Buccaneers-Chargers Big Dang Preview

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

A pair of 4-4 teams face off in an important mid-season battle that could have playoff implications.

For fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, its bizarro world. A fanbase so used to seeing superb defense and little offense - their 2012 Buccaneer squad is the exact opposite. No team has been more prolific the last four weeks than Tampa Bay. The Bucs offense can score through the ground or air anywhere on the field. Yet we also know that no lead is safe with the Bucs' leaky pass defense. Tampa Bay has blown double digit leads multiple times this season and nearly did it again in Oakland. Still, the Bucs are as hot as a match, going 3-1 in the second quarter of the season, averaging 36 points a game in the process.

Enter a San Diego squad that is travelling 3,000 miles to face Tampa Bay. The Chargers have lost 4 of their last 6 after a 2-0 start, including an ugly loss at Cleveland to the woeful Browns.

With a win in Tampa, where the Chargers are a shocking 5-0, San Diego can climb back into the playoff conversation in the AFC. A win for the Bucs would be their third straight and push them smack dab into contention in the NFC.

Make no mistake folks, this is an important ball game.

Series: San Diego leads 8-1

Last Meeting: December 21, 2008 - San Diego 41, Tampa Bay 28

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Passing Game vs. San Diego Chargers Pass Defense

Bucs Quarterback Josh Freeman put together his best stretch of four games in his young NFL career, completing 76 of 134, 57% comp pct, 1257 yds, 11 touchdowns and 1 int for a QB Rating of 112.7 during that span. Vincent Jackson has been Freeman's main target. Jackson has provided the Bucs passing game the big play threat it so desperately needed. His impact is felt in the locker room as well, helping number two receiver Mike Williams return to a dominant form. The Bucs have risen to 13th in the league passing.

They are facing a San Diego defense that is about middle of the pack when it comes to defending the pass (18th). Shaun Phillips is their leading sacker (5) but seems to be the only member of the defense getting consistent pressure. They have a solid secondary with Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason, as well as safety Eric Weddle. Each has two interceptions and Weddle is second on the team with 46 tackles.

San Diego has struggled with physical receivers this season and both Williams and Jackson can play physical football.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running game vs. San Diego Chargers Run Defense

Doug Martin is the truth - we all know it. However, Martin has benefited in recent weeks from teams picking their poison - playing back to prevent Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams from torching their secondary. Its allowed Martin the space he needs to create magic and man has he ever. Over the past four games, he's averaged 184.8 yards of total offense per game while scoring 7 touchdowns.

San Diego counters with the 4th best defense against the run in the league. Both safeties Weddle and Atari Bigby are active against the run, leading the Chargers in tackles. The Chargers have surrendered just 100 yds to one running back all season, Cleveland rookie Trent Richardson but have shut down some top flight backs like Michael Turner, Jamaal Charles and Darren McFadden.

Can they cool off Doug Martin? We'll find out.

Advantage: Push

San Diego Chargers Passing Game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pass Defense

Eli has two rings. Ben has two rings. Drew Brees has a ring. Phillip Rivers? Nada. That is perhaps one of the biggest knocks against young Rivers as the quarterback for the San Diego Chargers. This season though, Rivers has been average at best. Once considered elite, he's currently ranked 13th in the NFL in QB Rating and has thrown the 5th most interceptions in the league (10). Fornerly one of the most prolific passers in the NFL, Rivers is averaging the lowest yardage per pass (7.1, 21st in the NFL) since he was instilled as the team's full time starter in 2006.

Without Vincent Jackson, Rivers has relied on Malcolm Floyd and ageless Antonio Gates to pick up the slack. Floyd has hauled in 33 receptions for 509 yds and 2 touchdowns while Gates leads the team in touchdown receptions with 3.

They'll be facing a Tampa Bay defense that simply cannot stop the pass. Ranked dead last, Tampa Bay gives up 321.1 yds through the air per game. After trading away their best corner, Tampa Bay has had to rely on veteran Eric Wright and younger players like Leonard Johnson and E.J. Biggers to get the job done. Tampa Bay's Methuselah, Ronde Barber, has moved to safety and is playing well. So is first round pick Mark Barron, who has done well supporting the run and has done some nice things on pass defense.

The Bucs secondary while leaky is opportunistic. Tampa Bay is third in the NFL with 13 interceptions, led by Ronde Barber's 3.

The Bucs pass rush has once again been anemic (13 sacks) after suffering the loss of former first round pick Adrian Clayborn for the season.

Advantage: San Diego

San Diego Chargers Rushing Attack vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Run Defense

Are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers truly the best run defense in the NFL or do they just benefit because teams pass the ball against their weak secondary? That's a chicken or the egg type argument. One thing Tampa Bay certainly can do is stop runners behind the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Lavonte David, MLB Mason Foster, defensive lineman Gerald McCoy and Michael Bennett have combined for 33 tackles for loss. The Bucs are only giving up 3.4 yds a carry and 77.3 yds per game.

When Ryan Matthews was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, they hoped he would become what Doug Martin has been in Tampa Bay - an every down back. It simply hasn't materialized for Matthews. Averaging just 4.4 yds an attempt with 1 touchdown Matthews has yet to light the world on fire. Before last week's 31 yd run against the Kansas City Chiefs, Matthews longest run was 18 yds. He hasn't been the receiver out of the backfield they hoped for either, with just 21 receptions for 145 yds.

Jackie Battle is the short yardage back, leading the team with 3 rushing touchdowns. Former Dolphin Ronnie Brown has been brought in as a change of pace guy.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

Special Teams

Once one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL, Connor Barth has struggled the last few weeks. He's 13 of 17 with a long of 56. All four missed field goals (one was blocked) have come in the past three games. Michael Koenen continues to be a valuable weapon on kickoffs and punting. His average of 43.9 yds a punt may not seem impressive, but he is one of the league leaders in kicks inside the opponent's 20 with 14.

Roscoe Parrish is one more muffed punt away from the unemployment line while Arrelious Benn has not been scaring anyone returning kicks.

Nick Novak replaced Nate Kaeding as San Diego's kicker and has nailed 8 of 9 since joining the Chargers. Mike Scifres is putting up Pro Bowl numbers with a 48.3 punting average and 14 punts inside opponents 20 yd line.

Eddie Royal and Eric Weddle haven't done much in the punt return game, while Richard Goodman has been doing a solid job returning kicks, averaging 27.6 yds a return.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

By the Numbers

- Tampa Bay has lost two straight to San Diego

- San Diego is 5-0 all time at Tampa

- Tampa Bay has not beaten San Diego since 1996 (the only victory for the Bucs in the series).

- In Doug Martin's past 2, he has 486 scrimmage yards, most in 2-game span in single season since HOFer Walter Payton in 1977

- San Diego is 3-7 in the last 10 games in the Eastern time zone.

- San Diego is 31st in the NFL in red zone defense (touchdowns). Tampa Bay is 4th in the NFL in red zone offense (touchdowns).

- Tampa Bay is 9th in the NFL in red zone defense (TDs), while San Diego is 18th in the league in Red Zone offense (TDs).

- Tampa Bay is +9 in turnover ratio (5th best in the NFL), San Diego is even.

- Tampa Bay has scored 28 or more points in 4 consecutive games - a franchise record. The Bucs have been held under 20 points twice all season.

- San Diego is 16th in offensive scoring, averaging 23.1 pts per game. They surrender 19.1 pts per game (8th best in the NFL).

- Tampa Bay is averaging 28.2 pts per game (5th in the NFL) and surrendering 23.1 pts per game (20th).

- Tampa Bay has not won three straight games since Oct.3 2011.

Outlook

I've doubted the Bucs each of the last two weeks. Going to Minnesota to face a hostile crowd and a red hot Vikings team, I had no faith Tampa Bay could come out victorious. They embarrassed the Vikings in front of a National television audience. I doubted them again, going with history on the West Coast for Tampa Bay. The Bucs were pummeling the Raiders into the Black Hole until they briefly took their foot off the pedal and let the Raiders crawl back in it.

I've seen enough. I'm a kool-aid drinker of this offense. While the Bucs defense has me concerned in every game - if there's one thing the pass defense does well it's intercept the ball. If there's one thing Phillip Rivers is doing well this season, it's tossing it to the other team.

I think the Bucs will get some big plays from both Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams while the Chargers try to focus on stopping the Dougernaut. They might succeed in slowing down Martin, but at their own peril.

I think Freeman has another big day and Buc fans go home happy with their team back above .500.

Prediction: Tampa Bay 30, San Diego 23

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