2022 Game Preview: Bengals-Buccaneers, Week 15


KEY 2022 ROSTER ADDITIONS

  • P Jake Camarda (fourth-round draft pick)
  • WR Russell Gage (UFA)
  • G Luke Goedeke (second-round draft pick)
  • DL Logan Hall (second-round draft pick)
  • T Fred Johnson (FA)
  • WR Julio Jones (FA)
  • TE Ko Kieft (sixth-round draft pick)
  • G Shaq Mason (trade–NE)
  • CB Zyon McCollum (fifth-round draft pick)
  • OLB Carl Nassib (FA)
  • S Keanu Neal (UFA)
  • TE Cade Otton (fourth-round draft pick)
  • TE Kyle Rudolph (FA)
  • S Logan Ryan (FA)
  • RB Rachaad White (third-round draft pick)
  • G Alex Cappa (UFA)
  • DT Zach Carter (third-round draft pick)
  • T La’el Collins (FA)
  • S Dax Hill (first-round draft pick)
  • TE Hayden Hurst (UFA)
  • C Ted Karras (UFA)
  • CB Cam Taylor-Britt (second-round draft pick)
  • G Cordell Volson (fourth-round draft pick)

ADDITIONAL 2022 CHANGES OF NOTE

·    While the Bucs continue to maintain enviable continuity on their coaching staff, there is a new person in the corner office. In March, Bruce Arians stepped down after three years as the head coach and took on a new role as a senior advisor to the general manager. Todd Bowles was promoted from defensive coordinator to take his place. Bowles previously served as the New York Jets’ head coach from 2015-18 before rejoining Arians when the latter came on as the Buccaneers’ head coach in 2019.

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·    With Bowles stepping up the Bucs needed a new defensive coordinator and they essentially named two of them. Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers added the title of Run Game Coordinator while Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote switched to inside linebackers and added the title of Pass Game Coordinator. They are in effect co-defensive coordinators. Bob Sanders joined the staff to take over for Foote in the outside linebackers room. Foote made his switch after Inside Linebackers Coach Mike Caldwell landed the defensive coordinator position in Jacksonville under new Head Coach Doug Pederson.

·    The Buccaneers had two key players retire after the 2021 season, but only one of them stayed retired. While quarterback Tom Brady eventually elected to return 40 days after announcing he was stepping away from the game, his long-time buddy Rob Gronkowski walked away for good, leading to big changes in the Bucs’ tight end room. While veteran Cam Brate returned, O.J. Howard left in free agency and the Buccaneers subsequently drafted Cade Otton and Ko Kieft and signed veteran Kyle Rudolph.

·    Tampa Bay’s defense also saw the departure of two front-seven stalwarts from the extremely successful 2020-21 seasons, as neither DL Ndamukong Suh nor OLB Jason Pierre-Paul was re-signed. The team signed veteran standout Akiem Hicks and drafted Houston’s Logan Hall 33rd overall to address depth up front and are relying on 2021 first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka to step up on the edge.

·    The sweeping changes that the Bengals made to one position group in particular is hinted at in the relatively short list of 2022 roster additions in the previous section. The Bengals made it all the way to Super Bowl LVI last season but their young star quarterback, Joe Burrow, was sacked 51 times during the regular season and another seven times in the Super Bowl. Of the five players who started that title game on the Bengals’ offensive line, only left tackle Jonah Williams still has his job. Left guard Quinton Spain was not re-signed when he hit free agency, center Trey Hopkins was released in March, right guard Hakeem Adeniji is now a backup and right tackle Isaiah Price is on the practice squad. Riley Reiff, who was signed to be the right tackle but landed on injured reserve in December, was also not re-signed. In came Alex Cappa from the Bucs to play right guard, Ted Karras from the Patriots to play center and La’el Collins from the Cowboys (after being released) to play right tackle. The makeover was completed when fourth-round pick Cordell Volson won the left guard spot, where he has started every game this year. Burrow has still been sacked 36 times through 12 games, but at least the Bengals have improved from 31st in sacks allowed per pass play last year to 21st this season.

·    The Bengals used their franchise tag on standout safety Jessie Bates during the offseason, which led to the disgruntled fifth-year veteran skipping the voluntary offseason program and holding out well into training camp. However, Bates eventually reported to the team and signed the one-year tag to make it his contract for the 2022 season. Cincinnati had given itself a second option at the position by drafting Michigan safety Dax Hill with the 31st overall pick.

·    Head Coach Zac Taylor has managed to keep his three coordinators intact throughout his first four seasons in Cincinnati, but there were a couple of changes to his staff. Linebackers Coach Al Golden left to become the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame so the Bengals hired James Bettcher off the 49ers’ staff, where he had been a senior defensive assistant in 2021, to fill that spot. With Steve Jackson also departing after one season coaching the cornerbacks, Cincinnati also hired Charles Burks off the Dolphins staff for that role. In addition, Derek Frazier came aboard as an assistant offensive line coach.

·    The longest-tenured non-special teamer on the Bengals’ Super Bowl roster, tight end C.J. Uzomah signed a three-year deal with the Jets in free agency. In addition, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who had a career sevens sacks after coming from across the state following four years in Cleveland, left in free agency as well. Ogunjobi initially signed with the Bears, but that deal fell through when he failed his physical. (Ogunjobi had suffered a foot injury in the playoffs.) Ogunjobi later signed a one-year deal with the Steelers.

·    The longest-tenured Bengal among all players heading into 2022 was punter Kevin Huber, who had held that job since 2009 and as of Week Nine had played in a franchise-record 216 games. However, Cincinnati spent the past three games auditioning first-year punter Drue Chrisman by elevating him from the practice squad each week, and on Tuesday the Bengals decided to give Chrisman the job for good, cutting Huber. Huber, who was born and raised in Cincinnati and even played his college ball at the University of Cincinnati, has since re-signed to the Bengals’ practice squad.

TOP STORYLINES

Who’s In and Who’s Out? – As the Buccaneers try to rebound from a lopsided loss in San Francisco and find their footing for the final four-game stretch run, they have some new issues in the training room to overcome. The Bucs played the 49ers without such notable figure as right tackle Tristan Wirfs, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and starting safeties Mike Edwards and Antoine Winfield Jr. Todd Bowles indicated on Wednesday that he didn’t believe Wirfs would be ready to face the Bengals but there is hope for the three defensive backs, especially Murphy-Bunting, who was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice. That would be helpful given that starting cornerback Jamel Dean will likely miss Sunday’s game with a fresh toe injury. Mountainous nose tackle Vita Vea also has a new calf injury and is unlikely to play in Week 15, according to Bowles. In addition, the outside linebacker position could be thin with Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Carl Nassib and Genard Avery all on the injury report. The Bengals, meanwhile, are dealing with injuries to two-thirds of their incredible receiver duo, as Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd missed most of last week’s game due to finger and hamstring ailments, respectively.

Whither the NFC South? – In 2014, the Carolina Panthers played in Atlanta in the final regular-season week with the division title on the line. Carolina won, 34-3, to keep the top spot and barrel into the postseason with a … wait, a 7-8-1 record? It’s true. With four games to go in 2022, the Buccaneers are 6-7 but still in first place in the NFC South. That spot in the standing figures to be in jeopardy every week until the season ends, and this week is no exception. The right – or rather, the wrong – combination of results this week could actually see the Panthers take over first place. Most importantly, the Buccaneers have a home game against Carolina in Week 17 and a trip to Atlanta in Week 18, which will give them an opportunity to take care of their own business. However, continued struggles over the next two weeks could potentially put the Buccaneers into absolute must-win mode over those last two weeks. Will the South stay tight for the next month, or will one team pull away?

Giving Tom Time – Tom Brady’s prettiest throw in San Francisco last weekend didn’t even count. What appeared to be a game-tying 68-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans down the right sideline came back due to a holding call on Donovan Smith. The unanswerable question is whether Brady would have had time to get the throw off if Smith hadn’t held. Either way, the Buccaneers’ long-time standout left tackle has clearly struggled in recent weeks, racking up a handful of costly penalties. Meanwhile, the team’s All-Pro on the other end of the line, Tristan Wirfs, is currently sidelined by an ankle injury, pressing Josh Wells into action. Brady actually executed 55 dropbacks without taking a single sack in San Francisco, but he was clearly pressured on a number of plays and had to get off a few desperation throw-aways to avoid going down. Head Coach Todd Bowles said again this week that Brady is throwing the ball as well as ever despite playing his age-45 season, and that passes the eye test. But every quarterback in the league is more effective when given ample time to throw, and the Buccaneers hope to provide that to Brady this week in order to keep up with a high-scoring Bengals’ offense.

Sweating Joe Cool – Meanwhile, Joe Burrow has mounted a strong follow-up to his breakout 2021 campaign, when he led Cincinnati all the way to Super Bowl LVI and radiated nearly visible waves of confidence the entire ride. The story of the Bengals’ post-Super Bowl offseason was their effort to tear down and rebuild an offensive line that allowed Burrow to be sack 70 times over the regular season and postseason combined. Burrow has still been sacked 35 times in 13 games, tied for the fourth most in the league, but it’s still an improvement over last season and the offense has hummed right along. The Buccaneers would like to disrupt Burrow’s timing and possibly force him into mistakes to create the elusive turnover, but they are coming off a game in which they recorded no sacks of rookie quarterback Brock Purdy and they have a banged-up edge-rushing group and no Vita Vea to pull away blockers. If they can generate a decent amount of pressure on the young Bengals passer they will have a better shot at getting back to the more effective defensive results they were posting before the trip to California.

NFC Pride – Technically, the Bucs’ game against Cincinnati is the least important one remaining on the schedule because a loss wouldn’t weaken the team’s most important playoff tiebreakers. Still, the game is obviously very important, and it also offers the Buccaneers one last opportunity to avoid an interconference sweep. The Bucs’ first four games against AFC teams – Kansas City in Week Four, Pittsburgh in Week Six, Baltimore in Week Eight and Cleveland in Week 12 – all resulted in losses. The Buccaneers were poised to get their first interconference win while in Cleveland before the Browns stormed back with a late comeback and a field goal in overtime. In addition, Cincinnati is seeking a sweep of its own, with an opportunity to beat every team in the NFC South. The Bengals already took down the Saints and Falcons in back-to-back weeks in October, then swamped the Panthers, 42-21, two weeks after that. This is the Bucs’ chance to stand up for the South, and the NFC in general.

KEY MATCHUPS

1. Buccaneers C Robert Hainsey vs. Bengals NT D.J. Reader

Seventh-year veteran DJ. Reader is an iceberg in the middle of the Bengals’ defensive front, and if the Buccaneers want to keep their between-the-tackles running game from sinking they’re going to have to find a way to keep him out of their lanes. A good portion of that will fall to Hainsey, who has put together a solid first season as the Bucs’ starting center in the absence of injured Pro Bowler Robert Hainsey. Though he doesn’t have a sack yet this season and has compiled only 8.5 in his career, Reader can still blow up the pocket from the middle with his powerful bull-rush. He also creates opportunities for other Bengals pass-rushers by occupying blockers. Last week in San Francisco, Hainsey was part of a blocking effort that kept Tom Brady from being sacked despite dropping back 55 times. That tied for the most dropbacks without a sack for a quarterback in Buccaneers history.

2. Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase vs. Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis

Here’s Buccaneers Head Coach Todd Bowles providing the scouting report on Ja’Marr Chase, the Bengals’ electric second-year receiver: “Outstanding hands, outstanding size, very good at getting off the ball, his catch radius is enormous. As soon as the ball touches his hands, he’s getting upfield right now. It’s rare to see somebody get upfield that quick with that size. He has a natural knack for the game and he looks great doing it.” Enough said. Particularly with Jamel Dean a big question mark for Sunday’s game due to a toe injury, Davis is the Buccaneers’ best shot at containing Chase, and given how sudden Chase can be when he gets the ball in his hands, the best strategy is not to allow that to happen in the first place. Davis has the size and physicality to match up just fine with Chase and he has shown elite coverage and change-of-direction skills when at the top of his game.

3. Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin vs. Bengals CB Mike Hilton

Chris Godwin continues to do impressive things out of the slot in the Bucs’ very prevalent three-receiver packages and, since rounding into his 2021 form following a knee injury has become the focal point of the team’s passing attack. Tom Brady is looking in his direction frequently, and Godwin is the first Buccaneer in more than two decades to have a streak of 10 straight games with at least five catches. Hilton is also extremely effective in the slot, not just in coverage but as a tackler. He will likely get a good taste of Godwin’s sublime blocking skills. Hilton has 52 tackles this season, along with four passes defensed, three tackles for loss and four quarterback hits. He also has good instincts and can close quickly on quick passes, something that could on occasion disrupt the strong underneath connection between Brady and Godwin.

4. Bengals T La’el Collins vs. Buccaneers OLB Anthony Nelson

Cincinnati, eager for any offensive line fortifications they could get after Super Bowl LVI, snapped La’el Collins up just four days after he was cut by the Cowboys in a cap-saving move. He has stepped right in at right tackle opposite the lone holdover on Cincy’s line from last year, left tackle Jonah Williams, and has started every game. Collins has very good hands and effectively counters pass-rushers trying to swipe or chop past him. He’s adept at getting leverage in pass blocking and shows power in the run game. With Genard Avery, Carl Nassib and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka all showing up on the injury report this week, Nelson is likely to see extensive playing, just as he did last Sunday while playing a season-high 83% of the snaps. Nelson is a very active player who hustles to the ball and can also be effective dropping into coverage. But for an unrelated penalty, Nelson would have had a forced fumble-interception double dip, rare for an edge rusher. What would have been his first career pick was erased by a defensive holding call away from the play. The Buccaneers may need Nelson to lead the charge if they’re going to get much pressure on Joe Burrow.

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2022 Game Preview: Bengals-Buccaneers, Week 15

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