Welcome to the 2020 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the NFC’s wild card games will take place at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, as Washington will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here’s what you should know:
BUCS’ OFFENSE IS LOADED WITH TALENT
Six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady has played in a bunch of different types of offenses in his career. From a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, to an offense revolving around tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.
For the better part of the last 20 years, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer was the triggerman for this attack with the New England Patriots. Until now. Brady, seeking a new chapter elsewhere, departed over the offseason to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has adjusted to head coach Bruce Arians’ downfield, vertical passing scheme quite well. Brady, even at age 43, has shown little signs of slowing down – accumulating 4,633 passing yards (the fifth-most of his 21-year career) and 40 touchdowns, the second-most he has had as a pro behind his 50 in 2007.
Helping Brady out is a plethora of dangerous options in the passing game. Before he signed in Tampa, wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin – a pair of fast and big-bodied red zone targets – were productive, but it seemed as if they had potential to do more damage in the NFL than they had with former signal caller Jameis Winston. Evans has responded with a career-high 13 touchdowns and Godwin was on pace to tie his career-bests in receptions and touchdowns despite playing in only 12 games.
Bolstering the depth of this high-flying offense beyond deep threat Scotty Miller and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard (who was lost for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon) were a pair of veteran imports – Gronkowski and Antonio Brown. Brown, the enigmatic former All-Pro, is still as dangerous of a route-runner as ever and posted 45 catches and four touchdowns in just eight games (a projected rate of 90 receptions and eight scores over a full season).
Gronkowski – one of the league’s best to ever play tight end – can do it all, including blocking at a high level, and can execute almost any route and catch any ball that Brady throws to him. The wear and tear of nine NFL seasons, plus a myriad of injuries, forced him to take a year off in 2019 after winning a third Super Bowl with the Patriots, but came out of retirement to team up with his former quarterback again. “Gronk” got off to a bit of a slow start in 2020 while trying to get reacclimated to pro football, but ended the season tied for second on the team in touchdowns.
The Bucs also boast many options at running back. Ronald Jones had a career-high 1,143 yards from scrimmage and is backed up short-yardage specialist Leonard Fournette and former All-Pro LeSean McCoy. They run behind an underrated offensive line made up of Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa and Tristan Wirfs, who had an impressive rookie year at right tackle.
TAMPA DEFENSE IS AGGRESSIVE AND COMPLEX
Coordinator Todd Bowles – one of the NFL’s best defensive minds – runs a 3-4 scheme that is characterized by multiple fronts and blitzes, and uses plenty of stunts and slants at the line of scrimmage to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On the back end, Bowles prefers man-press coverage to take away quick throws and disrupt timing between wideouts and pass distributors – a stark contrast to the old “Tampa Two” zone coverage that the Buccaneers leaned on for nearly 25 years.
Up front, Tampa Bay has an excellent front-seven. Veterans Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and trade deadline pickup Steve McClendon – McClendon came over from the New York Jets in a trade after starting nose tackle Vita Vea was knocked out for 2020 with a broken ankle – are the team’s main defensive linemen. Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are a scary one-two punch at outside linebacker and have had much success as pocket disrupters throughout their careers, and inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David might be the fastest pair at their positions in pro football.
While the Bucs were the best defense in the league against the run and fourth in sacks, they were just 21st against the pass and could probably stand to add some talent in their secondary. Beyond promising safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead, their cornerbacks – Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Ross Cockrell – leave a lot to be desired.
WASHINGTON HAS SOME OFFENSIVE PLAYMAKERS
Longtime Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera took over Washington’s football team before the start of 2020 and has changed the identity of their playbook. Having been rooted in the West Coast offense under previous coaches Jay Gruden, Mike Shanahan and Jim Zorn, Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner (the son of former Washington coach Norv Turner) have brought Washington back to an Air Coryell-style system, featuring deep-to-intermediate passing and power runs – a type of attack not seen in D.C. since Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs roamed their sidelines.
Washington seemed to have their signal caller of the future in former Ohio State Buckeye Dwayne Haskins, but his poor play and off the field antics led the team to release him and hand the starting reigns back to 16-year veteran Alex Smith. The 36-year-old Smith, who recovered from a horrific leg injury two years ago which nearly forced him to lose that limb, is still an efficient passer, but remains conservative in his decision-making and rarely attempts aggressive throws down the field.
Smith may not start this weekend because of a calf injury. Should he not be ready to go, backup Taylor Heinicke would fill in for him. Heinicke has limited arm strength and needs defined reads for him to scan defenses, along with a clean pocket.
Running back Antonio Gibson was a revelation as a rookie, notching over 1,000 combined rushing and receiving yards and 11 scores, while scatback J.D. McKissic compiled 80 catches out of the backfield and in the slot. Peyton Barber operates as a short-yardage back.
Wide receiver Terry McLaurin improved upon his impressive rookie season by posting career-highs with 87 catches and 1,118 yards, while fellow wideouts Steven Sims Jr. and Cam Sims remain useful. Tight end Logan Thomas had a breakout season in his first full year as a starter at that position having transitioned there from quarterback earlier in his career.
Four-time Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff and right tackle Morgan Moses are Washington’s best offensive linemen and they are joined by Wes Schweitzer, Chase Roullier and Cornelius Lucas in the team’s starting lineup.
DITTO THEIR DEFENSE
Rivera’s defensive play-caller, former Raiders and Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, has transitioned this unit into a 4-3 scheme that is a departure from the 3-4 that past coaches preferred and has his charges playing at a high level – so high, in fact, that Washington ended 2020 with the second-least amount of passing yards allowed and racked up 47 sacks – the sixth-best number in football.
Those numbers came courtesy of an elevated blitz rate – Del Rio has sent five or more pass rusher at the opposition around 40 percent of the time this year – and a deep defensive line. Boasting veteran Ryan Kerrigan and recent first-round draft picks Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, Washington – like Tampa – can win at the line of scrimmage with stunts, slants and twists to create confusion for rival offensive lines.
The team employs respectable linebackers like Cole Holcomb, Jon Bostic, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Mychal Kendricks and Thomas Davis (who will miss Saturday’s game with a knee ailment). Holcomb, along with safety Kamren Curl, have become important cogs in Del Rio’s nickel packages, and Curl starts along with fellow defensive backs Kendall Fuller, Ronald Darby and Jeremy Reaves (who is filling in for the injure Landon Collins).