The Buccaneers second playoff game is another rematch, this time with the Detroit Lions. These teams last played in Week 6 in which the Bucs were stymied offensively, losing 20-6. Since then, both teams have grown to a degree that a duplication of their first encounter is unlikely.
One that that has not changed is that the Lions remain an offensive juggernaut. They are top-ten in nearly every conceivable metric: points, total yards, yards per play, EPA per play and success rate. While the Bucs are much improved on offense, ranking 10th in EPA per play since Week 8, all indications point to a steep uphill battle to match the Lions’ offense.
While the Lions’ pass defense makes them vulnerable, the Bucs’ main goal will be to eliminate self-inflicted wounds, namely drops and plays doomed for failure, otherwise known in Tampa Bay as “running the ball.” The offensive game plan and execution will have to be perfect, while on defense, a wing, a prayer and a few good blitzes are all the Bucs can ask for.
Here are the Bucs’ three keys to victory over the Lions in the divisional round of the playoffs:
Let Bowles be Bowles
Jared Goff is absolutely surgical when kept clean this season, boasting a 116.3 passer rating, second only to Brock Purdy per PFF. He is even solid when blitzed, recording a 95.7 passer rating when facing five or more rushers. His only real vulnerability is when pressure is actually applied, during which his rating drops to 62.1.
The Bucs do not have the luxury of rushing four to consistently get pressure on the quarterback. None of their linemen with at least 40 pass rush snaps has a pass rush win percentage above 20%. Instead, Tampa Bay’s defense has lived and died on Todd Bowles’ blitzes.
That should not change this weekend.
The Lions have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Without a reliable four-man pass rush, the most the Bucs can hope for is slowing Goff down or lulling him into making a mistake. While Bowles may not want to blitz with utter abandon like he did against the Eagles, he would be best served to stay true to himself and keep his foot on the blitz pedal.
Drop the drops, Mike Evans
There is little question that outside Baker Mayfield, Mike Evans is the most important player on the Bucs offense. He has the capability to carry the offense and add points in an instant. His only Achilles heel is his habit of dropping passes, particularly on big potential gains.
Evans has six drops on the season per PFF. His last drop came last week against the Eagles, which likely would have been a touchdown had he held onto the ball. While it did not hurt the Bucs against an imploding Eagles defense, Tampa Bay cannot afford anything but peak Evans against the Lions.
The Bucs’ best chance at beating Detroit is to keep pace with their offense and pull off as many explosive plays as possible. Evans is without a doubt Tampa Bay’s most explosive player. With little room for error, the Bucs need a career-defining game from Evans if they hope to advance to the NFC Championship.
Forget running the ball
It is no secret that the Bucs are no good running the ball. They finished the season last in rush yards, yards per attempt and rushing success rate. Conversely, the Lions had one of the best run defenses, finishing second in rush yards allowed, third in yards per attempt and fourth in rushing EPA per play.
Tampa Bay cannot afford to set offensive downs on fire by attempting to run. While a degree of balance is typically needed for an offense to thrive, there is no point for the Bucs to even attempt it. Instead, they should lean on screens and the short passing game to keep downs manageable.
Rachaad White in particular is incredibly dangerous in the screen game. In 14 screen targets, he averages 10.5 yards per play and gained seven first downs and two touchdowns. His rushing numbers don’t touch that level of efficacy.