The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit the road to play the Houston Texans this weekend, looking for their second win of the season and their first winning record since week 11, 2012. Meanwhile, the Texans are trying to prevent their already grim-looking season from spiraling out of control -- but they are seven-point favorites anyway. Here are the five matchups that could decide tomorrow's game.
Donovan Smith vs. Jadeveon Clowney
Jadeveon Clowney could single-handedly destroy the Bucs' chances of winning tomorrow's game. No, not J.J. Watt. Clowney.
I'm less worried about Watt because the Panthers did a pretty good job of limiting his impact and the Bucs can copy their playbook: double-team him all game long. They took advantage of his upfield aggression on some draw plays and generally managed to keep him from changing the game, in part by getting the ball out quickly. Watt will get his, but that doesn't need to be the end of the game if the rest of the line can block the rest of the Texans.
That's where Donovan Smith comes in, because he has struggled so far. I think Cian Fahey's breakdown here oversells the extent of his problems -- he obviously picks out the very worst plays -- but Smith has killed a few plays in both of his starts, and that happened against fairly mediocre pass rushers. Clowney isn't quite there yet, but he's showing more and more flashes of his physical talent every week and he could give Smith some fits, especially on those devastating outside-to-inside moves he put on some many tackles in college.
Jacquies Smith vs. wait what's going on with the Texans offensive line
The Houston Texans lost right tackle Jeff Adams last week to a torn patellar tendon, which means NFL sack leader Jacquies Smith is going to line up against an entirely new starter at right tackle. And it's not at all clear who will fill in. They had undrafted rookie Kendall Lamm fill in during the game, but is that the player they want to rest their hopes on? Last year's second-round pick Xavier Su'a-Filo has been a massive disappointment but he could step in at tackle or left guard -- if it weren't for the fact that he was limited all week long with a calf injury and his participation is in doubt.
That leaves the Texans with undrafted rookie Greg Mancz stepping in at left guard and Derek Newton moving to right tackle, or waiver-wire pickup Oday Aboushi doing the same thing. But then they'd have someone with basically no experience going against Gerald McCoy. That's not actually better than having them face Jacquies Smith.
Regardless of how the Texans configure their battered offensive line, the Bucs will have a very favorable matchup or two somewhere. They'd better take advantage of it.
Tim Jennings vs. DeAndre Hopkins
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers keep on shuffling that secondary, and it looks like Tim Jennings is going to get the start over Alterraun Verner this week. He certainly got a lot of playing time last week, in part because he's the fastest cornerback on the roster and the Bucs trusted him to track the explosive Brandin Cooks deep. Which is exactly what they need Jennings to do against Hopkins this week. The receiver put up 76 catches for 1,210 yards and six touchdowns last year, after being Houston's first-round pick in 2013.
Hopkins is a threat every week, and he has everything you want out of a wide receiver: speed, size, great hands, the ability to make contested catches. But Jennings has looked surprisingly good after being cut by the Chicago Bears in preseason. He'd better be up to this challenge, or he'll swiftly lost his playing time to Alterraun Verner again.
Ryan Mallett vs. the Buccaneers safeties
The Bucs have very little speed at safety. That's not a particularly surprising statement given the lackluster group of names they have there. Their fastest safety is probably Chris Conte, who struggled in week one but had a surprisingly good performance against Drew Brees with one interception and a forced fumble. Those safeties will now be tested by Ryan Mallett's single-speed cannon -- and that means they need to show up with outstanding discipline in coverage, or they will be too late to cover the ground to catch up with Mallett's passes.
More than that, they need to be secure in rallying up to make tackles on underneath throws. They were outstanding doing so against the Saints after a dismal performance in week one. The Texans don't have many players who will scare them with their ability after the catch, but one missed tackle can make the worst receiver in the NFL look like the second coming of Jerry Rice for just one play.
Good news, though: Mallett is kind of awful, stares down receivers and has a slow-ish release.
Mike Evans vs. Jonathan Joseph
Mike Evans is back at full health and should line up across from Jonathan Joseph, one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL, though no longer the shutdown defensive back he was a couple of seasons ago. That showed up against the Carolina Panthers last week, as undrafted second-year player ran straight by Joseph and then boxed him out on a key fourth-quarter touchdown -- exactly the kind of play Mike Evans made on a weekly basis last week, and not entirely dissimilar to Vincent Jackson's touchdown against the Saints.
Evans has yet to catch a ball this year, even in the preseason, largely because of injuries. He was targeted three times last week, though, and had a beautiful sideline catch wrongfully taken away -- and that's while playing a limited number of snaps. He should be a much bigger part of the gameplan this week, and has a chance to really go off against a mediocre Texans secondary.
Plus, Evans is returning to his home state. A nice homecoming is just what he needs.