Whie it feels like each team’s performance this season has diminished the hype around this matchup, we are still likely to be in for an emotional game on Sunday Night Football when the Kansas City Chiefs (2-1) travel to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) at Raymond James Stadium.
After opening as favorites by two or more points, the Chiefs head into the weekend as one-point underdogs, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
The anticipation for the game could also be clouded by the devastation that was (and still is) Hurricane Ian; the storm hit large portions of Florida, causing incredible damage to many communities. I have to admit: it makes cheering on a football team feel weird.
That said, once the players hit the field, a lot of them will feel the intensity from the matchups two years ago, when the two teams split a season series — the second being a Buccaneers win in Super Bowl LV.
I envision a passionate performance from both sides. Here are five things to watch.
1. Offensive line responding to challenge
Earlier this week, the leader of the Buccaneers’ pass rush scoffed at the idea that the Chiefs’ offensive line has improved since Super Bowl LV.
In that game, quarterback Patrick Mahomes was under pressure on 56% of his dropbacks; three of those turned into sacks, while eight other plays resulted in a hit on the passer. So far this season, Mahomes has experienced pressure on 37% of his dropbacks — with only two sacks total.
This year, Tampa Bay’s defense has been getting after the quarterback; they have the sixth-highest team-pressure rate and the league’s third-most sacks (11). On top of that, their run defense has been stifling: they have allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards this season.
So the offensive line has something to prove by keeping Mahomes clean and creating more space in the running game. I’m excited to see how the group responds.
2. The secondary’s toughest test yet
Kansas City’s secondary has earned the praise it has received this season — but on Sunday, it is facing the GOAT.
Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady will test them. He will have wide receiver Mike Evans back from a one-game suspension — along with veteran slot receiver Cole Beasley, who should be further integrated into the offense. Wide receiver Chris Godwin (hamstring) is a game-time decision to return.
Brady is great at getting the ball out quickly; this year, no quarterback has a lower average time between the snap and the throw (2.22 seconds). He’ll have to do that to counter some holes in pass protection — but it’s also where he’s at his best: taking every inch the defense gives.
So whether it’s an outside cornerback facing Evans on a quick jump ball, a slot cornerback keeping up with the shifty Beasley or having to tackle a powerful receiver in space like Godwin, the entire Chiefs secondary will be tested.
3. Wide receivers stepping up
The Buccaneers’ defense has been built to defend the ways in which the Kansas City passing game has been at its best this season.
Their two off-ball linebackers — Lavonte David and Devin White — don’t come off the field. David has the feel in coverage to reduce the effectiveness of Mahomes’ connection with tight end Travis Kelce, while White’s athleticism has been utilized to corral running backs on screen passes and other quick-hitters.
Those two areas are where the Chiefs’ passing game has found the most success this year; the wide receivers have not been the difference makers. But in this game, they’ll need to be. They’ll have to take advantage of a Tampa Bay defense that typically trusts man coverage.
With wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (abdomen) popping up on Friday’s injury report as questionable, the game may become an opportunity for rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore — who has the skills to give the group a boost by creating separation and beating man coverage.
4. Continuing to stuff the opposing running game
This season, the Kansas City defense has allowed the league’s fifth-lowest yards per rushing attempt. During the last two weeks, its play against the run has been a big factor in the unit’s impressive performances.
Against Tampa Bay’s downhill running game (featuring power rusher Leonard Fournette), the Chiefs will once again need to bring their A-game. It will require an aggressive mindset from the defensive front, matching the physicality that Fournette brings on every run.
There’s no question that linebacker Nick Bolton will bring the pop to every tackle. But this game will be another good challenge for linebacker Darius Harris, who is filling in for suspended linebacker Willie Gay Jr. In his debut last week, Harris racked up 13 tackles and one tackle for loss.
It will also be also important for the defensive line to remain stout — because it makes their job much easier on...
5. Third down
Tampa Bay will want to stay ahead of the sticks, avoiding third down as much as possible. Why? Because this year, the offense hasn’t been great in those situations.
The Buccaneers’ have the 28th-ranked third-down offense this year, converting only 29% of their opportunities. Brady is only completing 53% of his passes on third down and has been sacked four times on 33 dropbacks.
A lot of this has to do with the injuries to the offensive line — especially on the interior. The inexperience at center and left guard have made the interior of the pocket penetrable. That has defensive tackle Chris Jones’ name written all over it. The Buccaneers’ starting left tackle Donovan Smith may return from an elbow injury he suffered in Week 1, but it was reported to be another game-time decision.
Either way, Kansas City’s defensive line knows the deal: the better they play on early downs, the further away the first-down marker will be on third down — meaning that Brady will have to hold the ball longer, waiting for routes to develop. That’s a recipe for a productive pass rush.