three playoff seasons and certain that their fast start is no fluke. In Week Three, the intersection of one of the NFC's clear favorites, the Eagles, and a prime time stage on Monday night offers the Buccaneers a chance to prove to a wide audience that they are also contenders. A win would also give Tampa Bay its first 3-0 start to a season since 2005, when they won their second NFC South title. This is the first of two prime-time games for the Buccaneers in the regular season, while the Eagles have already played one and are scheduled for four more (including this Monday night) plus a Christmas Day spotlight that kicks off at 4:30.
As the Ball Bounces - For just the third time in team history, and the first in almost three decades, the Buccaneers have made it through the first two games of the season without committing a single turnover on offense. They did put the ball on the ground twice, but one bounced out of bounds and one was alertly covered by Mayfield. There is no doubt that the Bucs' +5 turnover ratio and 2-0 record are closely correlated. Mayfield has obviously made an effort to take care of the football, consistently making good decisions, but he's also enjoyed good protection and thus hasn't had the ball stripped from him or been forced into errant throws. Continuing this trend of ball security will be more important than ever on Monday night, because the Bucs can't afford to give away possessions or create short fields for the opposition against an offense as potent as Philadelphia's star-studded crew.
Chipping at a Brick Wall - The 2023 Eagles have returned all but one starter from an offensive line that was widely considered the league's best in 2022, and they may have even upgraded at that fifth spot, with 2022 second-round pick Cam Jurgens stepping at right guard for the departed Isaac Seumalo. Three other Eagles starters - right tackle Lane Johnson, center Jason Kelce and left guard Landon Dickerson - went to the Pro Bowl last season and left tackle Jordan Mailata is a 6-8, 365-pound mountain. Hurts has surprisingly absorbed seven sacks already through two games, but that Eagles front line still represents the biggest challenge that Tampa Bay's pass-rushers have faced so far this season. However, there's reason to believe they are up to that challenge. The Bucs have their deepest group of talented edge rushers and interior lineman in years, and they already have eight sacks through two games. They have been able to rotate those front-line players frequently and still get production for 60 minutes. Seven different players have combined to record those eight sacks, with Joe Tryon-Shoyinka getting two last week against the Bears to go to the top of the list.
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1. Eagles T Lane Johnson vs. Buccaneers OLB Shaq Barrett
Injuries cost Johnson 13 games over the 2020-21 seasons after he had gone to the Pro Bowl the previous three years, but he was able to return in his age 32 season to make 15 starts in 2023 and regain both his Pro Bowl and first-team Associated Press All-Pro status. Johnson is extremely athletic for an offensive lineman and he can quickly change directions and pick up free runners. He also has a very long reach, which allows him to maintain leverage and keep pass-rushers off him. His position coach, Jeff Stoutland, describes him as "a skill player playing offensive line," and Eagles Head Coach Nick Sirianni calls him "the best right tackle in the world." (Bucs fans don't have to engage in a debate about that last claim now that Tristan Wirfs has moved to left tackle.) Barrett has made an inspirational return to the game in 2023, following last year's Achilles tendon tear and then, much more significantly, the tragic loss of his young daughter in the spring. He hit the ground running in training camp and has looked as fast and quick as ever in the first two games. His performance against the Bears included a key sack and a one-handed interception that he returned for a touchdown to seal the Bucs' victory. Barrett is an instinctive edge rusher who should give the Eagles' star tackle a good game.
2. Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin vs. Eagles CB Avonte Maddox
New Offensive Coordinator Dave Canales said during the offseason that Godwin's role in the offense would be changing somewhat, with him being used less often in the slot and more on the outside. That has been true so far, as Godwin has played only 33% of his snaps in the slot so far after ranging between 52% and 60% the last three years. The Bucs have also used Deven Thompkins, Trey Palmer and even Mike Evans in the slot as Canales has mixed up their pre-snap looks. However, Godwin still has the most plays out of the slot of any of the Bucs' receivers so far, so opposing offenses aren't putting away game tape of him dominating from that spot the last three years. Godwin is big for a slot receiver, which makes him valuable as a blocker in the run game, but he also has the change of direction and steady hands a player needs in that position. When he does line up there on Monday night, he'll draw the attention of Avonte Maddux, the Eagles' nickel corner. Maddox was excellent in that role on Philly's top-notch defense last year; according to NFL Next Gen Stats, he allowed the third-lowest EPA (-12.7) when targeted of any slot cornerback in 2022. Maddox will be ready to give Godwin a physical game; last year he played press coverage on 38% of his snaps, the fifth-highest rate among NFL slot corners.
3. Eagles TE Dallas Goedert vs. Buccaneers LB Devin White
Goedert is the clear third option in the Eagles passing attack after wideouts Brown and Smith, and though he's off to a relatively slow start with six catches for 22 yards through two games he will still need to be a focal point for the Buccaneers' defense. Last year, he caught 55 passes for 702 yards and three touchdowns despite missing five games, and he was huge in the playoffs with 16 grabs for 141 yards and one score. Goedert helps out his quarterback by hauling in passes in tough situations; according to NGS he led all NFL tight ends in 2022 with +5.7 receptions over expected and +151 yards over expected. Devin White won't be the only Buccaneer defender who will be involved in slowing Goedert down, but he has shown the ability to close quickly on tight ends when opposing quarterbacks try to use them as a safety valve or a screen option on short passes. Tampa Bay's defense gave up a combined 12 receptions to the Vikings' and Bears' top tight ends, T.J. Hockenson and Cole Kmet, but they've gone for only 73 total yards, or 6.1 per reception. White has plenty of speed to match up with any NFL tight end and he's a very sure tackler in the open field.
4. Buccaneers G Matt Feiler vs. Eagles DT Jalen Carter
The Bucs' offensive line has allowed only one sack of Mayfield so far, so everybody in that group can feel good about their performances through two games. However, the Eagles will offer a challenge on another level with a deep and talented defensive front. Feiler in particular will draw a difficult assignment against Carter, the ninth-overall pick in this year's draft who already looks like the game-wrecker his scouting report suggested he would be. Carter has incredible first-step quickness and he easily translates that speed into power with outstanding hand work and nimble feet. Feiler has stepped seamlessly into the Bucs' starting lineup as the team's new left guard after signing as a free agent in the offseason. At 6-6 and 330 pounds, Feiler is the Bucs' biggest offensive lineman and Canales has raved about the power he brings to "duo" rushing plays. So far, Carter has taken more of his snaps to the right of the center in the Eagles' front, which would him in vicinity of the left guard quite a bit. The power that Feiler brings to his game should create an intense matchup with the Eagles' impressive rookie. Feiler obviously has the experience advantage, having made 75 starts across seven seasons in the NFL.