4 Bucs to Watch in Week 15 vs. Lions
The Buccaneers are on their way to face a Detroit Lions team that could not get much worse. Missing starting quarterback Matt Stafford yet again, the Lions are a mess on the injury front while the Bucs have won three straight for the first time since 2016.
Both teams have already been eliminated from the playoffs, but both have something at stake in these final games of the season. The Lions are in evaluation mode, and it's possible that head coach Matt Patricia is fighting to keep his job. The Bucs are also evaluating the roster, in particular quarterback Jameis Winston and the young secondary.
Bucs head coach already made a statement earlier in the season when he released cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for his lack of hustle, and no doubt that will apply to every player on the roster down the stretch. For Winston, first and foremost, it's about turnovers.
Though they don't have near the injury problems that the Lions are facing, the Bucs are not immune to the injury bug. Wide receiver Mike Evans is lost for the year. The Bucs will likely be without left tackle Donovan Smith for the first time since he was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2015.
A few players will be asked to step up in their absence, especially if they have any hope of making Tampa Bay's 2020 roster.
Here are four players to watch in the Bucs matchup with the Lions:
CB Carlton Davis III
With Hargreaves gone, Davis is the Bucs' top cornerback. He is frequently matched up with the top receiver the Bucs face each week, and that is likely to be the case with the Lions. He will be tested this week by stud WR Kenny Golladay, Detroit's last remaining offensive weapon.
Golladay is a monster. He leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns (10) and yards per reception (19) (minimum 50 receptions). The third-year receiver is built for the deep ball.
Davis is quietly having a good season with the Bucs. The second-year corner is allowing just 48.3 percent of passes targeting his receivers to be completed and is tied with Titans CB Logan Ryan for the most pass breakups (17) in the league.
However, Davis has also allowed six touchdowns which is among the ten worst in the league. Guarding a touchdown machine like Golladay will be Davis's greatest test this season. Keeping the Lions receiver out of the endzone could hearken the arrival of Tampa Bay's first true CB1 in years.
OT Josh Wells
With Donovan Smith out, the Bucs will need someone to step in a left tackle against Detroit. This week, veteran Josh Wells has been practicing at the position and appears to be the starter heading into Detroit (via the Tampa Bay Times' Eduardo Encina):
A five-year veteran, Wells started in relief of right tackle Demar Dotson in Week 6 against the Carolina Panthers. Fortunately, the Lions present a far less potent pass-rush than the Panthers. They have just 25 sacks and 108 total pressures this season, both in the bottom quarter of the league.
Wells played a few snaps last week against the Colts following Smith's knee injury. He struggled against a Colts pass rush that is similarly weak like Detroit's. This week, Wells should be more prepared as he actually practiced with the starting line ahead of the game. Nevertheless, the Bucs will have to structure a gameplan that minimizes his exposure to keep Jameis Winston upright.
WR Justin Watson
Mike Evans literally leaves big shoes to fill following his season-ending hamstring injury. Second-year WR Justin Watson will not necessarily be able to fill them, but that doesn't mean he won't play a bigger role in the Tampa Bay offense this week.
Prior to last week, Watson had just two career receptions. After Evans left the game against the Colts, he came alive with five catches for 59 yards and a touchdown. Watson exploited the Indianapolis zone coverage and was often wide open on several receptions but also demonstrated the ability to quickly adjust to the ball:
Along with WR3 Breshad Perriman, Watson will try and compensate for Evans's missing production. Against a Detroit secondary that is allowing 7.8 yards per attempt and 26 pass touchdowns, Watson has the opportunity to show he can be a big contributor to the Bucs offense.
TE O.J. Howard
2019 has been nothing short of disappointing for former first-round pick O.J. Howard. He simply has not been able to string together consistent performances. Drops have been a particularly persistent issue as Howard has dropped 10.3 percent of his passes, seventh-worst of any offensive player in the league.
Howard has also been used much more as a blocker this year in Bruce Arians's offense, further diminishing his offensive output. However, in Detroit, circumstances dictate Howard will likely play key roles in multiple aspects of the offense.
Without starting LT Donovan Smith, the Bucs will need to give backup Josh Wells help in keeping Jameis Winston clear of pass rushers. Howard should be lined up next to Wells for quite a bit of the game to assist in pass blocking.
Howard should also be active as a receiver as the Detroit linebackers are ill-suited for pass coverage and would be vulnerable to a mismatch that Howard would represent. While the 2019 season will only be seen as a down year for the third-year tight end, Howard could use Detroit as a palate cleanser heading into next season.