After back-to-back weeks facing Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer, the quality of quarterbacks facing the Bucs defense has dropped off considerably.
Case Keenum. Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. Derek Anderson. Colin Kaepernick.
Not exactly a list of names that keep defensive coordinators up at night.
That changes Sunday afternoon when up-and-comer Derek Carr leads the Oakland Raiders’ attack at Raymond James Stadium. Since starting his first NFL game in 2014 fresh out of Fresno State, Carr established himself as the team’s quarterback of the future and is preparing to make his 40th straight start this weekend.
“You talk about the ultimate competitor; he walks around with a fierceness in his eyes,” said another one of the Raiders’ rising stars, third-year linebacker Khalil Mack, during a conference call with the Tampa Bay media. “It almost scares you a little bit if you look him in the eye because he is a fierce competitor. He is focused, will-driven and he is going to do anything to make the team win. So, to have a guy like that in the locker room, it only pumps you up more that he’s on your team. I’m glad to have him. Glad he’s my quarterback.”
Since that first season in 2014, Carr’s overall performance continues to improve. His completion percentage has risen from 58.1 percent as a rookie to 61.1 last year to 65.9 this year. His passing yards jumped from 3,270 to 3,987 and he’s on pace to top 4,000 this year. Perhaps most impressive are this year’s 13 touchdown passes compared to only three interceptions.
Lump all those stats together and it’s easy to see why the Raiders find themselves at 5-2 and tied with the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos atop the AFC West after finishing 7-9 last year and 3-13 in 2014.
Helping Carr post such quality numbers is a stout offensive line that’s surrendered seven sacks through as many games and wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, a pair of the league’s most-productive pass catchers this season.
When asked about the offensive line’s success at keeping Carr’s jersey clean this season, Bucs head Coach Dirk Koetter said the 25-year-old deserves credit in that area, too.
“What I see on tape is a guy that’s got really good arm talent and – you just watch back-to-back throws, what a release that kid has. Man, can he get it out of his hand fast and that keeps him from getting sacked. And then they do have a huge offensive line, biggest in the league I believe.”
Koetter elevated his level of praise even higher this week when speaking of Carr, Cooper and Crabtree as a group.
“I told [Oakland’s] media today that that threesome right there reminds me a little bit – and again, none of these are perfect comparisons – but it reminds me a little bit to when I first went to Atlanta and we had [wide receivers] Julio [Jones] and Roddy [White] with [quarterback] Matt Ryan. Thankfully they don’t have [tight end] Tony Gonzalez also.”
Cooper and Crabtree have combined for 79 receptions, 1,075 yards and seven touchdowns, with Cooper’s 40 for 614 leading the way.
One of the Bucs tasked with limiting Oakland’s top receivers will be cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. The rookie may be getting ready for his seventh career game, but he already has game experience lining up opposite Cooper.
“They’re a great group of receivers and Crabtree and Coop,” Hargreaves said from the locker room. “Obviously I’ve seen Coop before in college. That was actually my first time following somebody, so I have a lot of respect for him. I know him. So it’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be exciting to go against those guys and see where we really are.”
Hargreaves added that the entire Bucs secondary will need to be on its game against a quarterback like Carr, especially if he’s getting time to scan the field.
“We know we have to cover longer,” Hargreaves said. “We’re planning on it not being as long. Our defensive line, they’re getting ready for this week, they know what they’ve got and their going to get after him.”