Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Browns v. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sunday, 1 p.m., Raymond James Stadium
Coach: Dirk Koetter, 16-21, third year.
Series record: Browns lead, 6-3.
Last meeting: Browns won, 22-17, Nov. 2, 2014, in Cleveland.
NFL rankings: Offense is second overall (31st rushing, first passing), defense is 31st overall (fifth rushing, 32nd passing), and turnover differential is minus-6.
Things I think
1. Dirk Koetter agonized for two weeks over firing defensive coordinator Mike Smith, his best friend in the NFL, but finally caved after there was no improvement after their bye week. The Bucs defense has surrendered an average of 30 points in the first half alone over its last three games to plummet to 32nd with a preposterous 34.6 points per game allowed. Koetter called the firing the second-hardest thing he’s been through next to the death of a player while head coach at Boise State. Under Smith, the Bucs defense surrendered over 400 yards in 20 of 37 games. He was replaced by linebackers coach Mark Duffner. It may be the last act of Koetter in hopes of seeing a fourth season as head coach.
2. The Bucs’ pass rush has languished despite concerted investment in the defensive line. They signed Philadelphia free agents Vinny Curry and Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein from the Bears, traded for Jason Pierre-Paul of the Giants, and drafted Vita Vea 12th overall. Unrein has been on injured reserve all year, but the reinforcements have combined for only 6.5 of the defense’s nine sacks.
3. The lack of pass pressure – some say Smith’s schemes contributed – have made it open season on the Bucs’ secondary, which has featured three rookies at times since 2016 first-round cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and safety Chris Conte were lost for the season with injuries. As a result, the Bucs’ defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to compile a passer rating of 129.5 – 24 points higher than the league’s next-worst figure.
4. Former No. 1 overall draft pick Jameis Winston is back in the saddle as Bucs starting quarterback after journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick strung together three consecutive 400-yard passing games and two offensive player-of-the-week awards filling in as Winston served a three-game personal conduct suspension to begin the season. In his first start last week, Winston was 30 of 41 for 395 yards and four touchdowns in a 34-29 loss to the Falcons. Like Koetter, Winston’s future is somewhat cloudy (largely due to character issues off the field). But Winston is said to be well-liked by ownership and the team already has picked up his fifth-year option in 2019 for $21 million.
5. The Bucs have put together an offensive powerhouse, sporting a high-wire passing attack that features a pair of tall wideouts -- 6-5 Mike Evans and 6-1 Chris Godwin -- and a pair of long tight ends – 6-6 O.J. Howard and 6-5 Cameron Brate. There’s also venerable deep threat DeSean Jackson (23.9 yards per catch, three touchdowns), but Jackson thrived under the big-armed Fitzpatrick and may not post similar numbers with Winston at the helm.
Did you know … ?
1. In 37 games under Smith as coordinator, the Bucs’ defense yielded over 400 yards 20 times. Smith was made one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in 2017 after a good first season earned him head coach interviews with the Chargers and Jaguars.
2. Howard, of Alabama, was considered the top tight end in the 2017 draft, and fell to the Bucs at No. 19. Howard averaged 16.6 yards per catch as a rookie, with six touchdowns, and has expanded his second season. Howard has 15 catches for an 18.9-yard average and two touchdowns through five games.
3. The Bucs are another team with special teams issues. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed his second PAT last week, and the Bucs chased that point all afternoon. The Bucs haven’t had a kick return longer than 29 yards or a punt return longer than 16 yards.
4. In Winston’s last 11 starts at quarterback, the Bucs are 1-10.
Small world: Defensive lineman Carl Nassib was a Browns third-round draft pick in 2016, amateur financial planner and co-star of Hard Knocks this summer … Offensive line coach George Warhop held the same position with the Browns from 2009-13 … Director of player personnel John Spytek was Browns director of college scouting from 2010-12 … Pro scout Alex Smith was a Browns tight end from 2010-12.