It’s game day! The Tampa Bay Buccaneers open the 2016 regular season against the Atlanta Falcons at 1:00 p.m. ET today.
We talked about defensive matchups yesterday, so today we take a look at offensive matchups. Which offensive players have to stand up and win their one-on-ones for the Bucs to walk away with a win today?
LT Donovan Smith vs. L Vic Beasley
The Atlanta Falcons drafted Vic Beasley with the eighth overall pick last year, but he had a disappointing rookie season with just four sacks. Donovan Smith, meanwhile, was a second-round pick who had a somewhat complicated rookie season. On the one hand, his play was promising, and he showed the athletic talent and flashed the skills necessary to thrive in the NFL. On the other hand, there were far too many snaps where he just got beat, and far too quickly at that. His footwork was often sluggish, and he struggled to redirect against counter moves.
Today won’t be a harsh test of his skills, but it will at least be a test. He’ll have to stop a speed rusher from getting to Jameis Winston. He’ll also have to stop veteran Dwight Freeney, who actually has the bag of tricks and counter moves to present significant problems.
If Smith can hold up against Beasley and Freeney, the passing game should be fine. That may also be a good indication of how far he’s progressed over the past year.
WR Mike Evans vs CB Desmond Trufant
Mike Evans had a pretty good season last year, even with a few too many drops. And this preseason, he’s looked dominant. The high point was the third preseason game against the Cleveland Browns, when he caught five of five passes for 115 yards and a touchdown.
That’s the kind of game the Bucs will need to get out of Evans every week, or at least more regularly than they did last year. He caught just three touchdown passes all season in 2015, though that was in part a result of Jameis Winston’s accuracy and the team’s failure to target him in the red zone. While he ended the year with impressive overall numbers (74 catches for 1,206 yards), he wasn’t quite the consistent force the Bucs hoped he’d be.
Entering his third year, that has to change if the Bucs want a consistently explosive offense (they do). Today would be a good day to start, and Desmond Trufant would be a good victim, if only because he’s 5” smaller than Evans.
RB Doug Martin vs. S Kemal Ishmael
When Doug Martin has been productive, he’s done that mostly by making one defender miss in the hole. Against the Atlanta Falcons, that one defender is likely to be strong safety Kemal Ishmael, who’s filling in for injured first-round pick Keanu Neal.
Martin has had a weirdly up-and-down season. In 2012 and 2015, he was one of the most productive backs in the entire NFL. In 2013 and 2014, he was playing at replacement level, and regularly looked worse than the backs who were backing him up.
The Bucs are hoping to see 2012 and 2015 Martin, rather than the other version of him. They’re confident enough in Martin to once again build the offense around him and the running game. He’ll have to show that confidence isn’t misplaced.