The Seahawks and Buccaneers both head to Munich this week to face off in the first NFL regular-season game played in Germany. To learn more about this week's opponent, we reached out to buccaneers.com senior reporter and editor Scott Smith.
The Bucs won in crazy fashion on Sunday to snap a three-game losing streak. Just how important was that one, not just in terms of the standings but what it can do for the team's morale/confidence?
Smith: I think it was critical, particularly because of the way it ended. After the two most successful consecutive seasons in franchise history, these Buccaneers had come to expect some certain outcomes – the passing game would be explosive, the defense would stop the run, the turnovers would come in bunches, and so would the points – but those cornerstones just haven't been there for most of this season. But a Tom Brady miracle comeback for a last-minute win?! Now that's something we recognize! I think it gives the team some hope that some other hallmarks of the past two seasons can be recaptured as well. And, at the simplest level, 4-5 and a tie for first in the division (with a tiebreaker in hand), looks a lot better than 3-6 with a four-game losing streak. The 10-hour flight to Munich will surely be a lot more comfortable coming off a win that has the Bucs right back in the driver's seat in the division. All of that said, the Bucs were one 60-yard, 35-second drive from remaining in the "darkness," as Todd Bowles put it. This team knows it still has significant issues to correct, from a stuck-in-neutral rushing attack to a sudden inability to create turnovers to persistent red zone stalls.
Expectations were high for Tampa Bay coming into the season—the presence of Tom Brady tends to do that for teams—what issues have contributed to the slow start, particularly on offense?
Smith: It's funny, because everyone analyzing the team during its struggles wants to find some strategic reasons for the offensive downturn – unimaginative play-calling, running too much, running too little, not throwing downfield – when the root cause is the oldest story in the book: personnel turnover. After winning Super Bowl LV, the 2021 Buccaneers famously 'kept the gang together,' pulling out all the stops to bring back every starter and virtually every contributor for another run. The Bucs weren't able to capture a second straight title, but the offense was as explosive as ever. In fact, it improved from 2020 to 2021 in most categories, including, most basically, points scored. However, that kind of season-over-season stability is the exception in the NFL, not the rule.
Just like the Rams are struggling without Andrew Whitworth and Odell Beckham and Von Miller, etc., the Buccaneers are learning how they have to operate in a world without Rob Gronkowski, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa on offense. It hasn't been easy. Gronkowski's presence as Brady's go-to guy down the seams and his underrated significance to the running game has been hard to replace. Similarly, rebuilding the entire interior O-Line on the fly – Jensen was lost to a training camp injury – has led to some growing pains. The Bucs' running backs have had difficulty finding lanes and Tom Brady is getting rid of the ball faster than ever. That approach worked very well in 2021 when defenses schemed away the big plays, but it hasn't clicked nearly as well in 2022.
Other than the obvious big names, who is a player or players you think could be an X-factor for Tampa Bay this weekend?
Smith: Does Antoine Winfield Jr. count as a big name? He made the Pro Bowl last year but I'm not sure how many NFL fans outside of Florida know just how good he is. He has missed the last two-and-a-half games with a concussion and the Buccaneers had to shuffle a lot of pieces around because of what he normally brings to the defense. This season he's playing a dual role, as a traditional safety in the Bucs' base defense and the slot corner in sub packages. That means he's close to the line of scrimmage on about 60-70% of the snaps, and that's where he's been making so many big plays. He's got 3.0 sacks on slot blitzes, he's a heat-seeking missile on runs and screens to the outside and he's one of the team's surest tacklers, at any position. If he can clear the concussion protocol and make it back for Sunday's game, he'll give the defense a big boost.
On offense, keep an eye on rookie tight end Cade Otton. That's one of the toughest positions for a rookie to handle in the NFL, but he's a football lifer – he played for his grandfather at Tumwater High School back in your state, then the University of Washington – and he just seems to do all the little things right. Nobody is expecting him to be Gronk, and his production in the early month was relatively minimal. But Brady is starting to look his way more often, and he did so twice on that aforementioned game-winning possession against the Rams, on a 28-yard catch over the middle that got the drive moving and the final one-yard touchdown catch. Otton has really good hands and has made several catches in traffic this season, holding on despite taking some hard hits.
What matchup or matchup are you most looking forward to seeing play out in Sunday's game?
Smith: There are two battles in the trenches that I find very intriguing. Assuming I'm correct in reading from his Next Gen Stats pre-snap heat map, it looks like the Seahawks are using new edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu on both sides at various times. If that's true, then he's going to get some snaps against right tackle Tristan Wirfs, and that's going to feature two big and quick men playing excellent football. I don't need to tell you that John Schneider's offseason personnel moves are looking awfully good right now, and the very reasonable Nwosu signing is right up there near the top. I understand that new DC Clint Hurtt said during the offseason that the number-one thing he needed was a "game-wrecker" off the edge, and it looks like he got one. A career-high seven sacks already! I already know how great of a player Wirfs is; I'm looking forward to seeing Nwosu in person and finding out which one controls that matchup.
For the Bucs' defense, I'm honing in on Vita Vea against Austin Blythe, another new addition for the Seahawks that is working out well, I understand. Vea racked up two more sacks in the win over the Rams and now has 6.5 on the season, already a career high and outstanding output from a nose tackle. Akiem Hicks returned from a six-game absence to join Vea in a huge front and that allowed the coaches to scheme up some ways to get Vea free. He was already a Pro Bowler last year without a huge sack total because he makes such a huge impact while soaking up double teams. I heard Shane Waldron refer to Blythe as "smart, tough and reliable," and laud his ability to keep bigger defenders off his body and to quickly get his hands in a good place after the snap. With top edge rusher Shaq Barrett on injured reserve, the Buccaneers are depending on Vea to provide more of a pass rush, so if Blythe can keep that from happening it could be a significant factor in the game's outcome.
Go behind the scenes with NFL Network's "Good Morning Football" as they record live from Munich, Germany on November 10, 2022 in advance of the Seahawks vs. Buccaneers for Week 10 of the 2022 season.