The Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to Western New York this week for a date with the Buffalo Bills. At 3-3, the Buccaneers find themselves in second place in the very winnable NFC South. They trail only the Atlanta Falcons, who beat Tampa Bay on Sunday. At 4-3, the Bills find themselves in second place in a tough AFC East. They trail only the Miami Dolphins, who Buffalo beat soundly just three weeks ago. But given Buffalo’s struggles since, that game feels like a year ago.
The Buccaneers are 2-0 on the road this season, while the Bills are 3-1 at home. That record should come with an asterisk, though, as their only “home” loss was against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London. Unless there’s a tie, one of the two undefeated streaks on the line will be broken this week. If the Bills are going to erase the bad taste of their 29-25 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 7, they’ll need to limit Tampa Bay’s stars.
Here are our five Buccaneers to watch this week.
WR Chris Godwin
The Bills haven’t done a great job in the passing game over the last three weeks, and that’s being generous. The Jaguars were able to move at will, and even the New York Giants and the Patriots were able to pass at or better than their averages for the year. Neither of the latter two clubs have a receiving group anywhere near as good as Tampa Bay’s. Godwin would be an undisputed No. 1 wideout on most teams, but given the fact that he also has a stud teammate across from him, he’s more a WR1A. The Bills’ primary outside corners, Dane Jackson and Christian Benford, have their hands full this week — though it’s much more likely that we see a zone-heavy approach given the physical mismatch in Tampa’s favor outside. The Bills will need to play good, assignment-sound coverage in the back end in order to limit Tampa’s passing attack, which is led by a rejuvenated Baker Mayfield at quarterback. Godwin has caught 33 passes on 49 targets for 398 yards so far this season.
WR Mike Evans
The big man is in the final year of his contract — wouldn’t he look nice catching passes from Josh Allen in Orchard Park? — and he’s having a very strong year so far. He’s tied with Godwin for the team lead in targets with 49, and he’s caught 30 passes for 468 yards and four touchdowns. That’s half of Baker Mayfield’s score total on the season. Buffalo’s safeties will definitely need to help this week. While Evans may not be the fastest wideout, he is big and much more physical than Buffalo’s corners. Cornerback Kaiir Elam has the physicality, but he hasn’t shown the ability to stay near enough to mediocre wideouts to earn any snaps. I don’t think the Bills are going to have their corners travel with particular wideouts, but of the two probable starters, Benford is probably the better matchup.
DT Vita Vea
Speaking of tough matchups for Buffalo, after a disaster of a game from right guard O’Cyrus Torrence on Sunday, the road isn’t any easier for the rookie in this one. Vea is a monster, clocking in at a stout 347 pounds, with impeccable strength and drive. He has 3.5 sacks from the nose tackle position, which leads the team, and he also has 21 tackles, four quarterback hits, and five tackles for loss so far. Given that he had 31 tackles all of last season, the uptick in production is noticeable. The Bills have to do a better job up front than they did against a shorthanded Patriots defensive front if they’re going to have any chance at breaking out of the offensive doldrums that have plagued them for the last three games. Vea is on Tampa’s injury report, and he’s yet to practice this week due to a groin injury. Given the short week, it’s hard to know whether that’s out of an abundance of caution or if it’s and indicator that he’ll miss the contest. Either way, Vea’s status is going to be noteworthy leading into the game, and his effectiveness if he does play is going to be a tremendous factor in the outcome.
LB Devin White
The fifth-year man is a fantastic cover linebacker, and an excellent sideline-to-sideline tackler. The Bills don’t target the middle of the field much anyway in the passing game, but if they try to break that trend this week, doing so with White patrolling the middle is a dangerous game. He’s allowed 12-of-18 passes to be completed for 93 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception when he’s the closest man in coverage. He’s blitzed 29 times this year, putting him on pace to do that more, as well. Given his speed and athleticism, it’s likely that White is used as a mirror on quarterback Josh Allen in a way similar to what linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley did at points last Sunday for New England. Head coach Todd Bowles is a good defensive mind, so he’ll have something cooked up, and White’s athletic ability will be a big part of whatever the Bucs try to do.
S Antoine Winfield, Jr.
This is a shoutout to a guy whose dad was one of my favorite players when I was younger. The senior Winfield was a first-round draft choice of the Bills in the 1999 NFL Draft, and he played for Buffalo through 2003. With the Bills, Winfield was known for his excellent tackling, but he became a truly elite corner when he left and joined the Minnesota Vikings. His son is a talented safety in his own right, as the younger Winfield leads the Buccaneers in pass breakups this season with five. Tampa uses him in a variety of ways, as Winfield also has two sacks, three quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries so far. He’s a guy who can force turnovers and change a game quickly. Buffalo’s wideouts will need to know where he is when they’re headed over the middle or going deep this week.