1. A better matchup?
The Bills have had some difficult matchups this season with physical fronts on both sides of the ball. Their games against Pittsburgh's defensive front, Tennessee and Indianapolis' offensive lines and New England on Monday night were all trying battles. Buffalo's offense may, however, have a more fitting matchups as it pertains to their strengths.
The Bills' passing game remains their offensive strength and they have been very productive when facing man coverage over the past year plus. Tampa Bay's defensive scheme under Todd Bowles is rooted zone coverage principles and an effective front four pass rush with some heavy blitzing.
The Bucs defense has had some up and down play, much like Buffalo's offense through the course of month and a half. Part of it has been due to injury, particularly in their secondary as we outline below. The other issue has been their intermittent pass rush.
"They haven't been as consistent as they were at the end of last year," said Buccaneers radio analyst Dave Moore in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "They got five sacks this past weekend (at Atlanta), but against Washington (in Week 10) they weren't able to generate a lot of pressure. And that's really where the defense struggles because if you're a man-to-man defense and you give the quarterback time, I don't care who they are, you're going to get open unless you know there's pass interference or holding or whatever else. But these Bills receivers are going to get open. So, it is built on putting pressure on the quarterback. When the Bucs blitz, if Buffalo does a good job of picking them up where Josh (Allen) is going to have some time they're going to get some big plays."
Tampa Bay ranks 19th in the league in number of 20-yard pass plays allowed with 43 surrendered in their 12 games played. Buffalo's offense has the 10th-most completions of 20 yards or more in the NFL this season with a total of 41.
2. Dinged up DBs
Whether the Bucs stick to their man-to-man principles remains to be seen. For the better part of the last six weeks, Tampa Bay has had a patchwork secondary due to injury and suspension.
The most recent injury was CB Jamel Dean suffering a concussion last week against Atlanta. They're steadily getting healthier as a group, but it's been a slow go.
"Fortunately, for the Bucs they got (starting cornerback) Carlton Davis back from I-R last week so when Dean got hurt it wasn't as catastrophic," said Moore. "Jamel Dean stepped in for him, but now you have some guys that are beat up. Dean is a little beat up and then they lost Jordan Whitehead at the safety position. He's been a starter along with (Antoine) Winfield, but you also lost (safety) Mike Edwards because he was suspended along with Antonio Brown. So, they're getting real thin. They're getting their corners healthier, but now you've lost two safeties. They have Andrew Adams and Antoine Winfield Jr., but that's it. They played Ross Cockrell back there. He's a veteran guy. He's really a nickel guy but can play some safety, but they're awful thin at that position."
As a result, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said veteran CB Richard Sherman, who himself was on injured reserve at the beginning of the week, might get practice reps this week at safety and play there Sunday if he's activated off I-R.
3. Dual threat Fournette
When he came to the Buccaneers late last season, Leonard Fournette was strictly a first and second down back. There was no way for the Jacksonville cast off to pick up the Tampa Bay offensive scheme fast enough to serve in a larger capacity.
But from his first day in a Bucs uniform, Fournette set out to expand his role and his versatility as a player. Now he's one of the more versatile three-down backs in the league.
"He was never a big catch-the-ball-out-of-the-backfield guy," said Moore. "He was the workhorse of that traditional type of downhill run game and when he got here, he didn't catch the ball particularly well. He also wasn't really attuned to all the responsibilities and protection.
"But Fournette after practice from last year to this year would do kind of a one-on-one session with Tom Brady and got touches on a ton of balls. And he's really been a key part of their protection as well on third down. To his credit he's done a tremendous job working himself into that three down role rather than just one down and he picked up NFC Offensive Player of the Week last week because he had 130-something yards from scrimmage. One-hundred yards rushing, and he caught seven passes in some key situations, so he's really worked himself into that role."
Head coach Bruce Arians said that when he got to Tampa Bay, he wasn't ready for that role, but he's embraced it and worked his butt off to fill it now.
So much so that Fournette leads all NFL running backs in receptions with 58 on the season. Fournette ranks 10th in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage with 1,067 and he's averaging a career-high 4.4 yards per carry this season. His seven rushing touchdowns are his most since his rookie year (9).
"He's really put himself into a true three-down back role, and you've seen what he's been able to do in the passing game as well," said Bills DT Harrison Phillips. "I think their success in the run game stems from their success in the pass game, and so being able to make them more predictable or try to get them one-dimensional will obviously help us. But he's a great downhill runner, can make guys miss, and go through you. So again, it's going to be a fun, fun test for us."
4. Brady and Gronk reunion
The Bills and their fan base have seen more than their fair share of the Tom Brady-Rob Gronkowski passing combination over the years. Sunday will be a reprise of the dynamic duo, which has now combined for 90 career scoring plays, second only to Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
Brady is having an MVP caliber season as he leads the NFL in pass attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdown passes. He would be the second players in the last 30 years to lead the league outright in all four categories, joining Peyton Manning in his 2013 MVP season.
Since 2001, no other quarterback has thrown as many touchdown passes against Buffalo than Tom Brady (70). Meanwhile since 2010, no other receiver in the league has more receptions (69), receiving yards (1,070) or receiving touchdowns (12) against the Bills than Rob Gronkowski.
With both moving on to Tampa Bay just two seasons ago, there are more than enough players still on Buffalo's roster who know how tall a task it still is the neutralize this future Hall of Fame combination.
"It's tough," said Micah Hyde of stopping Gronkowski from making plays in the pass game. "Big body. I feel like whenever I get put in those situations, I try to use my quickness. But when those guys are as big as what he is, he kind of just boxes you out. And whatever route he runs, whether it's an over-out across the field or a slant or a 10-yard out, he just uses his body, and his frame is so big, and Tom puts the ball right on him, accurate every single time. It's tough to get around him. It really is. You've got to you got to try to get hands on him. Just do what you can to try to not allow them to complete that pass."
Gronk missed five games with fractured ribs and a punctured lung but returned to the lineup the week before Thanksgiving. In seven games with Brady this season, the veteran tight end has six touchdown receptions, and the Bucs are unbeaten with Gronkowski in the lineup.
5. Tale of the takeaways
The Bills, who have been among the league leaders in takeaways all season, have already faced a couple of opponents that have been equally successful in forcing turnovers (Indianapolis, New England). On Sunday, they'll face another in the Bucs.
Buffalo's 26 takeaways rank second in the NFL, while Tampa's 24 rank fourth. Each team has forced at least one turnover in 10 of 12 games this season.
The Bills are 6-0 when they have multiple takeaways in a game this season, but just 1-5 when they have one takeaway or fewer.
The Buccaneers are 6-0 when they have multiple takeaways in a game this season, and 3-3 when they have one or fewer.
6. Top 5 red zone tilt
Tampa's number two offense and Buffalo's number one defense is enough of a marquee matchup, but the battle between the two units will be of even greater intrigue should the Bucs penetrate the Bills 20-yard line.
The Buccaneers lead the league in red zone possessions (54) and red zone touchdowns (36). Their red zone touchdown efficiency is tied for fifth in the league at almost 67 percent (66.7%).
Buffalo's defense meanwhile has allowed the fourth fewest red zone possessions (32) this season and is tied for third in fewest red zone touchdowns surrendered (16). Bills opponents have only reached the end zone on half of their red zone opportunities tied for fourth lowest in the league.
Tampa probably presents the greatest array of red zone threats on one offensive unit. Once the Bucs reach the red zone, most opposing defenses will double leading receiver Chris Godwin or Mike Evans outside. That often leaves the middle of the field open for the aforementioned Gronkowski.
"Brady has a bunch of weapons," said Hyde, who believes the talent is deeper in Tampa than it was on the New England Super Bowl title teams. "He has weapons all over the field, from the tight end positions to the receivers to the backs. The offensive line is very, very good. I think he's just getting the ball in his weapons' hands and letting them just operate. And as you can tell, it's tough for defenses to key in on certain guys because they've got guys all over the field."