This will be Tom Brady’s first game against Baltimore with the Buccaneers, yet the Ravens know all about Brady.
They just haven’t seen a Brady-led offense in this bad of shape in some time. Brady has faced John Harbaugh’s Ravens 10 times over the years -- six in the regular season and four more in the playoffs, all of them coming with Brady in New England.
Brady has been far more effective against them in regular-season meetings, but now he and his 3-4 Buccaneers will limp into what feels like a crucial game in Thursday’s matchup against Baltimore at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay’s offensive issues have been present most of the season but have been more pronounced in the past three games, with the Bucs scoring 21, 18 and three points.
Sunday’s loss at Carolina has been the team’s low point to date, with head coach Todd Bowles saying “it’s about as dark as it’s gonna be.” The Bucs have now lost four of five games and are averaging a paltry 17.7 points per game.
“We have not played to our level and what we’re capable of,” Brady said this week. “That’s our reality, and we have to own it.”
Baltimore moved to 4-3 following Sunday’s close-shave win over the Browns. Cleveland missed a field goal and lost a late fumble in the 23-20 final. It has been a ping-pong season, as the Ravens have not won -- or lost -- more than one game in a row.
Brady and Lamar Jackson facing off is, on paper, one of the best QB battles you can dream up. But lately, these offenses have been stuck more often in nightmare mode.
Here are four things to watch for when the Ravens visit the Buccaneers on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- The Bucs badly need a good start. Adding up their first four drives in every game this season, they have only scored two touchdowns and eight field goals in those 28 possessions. In first quarters this season, the Bucs have been outscored, 34-15; it’s the only quarter where they’ve given up more points than they’ve scored (Simultaneously, the Ravens have outscored their opponents, 37-13, in first quarters this season). Injuries have made things worse -- WR Russell Gage (hamstring) is among six Buccaneers ruled out -- though Tampa Bay might get WR Julio Jones (knee), RG Shaq Mason (ankle) and TE Ko Kieft (ankle) back for this game. But the struggles go beyond that. The Buccaneers can’t run the ball -- early or late -- and as a result, Brady’s play-action passes have fallen flat this season. Perhaps look for offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich to try to get Brady in a rhythm early with some tempo. When they needed a spark vs. Atlanta, the Bucs went no huddle and drove 88 yards for a TD. Then they barely used a hurry-up approach in the past two losses.
- And the Ravens must finish better. They blew leads of 10 or more points three times in their first six games and had to sweat out Sunday’s narrow win. Since dropping 37 points at Foxborough in Week 3, Jackson and the Baltimore offense have averaged 20.5 points and 320 yards; in the first three games, those numbers were 33.0 and 380, respectively. If there are common denominators, it’s that there have been too many turnovers on offense and not enough resistance on defense in the games’ final 15 minutes. Four of Jackson’s six INTs this season and all three of the Ravens' lost fumbles have come in the fourth. On defense, they’ve allowed an NFL-worst 856 yards and 10 TDs in that quarter. Sure, the Ravens’ depth has been sapped by injury, but it shouldn’t be this bad. John Harbaugh is too good a coach to let this happen so frequently. Last week, they didn’t trust their blocking and took the ball out of Jackson’s hands. Could that trust return in this matchup?
- Bucs’ short-yardage situations are causing big problems. In the second half of the loss at Carolina, Tampa Bay faced five plays in the second half on third or fourth down with 2 or fewer yards to gain. The Bucs converted one of them. This season, they've converted only 4-of-11 third- and fourth-down runs with Leonard Fournette. Interestingly, they have converted all four tries in those situations with rookie Rachaad White running the ball. Will Leftwich stick with Fournette in those situations? Thursday could be an interesting test for that, but Leftwich has defended Fournette pretty consistently as not being the problem. Leftwich has seemingly suggested the offensive line is at least part of the issue in those situations, and rookie LG Luke Goedeke was beaten on a few of those plays last week where Fournette was stopped short. If there’s a bright side for Tampa, the Ravens haven’t been great in those situations defensively outside of the Bengals game.
- Can Lamar rediscover his magic in prime time? This offseason brought a ton of discussion about Jackson’s unusual contract situation, and the common refrain was that he was betting on himself in his quest for a long-term extension. Through three games, that goal felt easily attainable. The past four games haven’t helped Jackson’s case, with his two late turnovers against the Giants being particularly painful. We all know the bottom line: The Ravens have to sign the guy eventually, right? That might be true, but they sure could use a vintage Lamar game in this one. The Bucs have faced some dual-threat QBs this season, such as Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott and Marcus Mariota. But this will be a very tricky challenge without a full cast on hand. They could be without DB Antoine Winfield Jr., who has been one of the defense’s bright spots this season, and CBs Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting.