At the three-fourths mark of the 2020 NFL season the Bucs are 7-5, right around where I thought they would be, but not quite as formidable as many national media outlets had hoped. Great things are still on the horizon for the Bucs, as their remaining schedule features four losing teams and a prime opportunity to get to 11-5, their best record since 2005.
It won’t be as easy as it looks on paper however, as the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons are playing much better over the past handful of games than they were early in the season. We’ve talked extensively about how the Bucs need Tom Brady to be dominant and Bruce Arians to be less stubborn and more open to the modernization of his offense, but the entire burden of victory is not solely on that duo.
If the Bucs are going to reach 11-5 or 10-6 this season, they’ll need the following three players to have a much bigger impact over the month of December than they had in November. If the Bucs are holding the fifth or sixth seed in a month, it’ll mean one or all of these three players stepped up significantly to help Brady carry the team back to the playoffs. That’s how important these guys are to Tampa Bay’s success throughout the rest of the regular season.
1. CB Carlton Davis
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Davis is the only player on this list that has had an awesome season, the best of his professional career. Four interceptions and 16 pass breakups not only look great on the stat sheet, but have been reinforced by Davis’ play on reps that don’t show up in the box score. He’s been a top 7-8 cornerback in the league this season, but the last month has been a little more of a struggle.
Clearly playing through some nagging injuries, Davis has surrendered 338 yards over the past two games, getting shredded by Cooper Kupp and Tyreek Hill. Rewind to Week 10, when Davis was beaten by D.J. Moore for a big 38-yard completion in the first half, and the third-year cornerback just has not played at the level we’ve come to expect from the Bucs top defensive back this season.
Fellow cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting have been disappointing in 2020, putting a massive weight on Davis’ shoulders entering the final month of the season. He’ll likely shadow Julio Jones in two match-ups with the Falcons, and will be a massive part of erasing one of the best wide receiver duos in the league in Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen next week. Even hapless Detroit offers a stud No. 1 receiver in Kenny Golladay, who will probably be healthy again by Week 16.
If Davis plays in December like he did in November, the Bucs pass defense might get excommunicated from the NFL. Todd Bowles’ scheme hasn’t often put Davis in position to succeed (press man) like it should, and week-to-week he draws some of the toughest assignments of any cornerback in the league, but fair or not, Davis needs to be a difference maker for Tampa Bay in the final four games of the season.
2. EDGE Shaq Barrett
Barrett came alive with arguably the biggest play of the game (for the Bucs, anyway) against the Chiefs, putting together a wonderful pass rush combination to beat left tackle Eric Fisher for a huge strip-sack of Patrick Mahomes in the red zone.
One of the best sacks of the season from Shaq Barrett here last week, stringing multiple moves together (cross-chop + double-swipe) for the strip/sack. Just gorgeous. pic.twitter.com/xYkU6XyRad
But those plays have been too few-and-far-between for Barrett, who has six sacks and 32 pressures this season. There is no denying that Barrett can string complicated rush moves together with the best of them, but he simply doesn’t do it consistently enough to be the dominant player many hoped he’d be after leading the league in sacks a year ago.
Barrett was actually better in the month of November than he was earlier in the season, which is a good sign that December could be the month he really takes over. Some juicy match-ups await the Bucs top edge rusher, as struggling Falcons right tackle Kaleb McGary is up twice on the docket. Barrett notched four sacks and 18 pressures (18!!!) in two games against McGary and the Falcons last season.
The Bucs pass defense simply isn’t good enough to hold up against the quarterbacks on their remaining schedule unless the pass rush is great. Barrett has to be the player the Bucs franchise-tagged him to be if Tampa Bay’s defense is going to inch closer to the group they were earlier in the season.
3. WR Mike Evans
We’ve covered Mike Evans’ relatively unproductive 2020 season from every angle, casting blame on Tom Brady, communication issues, the coaching staff and even the offensive line for not giving Brady the time to find Evans deep, but nobody wants to talk about the fact that Evans himself may need to step up his level of play too. I know that’s blasphemy to say in Tampa Bay, but hear me out.
It’s not that Evans has been bad at all. He absolutely hasn’t been. But he also hasn’t played like a top five wide receiver in football, which many want to say he is. Against the Chiefs, Evans had opportunities for four tough catches, two of which would have been highlight-reel grabs. He let one go right past his hands while tracking over his shoulder, let the defensive back work over his back to contest another, mistimed his jump on a contested catch opportunity down the right sideline, and then couldn’t come up with a tough, contorting adjustment that went off both hands down the left sideline late in the game.
Can't miss these ones against KC. First drive of the game. Evans seemed like he had issues tracking the ball in this game. Gotta catch this one. pic.twitter.com/427tqhTsij
Great receivers make those plays, and Evans is a great receiver. The connection with Brady hasn’t been consistent, despite Evans’ 11 touchdowns, and there is plenty of blame to go around as to why that has been the case. But Evans needs to wear some of it too, especially now that he’s healthy. His seven drops this season are already tied for the most in his NFL career outside of his drop-laden 2015 season, and there are still four games left to go.
When was the last time we saw Mike Evans make a tough, contested catch in traffic? There haven’t been as many opportunities this year, but there have been opportunities. He has to cash in more often when those chances come. I still think a big 150-yard day is in Evans’ wheelhouse for the 2020 season. He’s moving great and getting open with regularity. But he has to be an elite finisher on the football throughout the rest of the season if the Bucs offense is going to hit their peak and make the playoffs.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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