TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope to give their fans an early holiday present with a fifth consecutive win when they host the Houston Texans at Raymond James Stadium at 1:00 pm. The Bucs have a chance to climb over the .500 mark for the first time this season. They enter the day at 7-7 and will have a national television audience. This matchup is the first of three Saturday NFL games, each one with playoff implications.
While the Bucs are eliminated from the NFC playoff race, they can impact the race in the AFC South as the Texans have yet to seal up a division title and at 9-5 are trying to hold off a charging Tennessee Titans team that begins the weekend at 8-6. The team that finishes second in the AFC South is unlikely to snatch one of the two wild card spots.
Here are three things to watch for in today’s game:
Who is Winston throwing to?
The Bucs wide receiver corps was decimated in the previous two games. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller each suffered hamstring injuries. For Evans, the injury was serious enough to shut him down for the final three games. He was placed on injured reserve and the scramble to fill roster spots began.
Two players were added to the roster for this game, wise receivers Cyril Grayson and Spencer Schnell, a receiver that spent the entire offseason program and training camp with the Bucs. They will provide depth along with Ismael Hyman, who made his first catch with the Bucs last week in a crucial 3rd down situation.
Despite the personnel losses, the Bucs have a strong passing attack that will give quarterback Jameis Winston a chance to put up big numbers. Winston enters the game as the league’s top passer with 4,573 yards, just over 200 yards more than Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys. The hottest combination for Winston right now is wide receiver Breshad Perriman, whose breakout second half of the season has turned heads. Perriman posted a career-high 113 yards last week against the Lions and hauled in three touchdowns. Justin Watson has also taken on a bigger role in the offense as well as playing the feature punt returner role.
Tight ends O.J. Howard and Cam Brate will also see bigger workloads as Winston works through his progressions. Look for both players to enjoy room across the middle unless they are forced into more pass protection.
Can the defense solve Watson?
Today’s game has the potential to be an offensive shootout. The Bucs defense will have its hands full with a passing attack run by MVP candidate Deshaun Watson. The Texans quarterback has thrown 26 touchdown passes this season with just 11 interceptions. His top target is one of the league’s big names, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who is enjoying another successful season at more than 1,100 yards and counting.
Yardage surrendered, the Bucs pass defense is still near the bottom of the league but when all three levels are complimentary, plays are there for the making. A good example happened last week when Sean Murphy-Bunting could not hang on to Lions receiver Danny Amendola on a play where quarterback David Blough had time to let the play develop. The result was a 46-yard completion and first and goal, setting up a Detroit touchdown. Later in the 4th quarter, Murphy-Bunting read Blough’s hot route, when the pass rush forced him to move to his left. Murphy-Bunting intercepted the pass and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown.
A Hargreaves homecoming
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III returns home to Tampa for a game that could easily billed as a revenge game but the Bucs have actually improved in his absence, so any animosity must be shelved in favor of concentration.
It was an awkward exit when Hargreaves was released in November, two days after he was benched in a game for not hustling. It was clear at that time that Hargreaves had been either warned or told that his actions were being watched and head coach Bruce Arians had finally seen enough. Liked in the locker room and a presence after games that was accountable for good or bad moments, it was difficult to imagine a behind-the-scenes scenario that led to the outright release of a former first round pick.
Hargreaves enjoyed some big moments with Tampa Bay, most recently his 4th down stop of Panthers running back Luke Kuechly preserving a Bucs victory back in week two but he was the example for an extremely young core of defensive backs and their play has emerged without Hargreaves in the room or on the field.