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Lions vs. Buccaneers 5Qs playoff preview: Tampa Bay’s offense more ‘in sync’ since Week 6 matchup

A divisional round playoff preview with Evan Wanish about the matchup between the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

During tomorrow’s mid-afternoon slot, the Detroit Lions host their second playoff game, a rematch from Week 6 with the NFC South winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs knocked off the defending NFC Champion Philadelphia Ealges in the first round of the 2023 NFL Playoffs, and they did it decidedly, 32-9.

As always, we would never pass up the opportunity to get some intel from the opponent’s perspective. Ahead of this matchup between the Lions and Buccaneers, we called Evan Wanish from to give us some insight into Tampa Bay’s growth since these two teams met over three months ago, the Bucs commitment to running the football, and what’s something to know about Baker Mayfield for your betting slip.

Detroit versus Tampa Bay is one of three rematches scheduled for the NFL’s divisional round, but looking back at a Week 6 matchup between these two teams hardly seems like an indicator of what’s to come this Sunday.

The Buccaneers loss to the Lions was the start of a four-game slide, but winning five of their final six games led them to their third straight NFC South title. What did the Bucs learn during their early-season skid, and what’s the biggest difference between the team the Lions faced in Week 6 and the group that just annihilated the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card round?

I think the biggest difference between the Bucs then and the Bucs now is that the offense is much more in sync. Back in Week 6, Tampa was still trying to work in a brand new offensive system with a brand new QB and multiple younger players. There were growing pains in that process but over the last 6-7 weeks outside of a few performances, the Bucs offense has been a real strength and a big reason why they are in the position they are in right now.

When we talked earlier this season, the Bucs shared the best turnover differential in the NFL heading into Week 6 with the San Francisco 49ers (+7), but finished the season 9th in the NFL with a +8 differential. Tampa Bay got off to a torrid pace of 10 takeaways through four games, the Bucs forced 16 turnovers over their last 13.

Did water just happen to find its level with this defense’s ability to force turnovers? And the Bucs only coughed up the ball 18 times (10 interceptions, 8 fumbles lost) this year–only five teams had fewer giveaways in 2023. How important has ball security been for this football team’s ability to win games?

I do think things just leveled out when it came to the turnovers the defense was forcing. The early season success of taking the ball away was great but ultimately not sustainable. Protecting the football has been a huge key for Tampa Bay this year. The Bucs are 0-5 this season when the offense commits two or more turnovers. That has been a huge point of emphasis for Tampa Bay this year. The Bucs goal is to play complementary football and protect the ball as much as possible, but they also like to take their shots down the field, it’s just not as often as it was when Bruce Arians and Tom Brady were in town.

For a Tampa Bay rushing offense that ranked 28th in rush DVOA this year, do you have a reason to be optimistic the Bucs could run the football against one of the best run defenses in the NFL? If not, how has Tampa Bay’s offense sustained itself when they’ve needed to rely on the pass to move the ball down field?

If I had to bet, I would say the Bucs probably won’t be able to run the ball for much success this week, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try. Offensive coordinator Dave Canales likes to try and establish the run early and work play action and bootlegs off of that, so I would expect Tampa Bay to try and run the ball. If they can’t, however, I think you see them try to get the ball in the hands of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in space and try and let them break a tackle or two and head up field, which worked well last week even if Godwin and Evans weren’t as involved. Is that type of game plan sustainable? It’s tough because you don’t know what type of game you are going to get out of Baker Mayfield. If he’s on and is given the time in the pocket, this Bucs team can really sling it.

On paper, Tampa Bay’s defense seems to be an underrated and overlooked story this year in the NFL. Really good against the run (fourth in yards per carry) and 8th in run defense DVOA. They rank 14th in pass defense an overall defense DVOA, but it has some star power to their advantage (Vita Vea, Antoine Winfield Jr., and the eternal Lavonte David).

Who are some players who have made a bigger difference on defense than expected this season?

There are a lot of players that deserve some credit for Tampa Bay’s defense being as good as it’s been. Rookies Calijah Kancey and Yaya Diaby have made instant impacts and Diaby even lead the team in sacks in the regular season with 7.5 despite not being named a starter until week 12. Those two deserve a lot of recognition, but the unsung heroes are guys like defensive back Zyon McCollum, who has made great strides in his second season, linebacker K.J. Britt who figures to be in the starting lineup for the team in 2024 and undrafted free agent Christian Izien. The depth that general manager Jason Licht has built this team with has been outstanding and while the stars have been the stars, the defense would certainly not be as effective without those players that I mentioned.

Each week, I’ve asked other writers about any sort of wisdom they’d share for the week’s game, but I have to shoehorn the topic of Baker Mayfield into this question because DraftKings makes the rules.

What’re a few nuggets of intel about Baker Mayfield’s play that a gambling Lions fan would find useful for their bet slip this weekend? Maybe give us your favorite line if you’re feeling generous.

[Note: You can catch the latest odds here at DraftKings Sportsbook]

Even though they didn’t do it as often last week, running back Rachaad White has become a favorite of Mayfield’s in the passing game. Part of the offense’s evolution lately has been the involvement of White. I would feel good about taking the over prop on both White receiving yards at 21.5 and receptions at 3.5.

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