With three wins in their last four games the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are within one-half game of a playoff spot as the second half of the season gets underway. The Bucs (4-4) host San Diego this afternoon having already beaten two AFC West opponents. For Tampa Bay, the offense has kicked into gear after a 1-3 start. As for the Chargers (4-4), they sit one game behind Denver in the division and if Phillip Rivers is going to change the dialogue on his mediocre campaign, the Tampa defense offers an opportunity to prosper.
After finishing last season 27th in the NFL in total points by averaging 17.9 points a contest, Tampa Bay improved that total by nearly a field goal over the first four contests this year (20.5ppg). Since then, the Bucs have scored 36 points per game thanks to the emergence of rookie RB Doug Martin.
In his first four professional games after a stellar career at Boise State, Martin averaged 74 total yards and 3.5 yards per carry. Over his last four contests he has been the best back in the league. Capping off a four game run with 251 rushing yards and four TD's against the Raiders, Martin averaged 185 total yards and 6.6 yards per rush over the quartet of contests. Martin has been aided by the mistake free play of QB Josh Freeman.
In his fourth NFL season, Freeman has erased the tendency to throw costly interceptions that plagued him during two of his first three campaigns. Freeman was picked off 18 times in ten games during his rookie season when Tampa Bay went 3-13. Last year he was intercepted on 22 occasions and the Bucs went 4-12 ending the year on a ten game losing streak. In Tampa's surprising 2010 season Freeman gave away only six passes in 16 games and the Bucs finished 10-6. The Kansas State alum threw 4 INT's during the 1-3 start this year, but has thrown just one in the last four games and none since October 14.
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As for the Chargers, three of their four loses can be at least partially blamed on Rivers. He failed to throw a TD while being picked off twice in a blowout loss to Atlanta, the Broncos intercepted four of his passes in a 35-24 Denver win, and two weeks ago the former Pro Bowler failed to get San Diego into the end zone in a 7-6 loss at Cleveland. Rivers has passed for more than 300 yards just once this year, during a 31-24 loss at New Orleans, and has been under 250 yards passing in six of eight games. But it's not all bad news, this week he gets to face the Buccaneer defense.
After Oakland's Carson Palmer threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns against the Tampa defense last week, the Bucs now rank last in the league in passing defense. Only Kansas City's Brady Quinn has failed to throw for 200 yards against the Bucs. Tampa has been shredded for 300 or more yards in he air five times, 400 or greater three times, and let us not forget Eli Manning's 510 yard, three touchdown performance in week two.
Interestingly, the Buc defense is number one in the NFL against the run. This puts the onus on Rivers and his top targets WR Malcolm Floyd and TE Antonio Gates. The two have combined for 790 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers mirror the production of Buc WR Vincent Jackson. Tampa Bay signed Jackson in the off-season from San Diego and he has produced. Jackson has hauled in 31 passes for 710 yards and six touchdowns. He leads the NFL wideouts with at least 15 catches averaging 22.9 yards per grab. He signed a five year $55.6 million dollar contract with Tampa Bay in March and now the Chargers will need to find a way to control him.
Between Martin, Freeman, and Jackson, the Buc offense is rolling. The Chargers will need to outscore Tampa Bay, and that means Rivers must play well. The winner may very well end the afternoon in a wild card driver’s seat.