- WHERE: Highmark Stadium (Orchard Park, NY)
- WHEN: 8:15 PM ET | Prime Video, NFL+
After the first month of the season, the Buccaneers and Bills both sat at 3-1, atop their respective standings. Since then, both teams have hit the ground running.
After a Week 5 bye, the Bucs have lost games at home to the Lions and Falcons. Although Tampa Bay’s defense showed up in both games, the offense only scored 19 points.
The Bills were riding high after their 48-20 drubbing of the Dolphins in Week 4, but things have been a lot tougher since. They lost in London to the Jaguars, struggled to beat the one-win Giants, and then lost in Foxborough to a struggling Patriots team they had dominated in recent meetings.
Now the Bucs are a half game out of first in the NFC South, and the Bills are back behind the Dolphins in the AFC East. Which team is going to break out of their slump?
The Bucs have never won in Buffalo. In an odd bit of timing, the non-conference opponents have only met 12 times, with the first eight meetings between 1976 and 2005 taking place in Tampa. They last went to Buffalo in 2017 — Sean McDermott’s first year as Bills head coach — and lost, 30-27.
The Bills are 3-0 at Highmark Stadium this season, with their one “home loss” coming in London. The Bucs are 2-0 on the road, but their road skills will be tested. Thursday’s game begins a run of six away games in eight weeks, with most of those teams still in contention.
This game features two quarterbacks who were selected in the first seven picks of the 2018 NFL Draft, Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen. The successful Mayfield started this season well but has recovered in recent games. Allen has also been hot and cold at times this season, accounting for 19 touchdowns while also throwing interceptions in three straight games.
Both Mayfield (knee) and Allen (right shoulder) are dealing with injuries, Mayfield has been given a questionable designation.
Here are four things to watch when the Buccaneers visit the Bills Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Bills must avoid slow offense again. Since their 3-1 start, the Bills have followed a familiar pattern: The offense has taken a while to get going, and that has put a shorthanded defense in a tough spot. The Bills scored four straight times on the Jaguars and fell behind, 11-0. Buffalo trailed the Giants, 6-0, (it should have been more) and didn’t score until the fourth quarter. In New England, Josh Allen’s first pass was picked off and they trailed, 13-3, at halftime. A short defense missing four starters and a ramp Hope Miller cannot be asked to replay every week. There have been common denominators in the slow starts — Allen has been indecisive at times, Buffalo’s offensive line has allowed too much pressure and receivers haven’t been named Stephen Diggs have difficulty understanding. Tampa Bay hasn’t faced too many elite offenses, but against the Eagles — a team with a mobile QB and big-play receiver — the Bucs showed some defensive looks on first downs but often failed to use safe pressure and keep safeties high to prevent deep shots . They struggled to contain the Eagles but had success in the red zone (1 of 5 TD conversions). The Bucs have been slightly better in the second half defensively this season, but have allowed just 10 first-half points in each of the last two losses.
- Big game for Baker Mayfield. In the loss to the Lions, Mayfield got off to a slow start, getting picked off on his fourth throw of the game and never finding his stride. Last week against the Falcons, Mayfield came into his own early, throwing for 171 yards and a TD in the first half, but he struggled after halftime and threw an ugly pick late to cost the Bucs. What started as a strong season for Mayfield has leveled off. A stronger running game would help — the Bucs are second to last in rushing average (3.1 yards) — and yet it’s hard to envision him suddenly blossoming. Offensive coordinator Dave Canales has used the short passing game to offset this a bit, and he may want to consider expanding it against Buffalo. Mayfield’s offensive line has protected him well and the Bills’ pass rush has been inconsistent. But Mayfield also tends to hang on to the ball as long as any QB in the league, and New England may have provided a blueprint last week with a flurry of pass rushes. Mac Jones thrived on passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds last week (17 of 20, 170 yards, two TDs). This is a big game for Mayfield as the Bucs go into a tough fight. He has to show that this Bucs passing game can be more consistently explosive, and a lot of that falls on Mayfield, even if the lack of rushing makes this a flawed operation.
- Dalton Kincaid could expect more work. The news that TE Dawson Knox (wrist) is out indefinitely was a big blow to the Bills’ offense, even though Knox didn’t get off to a good start in the passing game. The plan all along had been to make the 12-man into something of a new base offense, with Knox as a threat at the line and Kincaid veering out into the slot as a receiving threat. That’s probably out the window for now, but Kincaid was able to break through last week with a stellar performance at New England (8-75-0 receiving eight shots). Kincaid took a bit more of a back seat in the second half, as the Bills mostly went with 11 carries (three receivers, one return, one tight end). Allen has forced the ball into Diggs at times and for good reason. Diggs will still be the Bucs’ toughest cover on Thursday. They have done well against tight ends this season, not allowing anyone to catch a TD pass against them. But Kincaid showed a knack for finding soft spots when the Patriots went into zone, and he deserves a chance to repeat that role against a Bucs D that is running zone 79.5% of the time this season, via Next Gen Stats. It’s a tough team to run against, so whether it’s Kincaid, running back James Cook or wide receiver Gabe Davisthe accounts must find other receiving sources outside of Diggs.
- The Bucs’ Vikings must win against the second-place Bills. Chris Godwin (neck) is questionable, but signs point to him playing Thursday. He hasn’t caught a TD pass this season, but Godwin has heated up the last three games, catching 20 passes for 257 yards and doing so against three respectable defenses. Mike EvansWeek-to-week production has been a little hot and cold, but he’s had a nice season overall, on pace for more than 1,300 yards and 10 TDs. They are clearly the Bucs’ two best offensive players, and yet last week marked the first time this season that both went over the 60-yard mark in the same game. Buffalo’s short defense has been hit hard by injuries at all three levels. With Tre’Davious White out, the diluted secondary has been playing a large area. What they need is more big plays. Cornermen Christian Benford and Dane Jackson have been solid outside, but the Bills have gone three-plus games without an INT. Godwin and Evans both spend time in the slot but are primarily outside receivers. Trey Palmer and Deven Thompson are the primary internal goals. Last week the Patriots repeatedly took a nickel CB Taron Johnson, so it should be up to the Bucs to try him again. Look for the exciting Palmer to be reintroduced in the attack after a quiet game on Sunday.