TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) Opening day is finally upon us! The Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin their regular season against the San Francisco 49ers at Raymond James Stadium.
It is the debut of head coach Bruce Arians and the rollout of the Bucs new look 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who once played quarterback for the Bucs, has spent the past eight months getting quarterback Jameis Winston comfortable in the Arians offensive scheme.
The developing story on Saturday was the addition of rookie linebacker Devin White to the Bucs injury report, as he became the latest member of the team to contract the flu. Earlier in the week, linebacker Demone Harris was ill and wide receiver Mike Evans became sick late during the game-week build up. All three players are questionable, although Evans will have had more recovery time than White.
This game feels almost like a “must win” given the difficulty of the Bucs early schedule with a Thursday night road game at Carolina followed by the New York Giants at home, then five consecutive games away from Tampa.
Here are three keys to watch for on opening day:
1. Full Jameis is a go
After limited action during the preseason, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston gets to showcase what he has learned in the new offense and, if healthy, Mike Evans will begin his quest for a sixth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving year. Winston’s up and down practices during training camp were highlighted by solid performances during the preseason. His first drive in Pittsburgh was nearly perfect, an 81-yard touchdown drive. But the offensive line did not match its production in games two and three and Winston felt pressure, testing his decision making and ability to avoid the pass rush. Winston was sacked five times by the Cleveland Browns in the third preseason game and he will be chased by a very formidable defensive front for the 49ers.
Last season, Winston passed for 312 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 27-9 win over the 49ers. He was aided by a combined rushing effort that eclipsed 100 yards. The Bucs must be balanced again today.
2. Is the arsenal intact?
Tight end Cam Brate was hampered during the preseason by a calf injury. He eventually returned to full practice during this game week but his condition will be in the spotlight. With Brate on the field, the Bucs two-tight end set makes mismatches possible for O.J. Howard. The other question will be the health of Mike Evans, who is likely to play but will certainly feel the effects of a hot, late afternoon start in September. The connection between Evans and Jameis Winston is growing into one of the best in the game. Now Winston, who will not have DeSean Jackson or Adam Humphries as targets, must develop more chemistry with receiver Chris Godwin and improve his deep ball to the speedy receiver Breshad Perrriman. Intact, the Bucs passing attack has the opportunity to dominate opponents.
3. Will Vea and Suh break through?
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians praises his entire defense throughout training camp and the all-around improved play was the result of the three down linemen on the line. The combination of Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh will draw attention as a pass rush but it is the run-stopping ability that must be its strength. The Bucs were consistently beaten by running attacks in 2018. In this very matchup, former Nature Coast star running back Matt Breida ran for 106 yards, keeping a backup quarterback in the mix until the Bucs put the game away. Suh’s sack total has never been the top line of his resume. He will draw double blocks and if Vea can match that pressure, the rushing linebackers should have a big day.
Throughout the preseason, Bucs defensive backs intercepted and broke up passes. Arians is confident that will continue in the regular season because of the amount of plays he witnessed at practice and in the preseason games. The backfield will be without starting safety Justin Evans who did not practice this week with an achilles injury. Impressive rookie Mike Edwards is also banged up, leaving the Bucs with Jordan Whitehead at the back and other players filling in. The biggest improvement fans will notice will be on the corners as Vernon Hargreaves III has settled back into his traditional one on one roll and less nickel coverage.