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Buccaneers Week 4 X-Factor: With the offense banged up, Donovan Smith has to step-up

When the quarterback has to search for weapons, the offensive line has to give him time

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Through Wednesday and Thursday’s practices for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, wide receivers Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller had yet to practice due to injuries.

Now, we expect Godwin is going to miss this weekend’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers, and maybe even more given the quick turnaround in Week 5 with a road game against the Chicago Bears looming next Thursday Night.

What we don’t know is the full status of Miller who is listed with a hip/groin injury, but the fact he hasn’t practiced yet is not a good sign.

Fortunately, Justin Watson has been a full participant in both day’s sessions after missing Week 3. However, with no disrespect to Watson intended, it’s really hard to imagine Watson can give the Bucs offense what either Godwin or Miller has thus far.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

So then, Justin Watson is the X-Factor for the Bucs in Week 4, right? He has to pick up the slack left by an All-Pro wide receiver and potentially even make-up in part for the absence or limitation of his younger - yet more explosive - teammate in Miller.

Wrong. Instead, it’s Tampa Bay’s starting left tackle, Donovan Smith. Of course, you read the headline, so you already know that.

To the casual fan, this Los Angeles Chargers defense is banged up something fierce.

They lost Derwin James Jr. before the season ever got going. Cornerback, Chris Harris Jr. is the latest Chargers defender to visit the injured reserve following their loss to the Carolina Panthers, and Melvin Ingram III was placed on IR before Week 3’s game along with starting defensive tackle Justin Jones.

So, yeah, the defense is hurting. They aren’t devoid of talent however, and this is where Smith really comes in.

First of all, 2019 first-round NFL Draft pick Jerry Tillery is the man replacing Jones on the interior defensive line. In Week 2, when Jones was injured against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tillery stepped up and played on 70% of the Chargers’ defensive snaps compiling just one tackle, but got physical with Patrick Mahomes three times and blocked an extra point helping his team take the Super Bowl Champs into overtime.

His efforts in 2020 thus far have received high praise, and even drove veteran defensive tackle Linval Joseph to say about Tillery,

“He’s a Scary, Scary Man”

Tillery plays on the inside though, so what’s this got to do with Smith? Well, obviously there are stunts and other maneuvers which could lead Smith to facing Tillery directly. More importantly however, this is to illustrate the fact the Bucs’ interior offensive line isn’t exactly walking into a Sunday stroll with Jones out of the picture.

With the interior having to deal with a ‘scary’ second-year Tillery the tackles are going to be facing Joey Bosa who was a limited participant at practice on Thursday and will likely be a go for Sunday. If this wasn’t bad enough, they also have to face the top rated pass rusher when it comes to pass rush productivity; Uchenna Nwosu.

Who is Nwosu? More on him later. For now, he’s the man known as having the best pass rush productivity rating among all EDGE players with 56 or more pass rushing snaps.

This distinct measurement, provided by Pro Football Focus comes from, “A formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer.”

Better than Bosa, than Shaquil Barrett, than Jason Pierre-Paul. Through three weeks, Nwosu impacts the passer more per pass rush attempt than any of them.

Now, he also has just one sack on the season, so most of his work is coming by way of pressures and hits on the quarterback.

Ryan Disdier (Locked On Podcast Network)

Truth be told, the X-Factor in this game is how the pass blocking does against a pretty good pass rush from Los Angeles, and it goes beyond Bosa. However, this is ‘X-Factor’ not Factors. So if I have to go with one man, it’s going to be the one we all know leads to the most heartburn from the outside looking in.

Smith will have to face Bosa, but when he’s not, he’ll be lined up against Nwosu who has spent nearly 70% of his time this season rushing off the defensive right side.

It’s no surprise Smith has the lowest pass blocking efficiency of the two Bucs starting tackles, but he’s really not far off from his rookie counterpart. For what it’s worth with one fewer snap Smith has allowed one more hurry, two fewer hits to the quarterback, but two more sacks, than Wirfs.

Smith has allowed one more pressure than Wirfs, but two of his coming on sacks is the really damning data.

Buccaneers fans have been anxiously waiting to see the top-shelf Tom Brady led offense they all hoped to see when the team brought in the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history.

With Chris Godwin expected to be out and Scotty Miller missing the first two practices of the week, it’s possible Brady’s wide receiver group will have a combined thirteen receptions through three games. Ten of those belong to Mike Evans.

Of course, there are the tight ends and even running backs who could participate in the passing game. Important to note though, Leonard Fournette has missed each of the first two practices as well.

With the offense still looking to gel, and with Brady looking to build some consistency, missing Godwin and possibly Miller allows the Chargers defense to breath a bit better when lining up against this offense.

If the Chargers pass rush gets home on Brady, it’ll force Byron Leftwich and Bruce Arians to keep in help to try and plug the leak. Doing so only takes more targets off the field for Brady. No Godwin and no Miller to take the top off the defense, means a tighter field to play with and may require Brady to hold the ball longer than he’d like to.

Screen passes can help of course, as can fast developing routes. Eventually though, Brady is going to need time to find the weapons he does have. Needing time against two of the early season’s best pass rushers in Nwosu and Bosa is not a request easy to fill.

The offensive line will need to rise to the challenge though, and when we look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ line, we look at Donovan Smith first. Which is why he’s our Week 4 X-Factor against the Los Angeles Chargers.