SAN DIEGO -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have allowed only two offensive touchdowns during their current three-game winning streak. But it’s a new test this week against a different type of quarterback – San Diego Chargers veteran Philip Rivers.
“It’s a new week,” said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, eager to put to rest the talk of their past three games. “We’ve got to bring something all new to the table.”
The formula they’ve used these last three weeks – more pressure up front and tighter coverage on the back end, combined with better communication among all position groups – has worked.
In Week 10, they saw the absolute worst of Jay Cutler, who probably had a better receiver in Bucs CB Brent Grimes than he did in Bears WR Alshon Jeffery. In Week 11, they managed to squander the majority of Alex Smith’s short, quick passes, eliminating the big play with the exception of a couple scares from Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Then last week, they bullied a Seahawks offensive line and had Russell Wilson running for his life. As they did the week before, when they got into trouble they got takeaways.
They face a different kind of monster in Rivers, though. And for a team that, a little over a month ago, had been absolutely lit up by Derek Carr, giving up 525 passing yards, and then next week, gutted by Matt Ryan and the Falcons, their worst nightmare is far from a distant memory. Rivers can do the same type of damage. He has thrown for 3,128 yards already this season, fourth in the NFL. His offense is averaging nearly 29 points per game, fourth in the league, and has the fifth-ranked passing attack, averaging 271.5 yards per game.
“He’s a hell of player,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said of Rivers. “A tremendous talent, unbelievable anticipation, a coach on the field, tough, underrated as a pocket-movement guy. He’s one of the best players in this league, year in, year out. He doesn’t maybe get as much credit as some guys that are a little bit more publicized, but ask anybody that plays or coaches and he’s one of the best.”
He’s got an ultra-fast release too, and pressuring QBs like that can sometimes be tricky.
“[He’s] is a future Hall of Famer, so a good pass rush -- it’s not like he hasn’t seen it before,” McCoy said.
That’s why it’s imperative that like last week, rush and coverage units work hand in hand. If coverage can freeze him in the pocket for even a split second it can allow the necessary penetration for sacks and hurries.
“We’re just going to have to do our part,” McCoy said of the defensive line. “[On the] back end, we know they’re going to do their part. We’re just trying to make sure we put as much pressure on him as possible.”
Unlike Wilson last week and the Bucs’ own quarterback, Jameis Winston, Rivers does not function at a high level outside of the pocket. He does move fairly well inside a moving pocket, but when he’s scrambling in attempts to find an open receiver, he struggles. In fact, his quarterback rating on throws outside the pocket is 29.1 and his completion percentage there is 30.3 percent. That's a prime opportunity to unleash pass rusher Noah Spence, who moves very, very well, and rushes from both sides, after him.
The Bucs pressured Wilson a season-high 27 times last week, nearly double their previous season high. They blitzed on only seven of those occasions though, meaning they were consistently able to get pressure with four and not have to sacrifice a man in coverage, a luxury they’ve rarely enjoyed. When they did blitz, it was effective, resulting in sacks on two plays.
The Chargers have given up 26 sacks this year – eighth in the league. Three weeks ago against the Dolphins, Rivers was pressured 19 times, sacked three times and threw a season-high four interceptions. He has thrown 12 interceptions this year -- fourth-most of NFL quarterbacks and one off from the league lead, but that also has been without Stevie Johnson and Keenan Allen, along with Danny Woodhead and Dexter McCluster. He does, however, have future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates who, despite just 30 catches this season, has managed to haul in five touchdowns.