Keys to Victory: How the Bucs Can Beat the Lions

J. Kanno

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear determined to finish 2019 with a bang, even though they are already eliminated from the playoffs. This week, they face a stumbling, ailing Detroit Lions team that is on its third quarterback and can't seem to stop the pass.

On their first three-game win streak since 2016, Tampa Bay powered through with improved defensive play and wildly uneven Jameis Winston performances. By all rights, the Bucs should not have beaten the Indianapolis Colts last week following three Jameis Winston interceptions, but he scored five touchdowns and threw a career-high 456 yards.

The biggest consequence of last week was the loss of wide receiver Mike Evans to a hamstring injury. Gone for the season, Evans leaves a void at receiver that cannot be filled by any one player.

Fortunately, the Bucs face a Lions team ravaged by injury. They will be without starting quarterback Matthew Stafford for the sixth straight game and overall could play Sunday down eight players. However, a wounded animal makes for more dangerous prey, so the Bucs cannot take Detroit for granted.

Here are the Bucs three keys to victory over the Lions:

Key 1: Don't beat yourself

Self-sabotage has been an issue for the Bucs all year and in general while Jameis Winston has been quarterback. It cost them games against the Giants and Seattle and nearly did against the Colts last week. His 28 total turnovers can account for over 80 points of opponent scoring this season.

Interceptable throws just seem to be a part of Winston's game, just as he is prone to jaw-dropping tight window completions. Last week, Winston was able to overcome his turnovers with high percentage throws underneath to running backs and Chris Godwin. By focusing less on the big play and more on allowing his playmakers to make plays, Winston is less likely to risk self-destruction.

Key 2: Spread the ball around, but avoid Darius Slay

Though the Bucs offense has leaned on its dynamic starting duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin all season, the plan will have to change with Evans out. His absence presents another problem as now teams will likely focus their coverage on Godwin. The Lions might even "shadow" Godwin with stud cornerback Darius Slay, as they have been apt to do throughout the season.

Slay is easily Detroit's best defensive back. This season, he is allowing just 54.2 percent of passes targeting his receiver to be completed, ninth among players with at least 70 targets. On the 520 yards Slay has allowed, only 95 yards have come after the catch for a mere 2.4 yards per catch. Slay's coverage could minimize Godwin's impact where nearly half of his yardage (500) comes after the catch.

However, as the Bucs receiving corps proved last week, losing Mike Evans is not the end of the world even if Godwin doesn't have a career day. Winston targeted his other receivers 34 times after Evans left the game last week, second-most this season. Last week also saw a career game by second-year WR Justin Watson, who caught five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown.

Watson, along with receivers Breshad Perriman and Scotty Miller and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, have to carry the load for Winston in Evans's absence, which should not be a heavy burden against a weak Detroit pass defense. A repeat of last week's pass distribution should ensure a steady and productive offense.

Key 3: Shut down Kenny Golladay

The 2019 Detroit Lions have not exactly played good football this year. A significant share of the blame falls on the massive amounts of injuries they otherwise failed to overcome. In fact their only real remaining offensive weapon is WR Kenny Golladay.

Despite taking passes from three different quarterbacks, the third-year receiver has already surpassed 1000 receiving yards and has scored a league-high 10 touchdowns. His 6'4", 214 pound frame is a match-up nightmare, and clearly he is all but unstoppable in the end zone. 

The Bucs cannot afford coverage breakdowns against Golladay, not while he's averaging 10.8 yards per target. Bucs corners Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean have been boom-or-bust against opposing receivers, allowing just 48.4 percent of passes to be completed but also nine touchdowns this season between them.

Bracketing coverage and double teams might be the only way the Bucs can contain Golladay this Sunday. Without Marvin Jones, the Bucs are not facing any other established pass catchers and should be able to rely on their pass rush to otherwise contain the Detroit offense. The key is keeping their best player off the board.

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