Sun, 04 Dec 2022

2022 Game Preview: Buccaneers-Browns, Week 12

Buccaneers
25 Nov 2022, 18:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay BuccaneersThe Bucs come back from their week off riding a two-game winning streak and hoping to ignite another post-bye hot streak, but they'll face a rugged Browns club with a top-notching ground game on Sunday in ClevelandScott Smith

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers return from their bye week with clear minds and a very clear vision of what lies ahead. It's a seven-week sprint to the finish line, with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance from game to game, and it starts with a trip to the shores of Lake Erie.

The Buccaneers begin this stretch run with a 5-5 record and a half-game lead on the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, which demonstrates the tenuous nature of the team's playoff grip and how easily it can change from week to week. They will be facing a 3-7 Cleveland Browns team that is more dangerous than its record suggests, which the Cincinnati Bengals discovered just a few weeks ago in a 32-13 drubbing. The Browns run the ball well and they run it often, and their defense is spearheaded by Myles Garrett, undeniably one of the most dangerous edge rushers in the NFL.

Cleveland hasn't played at home since that big win over their division rivals, which was followed by a bye week and road losses to the Dolphins and Bills. That last contest was an unusual one, as a monstrous snowstorm forced the game to be moved from Buffalo to Cleveland. After all of the Browns are surely eager to be back home at FirstEnergy Stadium, where they also beat Pittsburgh earlier in the season.

The Buccaneers are hoping to duplicate the pattern that led to their Super Bowl LV victory two seasons ago. That 2020 squad came out of its bye week with five losses and never suffered another defeat, running off eight straight to capture the Lombardi Trophy. The eventual champs finally clicked on offense after their Week 13 bye and started creating turnovers in bunches on defense. The 2022 team isn't necessarily going to run the table again - that would be an extremely bold prediction - but the same post-bye improvements as the 2020 team showed on offense and defense would certainly increase the possibility of the Bucs holding off the Falcons and any other contender for the NFC South title.

Another part of the winning puzzle for the 2020 Bucs was good health, a common defining factor of championship teams and one that utterly disappeared in the team's attempt at a title defense in 2021. This year's Buccaneers have already endured a significant number of injuries to key players - and top edge rusher Shaq Barrett has been lost for the year - but might actually be coming out of the bye as healthy as they have been all season.

On defense, the return of Akiem Hicks up front has made a noticeable impact on the Buccaneers' run defense - a key issue this week as it was in Munich against Seattle - and safety Antoine Winfield, one of the team's best playmakers at any level, is back from a concussion. On offense wide receivers Chris Godwin and Julio Jones are rounding into form after working through injuries, red zone threat Cam Brate is back in the mix and the team might also be getting Giovani Bernard back from a long absence in Week 12. Wide receiver Russell Gage and guard Luke Goedeke came out of the bye and returned to practice after missing several games and could also be adding reinforcements this week. There is the new concern of Leonard Fournette's hip pointer from the Seattle game, but rookie running back Rachaad White is emerging as a back who can handle the load as well.

The Buccaneers might also be in the best place they've been all season mentally. Rousing wins over the Rams and Seahawks not only gave the team a sense of momentum heading into the bye, but the extra time to study and reflect on those games led to an increased sense of confidence. The Bucs come out of the break believing they've finally pieced together a winning formula, and they believe they can duplicate it. And they have a great sense of urgency to prove that is true.

"Being able to win like that, you take your time and you prepare from home," said defensive lineman Will Gholston. "You get a little away from football but you also understand, 'Alright, this is what it took to win. This is what we did, this is how to prepare, and you try to model the rest of the season like that. We're in seven-game playoff [stretch] now, every game is like a playoff game for us and we've got to be able to click."

GAME AND BROADCAST DETAILS

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5) at Cleveland Browns (3-7)

Sunday, November 27, 1:00 p.m. ET

FirstEnergy Stadium (capacity: 67,431)

Cleveland, Ohio

Television: FOX

TV Broadcast Team: Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Jonathan Vilma (analyst), Shannon Spake (reporters)

Radio: 98Rock (WXTB, 97.9 FM), Flagship Station

Radio Broadcast Team: Gene Deckerhoff (play-by-play), Dave Moore (analyst), T.J. Rives (reporter)

ALL-TIME HEAD-TO-HEAD SERIES

Since their birth as the NFL's 27th franchise in 1976, the Buccaneers have faced the Browns exactly 10 times, with Cleveland holding an overall 6-4 lead. However, Tampa Bay has been in control of the head-to-head series for the last two decades.

The Browns were one of 14 teams that lined up to squish the woefully-undermanned expansion team in '76, beginning a streak that would see them run their record against Tampa Bay to 5-0 by 1995. However, beginning in the Buccaneers' 2002 Super Bowl season, the pendulum has swung the other way, with Tampa Bay taking four of the past five decisions.

That includes the most recent meeting in 2018 at Raymond James Stadium, which included one of the most improbable finishes in Buccaneers franchise history. The home team built a 23-9 lead over the first three quarters but the Browns rallied for two touchdowns in the last 12 minutes, with Baker Mayfield tying it on a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry. The Browns and Bucs each stalled on their first two drives of overtime but end Antony Auclair caused a fumble by punt returner Jabrill Peppers and Isaiah Johnson recovered for Tampa Bay at the Cleveland 48. After getting the Bucs to the 36, Jameis Winston took sacks on two consecutive plays and the end result was kicker Chandler Catanzaro - who had missed a potential 40-yard game-winner at the end of regulation - having to try a 59-yarder. And he nailed it for the 26-23 win.

The most striking feature of the all-time Bucs-Browns series is the quarterback turnover. The two best Cleveland quarterbacks of the Super Bowl era, Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar, combined to start the first four games on the list. Since then, however, the Bucs have seen a different Browns quarterback in each successive game, starting with former Buccaneer Vinny Testaverde in 1995 and then progressing to Tim Couch, Derek Anderson, Jake Delhomme, Brian Hoyer and Mayfield.

That's nothing, say the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has actually started a different quarterback in all 10 of their games against the Browns. That list, in chronological order beginning in 1976: Steve Spurrier, Doug Williams, Jack Thompson, Testaverde, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Tim Rattay, Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon and Jameis Winston. It's not really surprising to see Testaverde on both team's list of starters, because the Browns have given regular-season starts to 32 different quarterbacks since 1999, including current starter Jacoby Brissett. There are six players on that list who also had starts with Tampa Bay, including Testaverde, Dilfer, Bruce Gradkowski, Jeff Garcia and both of the McCown brothers, Josh and Luke. Another quarterback on that list is Kelly Holcomb, who started his NFL career in 1995 on the Buccaneers' practice squad. And yet another is the Buccaneers' current assistant wide receivers coach, Thaddeus Lewis.

This Sunday, the Bucs and Browns will add an 11th distinct quarterback matchup to the list, with Tom Brady facing Cleveland for the first time as a Buccaneer, with Brissett on the other sideline. This will actually be a relevant topic for the upcoming game because it will likely be Brissett's last start of the season. The Bucs-Browns affair will be Cleveland's 11th game of the year, and that will bring an end to the suspension being served by Deshaun Watson, who is widely expected to step right into the starting lineup against Houston, his former team, in Week 13.

NOTABLE CONNECTIONS

* Buccaneers Head Coach Todd Bowles served on Cleveland's staff from 2001-03 as a secondary coach.

* John Spytek, the Buccaneers' director of player personnel, was the Browns' director of college scouting from 2010-12. During the same three seasons, Buccaneers Assistant Director of Pro Scouting Alex Smith played tight end for Cleveland, starting seven of 29 games played and catching 28 passes for 184 yards and one touchdown.

* Buccaneers outside linebacker Genard Avery first entered the NFL as a fifth-round pick in the 2018 draft by the Browns. He played 16 games with five starts as a rookie in Cleveland before being traded to Philadelphia two games into the 2019 campaign.

* Another one of Tampa Bay's outside linebackers, Carl Nassib, is also a former Cleveland draft pick. Taken in the third round in 2016, Nassib played two seasons for the Browns, started 15 of 30 games and contributing 5.5 sacks.

* Buccaneers wide receiver Breshad Perriman was with the Browns for the 2018 season, playing in 10 games with two starts and catching 16 passes for 340 yards and two scores.

* Browns tackle Joe Haeg, who is currently on injured reserve, was on the Buccaneers' 2020 Super Bowl-winning team. He started three games during the regular season.

* Wide receiver Cyril Grayson, who is on the Browns' practice squad, was with the Buccaneers in some capacity from December of 2019 through September 2 of this season. In that span, he appeared in 10 games with three starts and caught 11 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns.

* Similarly, Cleveland practice squad cornerback Herb Miller joined the Buccaneers in December of 2019 and was on the practice squad from then until September of 2021. He was elevated from the practice squad enough times to see action in four regular-season games and he recorded one interception in 2020.

* Alex Van Pelt, who is currently the Browns' offensive coordinator, had a two-year stint as Tampa Bay's quarterbacks coach on Raheem Morris's staff in 2010 and 2011.

* Cleveland's defensive coordinator, Joe Woods, also has ties to the Buccaneers. After 12 years of coaching on the collegiate level, Woods got his first NFL job with Tampa Bay in 2004. He spent two years as a defensive quality control coach for Jon Gruden in 2004 and 2005.

* Buccaneers Specialist Coach Chris Boniol, a former NFL kicker spent two weeks on Cleveland's roster during training camp in 1999.

* Cleveland's defensive line coach, Chris Kiffin, spent the 2006 offseason as a quality control coach intern for the Buccaneers. His father, Monte Kiffin, was Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator from 1996-2008 and is in the team's Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium.

* Tampa Bay Running Backs Coach Todd McNair held the same position in Cleveland during the 2001-03 seasons.

* Buccaneers Senior Advisor to the General Manager Bruce Arians was the Browns' offensive coordinator from 2001-03.

* Buccaneers Assistant Secondary Coach Tim Atkins worked for the Browns for two seasons (2014-15) as a game charter.

* Tampa Bay Assistant Wide Receivers Coach Thaddeus Lewis, who played quarterback in the NFL, made his first career start as a member of the Cleveland Browns in 2012. Lewis spent most of two seasons with the Browns but made just that one game appearance.

SENIOR COACHING STAFFS

Tampa Bay:

* Head Coach Todd Bowles

* Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin

* Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich

* Run Game Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers

* Pass Game Coordinator/Inside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote

* Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong

Cleveland:

* Head Coach Kevin Stefanski

* Offensive Coordinator Alex Van Pelt

* Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods

* Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer

KEY 2022 ROSTER ADDITIONS

Buccaneers:

* P Jake Camarda (fourth-round draft pick)

* WR Russell Gage (UFA)

* G Luke Goedeke (second-round draft pick)

* DL Logan Hall (second-round draft pick)

* T Fred Johnson (FA)

* WR Julio Jones (FA)

* TE Ko Kieft (sixth-round draft pick)

* G Shaq Mason (trade-NE)

* CB Zyon McCollum (fifth-round draft pick)

* OLB Carl Nassib (FA)

* S Keanu Neal (UFA)

* TE Cade Otton (fourth-round draft pick)

* TE Kyle Rudolph (FA)

* S Logan Ryan (FA)

* RB Rachaad White (third-round draft pick)

Browns:

* WR David Bell (3rd-round draft pick)

* P Cory Bojorquez (UFA)

* QB Jacoby Brissett (UFA)

* DT Taven Bryan (UFA)

* WR Amari Cooper (T-DAL)

* QB Joshua Dobbs (UFA)

* CB Martin Emerson (3rd-round draft pick)

* RB Jerome Ford (5th-round draft pick)

* WR/KR Jakeem Grant (UFA...currently on injured reserve)

* C Greg Mancz (FA)

* C Ethan Pocic (UFA...currently on injured reserve)

* DE Isaiah Thomas (6th-round draft pick)

* QB Deshaun Watson (T-HOU...currently on reserve/suspended list)

* DE Stephen Weatherly (UFA...currently on injured reserve)

* DT Perrion Winfrey (4th-round draft pick)

* DE Chase Winovich (T-NE)

* WR Michael Woods (6th-round draft pick)

* DE Alex Wright (3rd-round draft pick)

* K Cade York (4th-round draft pick)

ADDITIONAL 2022 CHANGES OF NOTE

Buccaneers:

* While the Bucs continue to maintain enviable continuity on their coaching staff, there is a new person in the corner office. In March, Bruce Arians stepped down after three years as the head coach and took on a new role as a senior advisor to the general manager. Todd Bowles was promoted from defensive coordinator to take his place. Bowles previously served as the New York Jets' head coach from 2015-18 before rejoining Arians when the latter came on as the Buccaneers' head coach in 2019.

* With Bowles stepping up the Bucs needed a new defensive coordinator and they essentially named two of them. Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers added the title of Run Game Coordinator while Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote switched to inside linebackers and added the title of Pass Game Coordinator. They are in effect co-defensive coordinators. Bob Sanders joined the staff to take over for Foote in the outside linebackers room. Foote made his switch after Inside Linebackers Coach Mike Caldwell landed the defensive coordinator position in Jacksonville under new Head Coach Doug Pederson.

* The Buccaneers had two key players retire after the 2021 season, but only one of them stayed retired. While quarterback Tom Brady eventually elected to return 40 days after announcing he was stepping away from the game, his long-time buddy Rob Gronkowski walked away for good, leading to big changes in the Bucs' tight end room. While veteran Cam Brate returned, O.J. Howard left in free agency and the Buccaneers subsequently drafted Cade Otton and Ko Kieft and signed veteran Kyle Rudolph.

* Tampa Bay's defense also saw the departure of two front-seven stalwarts from the extremely successful 2020-21 seasons, as neither DL Ndamukong Suh nor OLB Jason Pierre-Paul was re-signed. The team signed veteran standout Akiem Hicks and drafted Houston's Logan Hall 33rd overall to address depth up front and are relying on 2021 first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka to step up on the edge.

Browns:

* As was alluded to above, the Browns used the offseason to make one of the most dramatic changes possible to the most important position on the team. First, Cleveland dealt a package of draft picks to Houston, including their first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024, to acquire three-time Pro Bowler Deshaun Watson. The Browns then quickly handed Watson a fully-guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract. This move made former starter and 2018 first-overall draft pick Baker Mayfield superfluous, and after a long wait the Browns eventually traded Mayfield to the Panthers for a conditional fifth-round pick. Because they knew Watson was likely to draw a suspension from the NFL over the more a series of civil lawsuits filed against him by massage therapists, the Browns also signed former Dolphins backup Jacoby Brissett to serve as the starter for whatever time Watson would miss. They also traded quarterback Case Keenum to the Bills for a seventh-round draft pick. To round out their 2022 QB room, the Browns also signed former Steeler Josh Dobbs as an unrestricted free agent and claimed former Viking Kellen Mond off waivers in August.

* Cleveland was actually very busy on the trade market throughout the 2022 offseason. In addition to the three quarterback-related swaps noted above, the Browns also sent a fifth-round pick to the Cowboys (and swapped sixth-rounders) to get wide receiver Amari Cooper and sent cornerback Troy Hill back to the Rams for a 2023 fifth-rounder. In a rarer player-for-player swap, Cleveland shipped linebacker Mack Wilson to the Patriots in exchange for defensive end Chase Winovich.

* After two seasons as the Browns' vice president of football operations under General Manager Andrew Berry, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was hired away by the Vikings to be their general manager. Berry then hired Catherine Raiche, formerly the Eagles' vice president of football operations, to be the Browns' assistant general manager and vice president of football operations. Glenn Cook was also promoted to assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel, and Jimmy Raye III was added as the senior executive assistant to the GM.

* The Browns added two new coaches to their staff during the 2022 offseason, bringing in Jordan Thomas from San Diego State to serve as the assistant defensive line coach and hiring Jeff Anderson from Cal Poly to be a defensive quality control coach. Five other coaches who were already on Kevin Stefanski's staff got new assignments for 2022: Stephen Bravo Brown (assistant special teams), Drew Petzing (quarterbacks), T.C. McCartney (tight ends), Ashton Grant (offensive quality control) and Callie Brownson (chief of staff/assistant wide receivers).

TOP STORYLINES

*Post-Bye Bump? - *The Buccaneers' undefeated run after the bye week in 2020 was noted above, and even last year with injuries mounting Tampa Bay won seven of nine after the break. Can the 2022 team go on a similar run after getting back to .500 before the bye and gaining confidence from a full-team effort in Germany to defeat a strong Seahawks team? The schedule just ahead is no cakewalk - a Monday night game against archnemesis New Orleans looms, followed by contests against two top contenders, the 49ers and Bengals. If the Buccaneers can't hold on to the momentum they took into the bye and see their mini-winning streak end in Cleveland, they will be in a significantly more precarious playoff-chase position heading into the last six weeks. The Buccaneers are well-rested and mostly healthy as the stretch run begins, and they may have found the blueprint for consistent success in Week 10 with a strong running game, a resurgent run defense and a passing attack that gave Tom Brady more time to make plays down the field. At 5-5, the Buccaneers are deservedly being viewed as second-tier NFC contenders, but there is still time to reestablish themselves as one of the favorites in the conference, particularly with Minnesota and Philadelphia recently showing some small cracks.

*Potential Backfield Redistribution - *The Buccaneers' defense will have to deal with a two-headed monster in the Browns' backfield on Sunday, but the Browns' defense might encounter the same challenge. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have established the Cleveland rushing attack as one of the NFL's best over the last three seasons. One cannot say that about the Buccaneers, who are currently last in the league in rushing yards per game, but the performance in Munich could be a glimmer of hope for the Bucs' ground game behind the tandem of Leonard Fournette and Rachaad White. Tampa Bay ran for a season-best 161 yards against the Seahawks and consistently created, and then converted, short third downs. Whether or not the Bucs can field that same two-headed attack in Cleveland will depend first on the state of Fournette's injured hip. If the veteran starter is limited or out on Sunday the rookie White would be the lead back, and he's coming off his first career 100-yard game in Week 10. The Bucs could also get third-year man Ke'Shawn Vaughn more involved and might get veteran Gio Bernard back from injured reserve this week. Whoever gets the rock will be running behind an offensive line that feels as if it produced a "statement game" in Munich. Not only did the Bucs run it very well, especially on the final drive when the Seahawks were loading up to stop the backs, but the line also kept Tom Brady from being sacked and allowed him to hold the ball and study the field longer than he has in any other game this season.

*Huge Test for Improving Run 'D' - *Now to the particulars of that Chubb-Hunt backfield. Chubb is closing in on 1,000 yards and is tied for second in the NFL with 11 touchdowns, all on the ground. His average of 5.3 yards per carry matches his career mark exactly. Hunt has added 346 yards and three touchdowns, with 3.9 yards per tote, and the Browns also get some supplemental ground gains from their quarterback, as Jacoby Brissett has run 45 times for 211 yards and a score. The Browns' blocking is very strong up the middle behind a pair of Pro Bowl guards in Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller. Bitonio was a first-team AP All-Pro last year and right tackle Jack Conklin earned the same honor in 2020. That's the challenge facing a Buccaneers run defense that ranks 15th rushing yards allowed per game and 18th in yards allowed per carry. That is a bit misleading, however, because that run defense is clearly a different beast when Akiem Hicks is available. In the three full games that Hicks has played, the Buccaneers have allowed just 59.3 rushing yards per outing and 3.2 yards per carry. In the six full games that Hicks has missed, the Buccaneers have allowed 148.0 rushing yards per contest and 4.9 yards per carry. The Buccaneers fully expect the Browns to lean on their ground game Sunday but will come into the game confident they can hold up after holding the Seahawks and their red-hot rookie back, Kenneth Walker, to 39 rushing yards and 2.8 yards per tote.

*AFC Affliction - *One thing the Buccaneers have going for them in the playoff race at the moment is a 5-2 record against NFC opponents, which is the start of a nice end-of-season figure in the tiebreakers. Of course, simple math reveals that the Bucs must also be 0-3 against AFC foes so far this season. That's true, and the specifics are a 41-31 loss to Kansas City in Week Four, a 20-18 defeat in Pittsburgh in Week Six and a 27-22 downing at the hands of the Ravens in Tampa in Week Eight. The Buccaneers have two more chances to get on the board in their AFC slate, with Sunday's game in Cleveland and a Week 15 visit from the Cincinnati Bengals. This comes just one season after the Buccaneers set a team record by winning all five of their interconference games, taking out all four AFC East clubs and adding Indianapolis to their victim list in the new "17th game." The AFC outcomes don't figure as heavily into tiebreakers, but they obviously still matter in the overall standings and the Bucs' struggles against that conference in 2022 is the difference between their 5-5 mark and last year's final 13-4 regular-season record.

*Have the Floodgates Opened? - *NFL coaches are fond of saying that turnovers come in bunches but the Buccaneers seem to be plucking their grapes one at a time in 2022, and with little frequency. A stunning streak of nearly six games without a single takeaway - the longest such stretch in Tampa Bay's franchise history - mercifully came to an end in the second half of the Buccaneers' 21-16 win over Seattle in Week 10. With the Seahawks attempting to rally from a 14-0 halftime deficit, inside linebacker Devin White capped a brilliant individual performance by stripping the ball from quarterback Geno Smith inside the Bucs' 10-yard line. Anthony Nelson recovered for the Bucs at their own 13, ending one scoring threat and leading directly to an 87-yard touchdown drive that made it 21-3. That game-swinging play proved to be the Bucs' only takeaway of the game, but it was a start. Perhaps it will also be the first in one of those bunches. Prior to their incredible dry spell, the Buccaneers' defense had been one of the NFL's best in creating turnovers since the arrival of Todd Bowles in 2019.

KEY MATCHUPS

1. Buccaneers T Donovan Smith vs. Browns DE Myles Garrett

Donovan Smith and the Bucs' offensive line are coming off their most complete performance of the season in their win over the Seahawks in Germany. Tom Brady was not sacked, was hit just one time and averaged a season-high 2.78 seconds from snap to throw. Meanwhile, the Bucs' rushing attack generated a season-high 161 yards. An iron man since he was drafted 34th overall in 2015, Smith has only missed four games in eight seasons, including two early this year. He can hold his own against power rushes but also has the nimble feet necessary to keep speedy pass rushers at bay. He will need all of those skills on Sunday against Garrett, who was picked first overall in the 2017 draft. Garrett has made that pick look brilliant, as he is already the Browns' all-time leader with 67.0 sacks. He peaked at 16.0 last year and is now leading the team with 8.5 through 10 games in 2022. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he has a lightning-quick get-off at the snap, with an average of 0.72 seconds to get moving. That's the best in the NFL among all players with at least 100 pass-rush snaps (he has 247). He also has 40 QB pressures already this season, averaging four per game, which is tied for third in the NFL and just one off the lead. The Browns use Garrett on both ends of the line, so Smith will certainly get his share of head-to-head reps with the opposition's best player.

2. Browns G Joel Bitonio vs. Buccaneers DL Akiem Hicks

Joel Bitonio, the Browns' stalwart left guard, has made the Pro Bowl for four consecutive years and last season earned first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors for the first time in his nine-year career (he has three other second-team nods). According to Pro Football Focus, Bitonio has finished all but one of his seasons with a PFF score in the 70s, making him one of the NFL's elite guards. He played left tackle in college at Nevada but has found a home on the interior line in the pros, using his tenacity, leg drive and appropriately nasty in-game demeanor to dominate opposing linemen. Bitonio is a big reason why the Browns have ranked among the top four teams in rushing each of the last three seasons. Similarly, Akiem Hicks has proved to be a critical factor in the Bucs' run defense in his first season in Tampa. Though he has missed more than half of Tampa Bay's games this year due to a foot injury, when he's been on the field he has transformed the defense. In three full games with Hicks in the mix, the Bucs have allowed 59.3 rushing yards per game; in the six full games he has missed, the Bucs have allowed 148.0 rushing yards per game. At 6-4 and 335 pounds, Hicks is a load inside, especially when paired with the equally mountainous Vita Vea, and most opposing coordinators try to come up with ways to get four hands on him in their blocking schemes. Of course, that leads to freer lanes for other linemen and the linebackers roving behind them.

3. Buccaneers WR Julio Jones vs. Browns CB Denzel Ward

Julio Jones has had to manage a knee injury in his first season with the Buccaneers, but when he's on the field he's proved to be a difference-maker...and he appears to be getting looser and healthier as the stretch run begins. His 31-yard catch-and-run in Munich is the Buccaneers' longest touchdown of the season so far and he showed both speed in the open field and power when bowling over a defender at the goal line. Jones has scored in two of the Bucs' last three games and is averaging a team-best 16.2 yards on 11 overall catches, which is actually higher than his career mark of 15.2. At his best, Jones is a sublime route runner who can create separation in an instant and a frequent winner in contested-catch situations. The fourth-overall pick in the 2018 draft, Denzel Ward has developed into one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. He stands 5-11 and 190 pounds and plays bigger than that, easily matching up with big receivers like Jones. Last season, Ward made his second Pro Bowl after allowing an EPA of -9.0 when targeted by opposing quarterbacks. He maintains his balance through cuts and can mirror routes and find the football when it's on the way. Ward has 11 interceptions and 57 passes defensed in 59 career games.

4. Browns WR David Bell vs. Buccaneers CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

Cleveland's top receiving threat is Amari Cooper (50-698-7) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (40-577-1) is his top complement. But both Cooper and Peoples-Jones generally line up wide, while rookie third-rounder David Bell has gotten two-thirds of his work in the slot. Bell has not yet become one of the Browns' most productive weapons but his usage and targets have been on the uptick in recent games. He has played roughly 60% of the team's offensive snaps over the last two games and has been targeted five teams in each of those contests, coming away with seven receptions. His route chart on Next Gen Stats shows a lot of flat routes as he works primarily in the underneath zone. Coming out of Purdue as a third-round pick this past spring, Bell was described as a smooth route-runner with good footwork and an unflinching willingness to work in traffic over the middle. If the Buccaneers can limit Cooper and Peoples-Jones on the outside with their pair of excellent starting corners, Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean, Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett might turn to Bell in the slot, which puts the onus on Sean Murphy-Bunting to break up that connection. In Munich, the Bucs choose to play Murphy-Bunting in the slot instead of Antoine Winfield Jr., leaving Winfield at safety for the majority of the game, and the Buccaneers' pass defense held up well against a red-hot Geno Smith. Murphy-Bunting is only now seeing significant playing time in the Bucs' defense in 2022, but he has plenty of experience playing nickel back from previous seasons and has been productive when healthy. He set a Buccaneers postseason record in 2020 with an interception in three consecutive games. The Bucs are desperately looking for more takeaways on defense and Murphy-Bunting could be the one to get that ball rolling.

INJURY REPORT

Key:

DNP: Did not participate in practice

LP: Limited participation in practice

FP: Full participation in practice

NL: Not listed

Buccaneers:

* QB Tom Brady (rest) - WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP

* RB Leonard Fournette (hip) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP

* WR Russell Gage (hamstring) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP

* G Luke Goedeke (foot) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP

* WR Julio Jones (rest) - WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP

* CB Zyon McCollum (concussion) - WEDS: FP; THURS: FP

* ILB J.J. Russell (hamstring) - WEDS: FP; THURS: FP

* NT Vita Vea (foot) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP

Browns:

* S D'Anthony Bell (concussion) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP

* G Joel Bitonio (illness/rest) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP

* DE Jadeveon Clowney (rest) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP

* T Jack Conklin (foot/rest) - WEDS: FP; THURS: DNP

* WR Amari Cooper (rest) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP

* Hjalte Froholdt (illness) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP

* DE Myles Garrett (rest) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP

* S Ronnie Harrison (illness) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP

* CB Greg Newsome (concussion) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP

* TE David Njoku (ankle/knee) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP

* G Wyatt Teller (calf) - WEDS: LP; THURS: DNP

* T Jedrick Willis (knee) - WEDS: LP; THURS: FP

* DT Perrion Winfrey (concussion) - WEDS: LP; THURS: FP

WEATHER FORECAST

Windy with afternoon showers, high of 48, low of 38, 76% chance of rain, 76% humidity, winds out of the SW at 21 mph.

GAME REFEREE

Head referee: Tra Blake (3rd season, 1st as referee)

BETTING LINE

* Favorite: Buccaneers (-3.0)

* Over/Under: 43.5

INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS

Buccaneers- Points Scored: K Ryan Succop, 79

Touchdowns: RB Leonard Fournette, 6

Passing Yards: QB Tom Brady, 2,805

Passer Rating: QB Tom Brady, 91.9

Rushing Yards: RB Leonard Fournette, 462

Receptions: WR Mike Evans, 49

Receiving Yards: WR Mike Evans, 671

Interceptions: CB Jamel Dean, 2

Sacks: DL Vita Vea, 6.5

Tackles: ILB Devin White, 76

Browns- Points Scored: K Cade York, 70

Touchdowns: RB Nick Chubb, 11

Passing Yards: QB Jacoby Brissett, 2,398

Passer Rating: QB Jacoby Brissett, 90.7

Rushing Yards: RB Nick Chubb, 923

Receptions: WR Amari Cooper, 50

Receiving Yards: WR Amari Cooper, 698

Interceptions: S Grant Delpit/CB A.J. Green/CB Denzel Ward, 1

Sacks: DE Myles Garrett, 8.5

Tackles: S Grant Delpit, 61

TEAM STAT RANKINGS

Buccaneers- Scoring Offense: 27th (18.3 ppg)

Total Offense: 17th (340.5 ypg)

Passing Offense: 5th (269.8 ypg)

Rushing Offense: 32nd (70.7 ypg)

First Downs Per Game: 14th (20.4)

Third-Down Pct.: 20th (39.2%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 1st (3.27%)

Red Zone TD Pct.: 28th (46.7%)

Scoring Defense: 6th (18.0 ppg)

Total Defense: 7th (310.0 ypg)

Passing Defense: 6th (193.4 ypg)

Rushing Defense: 15th (116.6 ypg)

First Downs Allowed Per Game: 5th (17.4)

Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 10th (38.4%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 3rd (9.73%)

Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 25th (63.0%)

Turnover Margin: t-8th (+1)

Browns- Scoring Offense: 10th (24.0 ppg)

Total Offense: 4th (377.9 ypg)

Passing Offense: 14th (227.0 ypg)

Rushing Offense: 5th (150.9 ypg)

First Downs Per Game: 3rd (22.8)

Third-Down Pct.: 15th (40.9%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 11th (6.02%)

Red Zone TD Pct.: 11th (59.5%)

Scoring Defense: 30th (26.9 ppg)

Total Defense: 20th (349.9 ypg)

Passing Defense: 16th (214.8 ypg)

Rushing Defense: 23rd (135.1 ypg)

First Downs Allowed Per Game: t-19th (20.3)

Third-Down Pct. Allowed: t-14th (40.0%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 17th (7.28%)

Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 19th (56.4%)

Turnover Margin: 29th (-6)

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

* Quarterback Tom Brady moved into fifth place on the Buccaneers' all-time passing yardage list with his performance in Munich in Week 10, passing past Doug Williams (12,648). Brady now heads into Week 12 with 12,754 passing yards as a Buccaneer, meaning he can reel in Trent Dilfer (12,969) take over fourth place with 216 more on Sunday.

* Wide receiver Mike Evans heads into Sunday's game with 9,872 receiving yards, a franchise record. If he gets 28 more he would become the 51st player in league history to reach 10,000 receiving yards.

* Running back Leonard Fournette snared his third touchdown reception of the season in Pittsburgh in Week Six. He needs just one more to equal the Buccaneers' record for scoring catches in a season by a running back. Charles Sims set the mark at four in 2015.

* After passing Mike Alstott (158) on the Buccaneers' list of most career games played in Week 10, Lavonte David is now alone in seventh place with 159 and needs just one more to tie Tony Mayberry (160) for the sixth spot.

* Wide receiver Chris Godwin scored his 31st career touchdown in the Buccaneers' Week 10 win over Seattle. With one more he would break a tie for sixth place in team history and move within one of tying teammate Cameron Brate (33) for fifth. Meanwhile, Brate just needs one more TD of his own to tie Jimmie Giles (34) for fourth place on the list.

NOTABLY QUOTABLE

* Head Coach Todd Bowles on if he feels like the arrow is pointed up for the Bucs' offense after an encouraging performance in Week 10: "Well, we got the win but we've got to do it every week. We've got seven games left, so we've just got to produce and we've got to execute every week going forward. We're 5-5, we know what our record is, we know what we've got ahead of us and we're working on those things. We've just got to do it consistently."

* Run Game Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers on facing another highly-ranked rushing attack in Cleveland: "Well, that's the thing you see week in and week out, but the thing is Cleveland - you know when you get off the plane - they're going to run the ball. That's how they're built with their personnel and everything, and they've got a top-flight running back - actually, a top-flight tandem at running back - so, the thing is, it'll be a good challenge. They didn't do so well against Buffalo, so they'll be highly motivated to do well because they kind of understand how they win - when they run the ball it opens everything up for them - so it will be a big test for us."

* Running back Rachaad White on potentially getting more chances to carry the ball: "I'm just a big guy on opportunities, so that's kind of what I focus on. When opportunities come, I just have to make the best of them - that's up to me to make them. I got a lot of great guys in my corner, my family and my friends and things like that and we all understand that life is about opportunities. Eventually everyone is going to get their shot and when you get your shot, it's about what you make of it."

* Quarterback Tom Brady on if he has told teammates about being on teams that were 7-5 and 5-5 and still won the Super Bowl: "I don't think you can think that far ahead. I think it's kind of pointless. You've got to think about what's in the moment and what we have ahead of us this week, and it's a tough game. It's a tough opponent. Everyone wants to jump ahead and think about things that are so far down the road. It's kind of a waste of time. Really, just focus on having a good practice, correct what we messed up, put together three good days of practice and then be prepared to play. Again, you can only win one game this week, and that game's on Sunday. So build what we can to make sure we play our best on Sunday."

* Bowles on ILB Devin White showing resiliency after taking some criticism from outside sources: "Well for us, we've never had a problem with Devin here in the building, so we don't look at it that way at all. Anyone on our team can have one or two bad plays. The fact that he got scrutinized, that's just the way football goes. But we expect everything from him. He's one of our leaders, he's one of our best players, he produces for us every week at a full clip. Everybody has full confidence in him and we expect to be ready to go Sunday just like he was in Germany."

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