CB Alterraun Verner vs WR Andrew Hawkins
The Browns' offense has gone through the running game and the tight end position this season, but that probably won't work on Sunday: Cleveland's running game has stalled the past couple of games, while Jordan Cameron will miss the game due to a concussion.
That means the Browns are going to have to pass on the Bucs which...well, that's not been much of an issue for teams this entire season. And number one receiver is Andrew Hawkins, the 28-year old slot receiver who's been converted to a full-time starter and flourished. He has 36 catches for 470 yards this year, and has been a surprisingly consistent force after languishing on the sidelines in Cincinnati last year.
Which is where Alterraun Verner comes in. Verner has probably been the Bucs' least disappointing free agent this season, which isn't saying all that much. But he fits the defense, has made a few impact plays and is generally active, even if he does get beat at times. The matchup with Hawkins will be interesting, because Hawkins is more of a slot receiver than an outside threat -- which means he relies on swift changes of direction and sharp route running, a very different challenge from the more size and speed-oriented receivers you normally see on the outside.
If the Browns are smart they'll put Hawkins on the left side quite a bit, where they'll find Johnthan Banks. He's having a bad season, and his tall, slightly stiff frame is badly matched with Hawkins' shifty, low-to-the-ground playing style. That could be a disaster for the Bucs -- which is why they may decide to have Verner move across the field and follow Hawkins.
DT Clinton McDonald vs C Nick McDonald
The Cleveland Browns have a pretty good offensive line, overall. Left tackle Joe Thomas is always good, and even rookie Joel Bitonio has been more than solid. But they do have one problem: All-Pro center Alex Mack is out for the season with a knee injury, and replacement Nick McDonald is no All-Pro. Not that he's a complete disaster, but Mack covered up for players elsewhere, and McDonald can't do that.
Which means the Bucs have to take advantage of those shortcomings to frustrate the Cleveland offense. We know Gerald McCoy's going to wreak some havoc in the backfield and demand extra attention -- he does that every week. But Clinton McDonald needs to start stepping up, too. He hasn't been a disappointment and he's played fairly well overall, but he hasn't been a difference maker -- and against the Browns and the kind of zone running scheme they practice, a penetrating nose tackle can make a huge difference.
So the battle of the McDonald's is going to be key to the Bucs' efforts on Sunday. Can the Bucs get some consistent extra pass rush up the middle, and some more disruption on those running plays?
S Major Wright vs QB Brian Hoyer
The Bucs have been garbage in coverage this season, with perhaps a minor exception last week. And they traded their starting strong safety this week, which means yet another player will have to step up in coverage. That's probably going to be Major Wright, who will get his fourth start of the season on Sunday.
Wright's an interesting player: he's not especially good at anything, but he knows the system and Lovie Smith trusts him. That gives him a big leg up over Mark Barron, who was not familiar with the system, and that showed up at times. If Wright can simply execute his assignments in a disciplined manner, we should already see a small improvement on Sunday.
But that's easier said than done, and Wright isn't exactly a great player, either. He was horrid in a different system in Chicago last season, and he was waived before week one by the Bucs this season. Like Ahmad Black and Cody Grimm in previous years, he's a player who can function if he does everything right, but who can also be exploited because of an overall lack of difference-making skills.
There's a small chance Bradley McDougald actually gets the start in Wright's place, or some significant playing time throughout the game. Smith was surprisingly complimentary of the young safety in press conferences this week, and it sounded like they might give him some playing time.