The Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicked off their 2016 campaign with a Week 1 victory over the Falcons, but things have certainly taken a turn for the worse for first-year head coach Dirk Koetter, as his team has now dropped two games in a row. The Bucs were pummeled by the Cardinals in Week 2 and managed to squander victory in a 37-32 home loss to the Los Angeles Rams last week, failing to convert a touchdown opportunity from the 15-yard line with just over a minute to play. In total, Tampa Bay has now allowed 77 points over its last two games. The Bucs hope to bounce back Sunday playing the role of spoiler at home against the defending Super Bowl champions.
The Denver Broncos' season could not be going any more smoothly. They opened with a statement win over the Panthers in their Super Bowl 50 rematch. They followed that up with a 34-20 victory over the Colts. And thanks in large part to quarterback Trevor Siemian, Denver was able to extend its record to a perfect 3-0 with a 29-17 road win over the Bengals last Sunday. Siemian torched a very good Bengals defense for 312 yards and four touchdowns in his first-ever road start. Denver must now turn its attention to a desperate Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. Head coach Gary Kubiak’s Broncos must avoid joining the ranks of several high-profile teams that have already fallen victim to underdog opponents so far this season.
Denver at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 2 at 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Denver -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Denver Passing Game vs. Tampa Bay Pass Defense
Regardless of how well Trevor Siemian practiced, or looked against preseason competition, it had to be somewhat unsettling for the Broncos to start an inexperienced former seventh-round draft pick at quarterback. However, if Siemian’s AFC Offensive Player of the Week performance against the Bengals was any indication, most of the Broncos’ concerns should be alleviated. Denver will continue to primarily rely on its stellar defense and running game, but if Siemian can continue to progress at this rate, an already dangerous Broncos team could reach juggernaut status in short order.
The good news is that Siemian could be in line for another big performance Sunday against a very shaky Tampa Bay pass defense. The Bucs are currently ranked 20th in the NFL against the pass, giving up 272 yards per game (that includes a game against a woeful Rams passing attack). They also have allowed seven touchdown passes just one interception to their credit. To make matters worse, the Buccaneers have already given up six pass plays of 40 yards or more, which is tied for the most in the league. The Buccaneer pass rush, which has only produced five sacks so far, has been largely unspectacular as well. An aging Brent Grimes and rookie Vernon Hargreaves will have their hands full trying to defend Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders in what could become a long day at the office for Tampa Bay's pass defense.
2. Balance and the Tampa Bay Running Game
The Buccaneers’ offense has been sorely lacking in the balance department so far this season. In three games, Tampa Bay has thrown the ball 142 times as opposed to just 71 rushing attempts. The result has been a ground game that is produced just one touchdown and 86 yards per game on average. It also is worth noting that the Buccaneers won the only game in which they ran the ball at least 20 times. For this reason, it is crucial that the Buccaneers at least try to establish some semblance of a ground game against the Broncos.
It won’t be easy without Doug Martin. However, Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers are both capable running backs, and if the Denver defense has shown any sign weakness so far this season, it has been against the run. The Broncos gave up 143 rushing yards to the Bengals just last week, and their run defense currently ranks just 27th in the NFL, allowing 128 yards per game. If Tampa Bay can avoid falling behind early, the Bucs could find some success in establishing a rushing attack and more balance on offense overall.
3. Denver Pass Rush vs. Tampa Bay Offensive Line
When the Broncos lost DeMarcus Ware to a broken forearm in Week 2, it appeared as if their dominant pass rush might take a step back. Week 3 proved that nothing could be further from the truth. The Broncos sacked Andy Dalton four times, including three from Ware’s replacement, Shane Ray, who was making his first career start. Denver currently ranks second in the NFL with 12 sacks on the season, with All-Pro and Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller leading the way (five).
While the Tampa Bay offensive line has only given up five sacks so far this season, Jameis Winston has already been hit 22 times in three games, the second-highest total in the league. This suggests that even if the Broncos are unable to sack Winston on a consistent basis, they should have no trouble getting pressure on him. Winston has already thrown six interceptions, so pressure obviously doesn’t bode well. It will be a tall order for the Tampa Bay offensive line to keep the Denver defense from doing what it does best.
The key for the Buccaneers will be trying to establish balance on offense. Jameis Winston will need big-play wide receiver Mike Evans to come up clutch in the passing game, but effectively running the football against the Broncos is priority No. 1 if Tampa Bay has any hope of winning the game. Defensively, the Bucs must shut down the Broncos’ run game and do their best to pressure Trevor Siemian.
While running the football could be challenging at times against a defense that is giving up less than 100 rushing yards per game, Denver’s offense should find success throwing the ball against a lackluster pass defense. Defensively, the Denver pass rush should not have much trouble disrupting the Tampa Bay passing game. This will be key, especially if the Buccaneers get pass happy once again.
The Broncos could experience a little hangover playing in their second east coast road game in as many weeks. It’s also possible that they could overlook a struggling Bucs team, which makes this a potential trap game. That said, Denver clearly is the superior team in pretty much every facet of the game and anything short of a double-digit victory would come as a surprise.
Prediction: Broncos 31, Buccaneers 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.