Here are five storylines to watch in Sunday’s matchup:
1. Getting first downs
The offense has been in a funk throughout October, and that became painfully obvious last week when Cincinnati managed just 10 points against one of the league’s worst defenses.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said it all boils down to an inability to make first downs and that’s the focus this week. The Bengals averaged 25 first downs per game the first four weeks of the season and just 17 per game in three games since, including a win over the Dolphins that required two defensive touchdowns to secure a victory.
“When you only make 15 first downs (against Kansas City), you’re not going to end up getting the ball down the field enough, you’re not going to end up running the ball enough, you’re not going to end up doing anything enough probably other than you’d say we got it to A.J. (Green) early and A.J. got yards,” Lazor said. “That’s the key. … We just felt if we made first downs, we’re good in the red zone, we’ll finish the drives with touchdowns. And it was our least first downs that we made for the year. … To me, that’s the indicator and that’s something we’ve got to get back going in the other direction because early in the year, we were making a lot of first downs.”
The Bucs rank last in the league in points allowed (32.7 per game) and 29th in yards allowed (417.5).
2. Another new tight end
Rookie tight end Jordan Franks is expected to make his NFL debut after being signed off the practice squad Tuesday to replace yet another injured player at the position. The Bengals have lost four tight ends this year, including Cethan Carter in the preseason and three of the four guys they began the year with.
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“It’s tough obviously,” said Tyler Kroft, who is nursing a foot injury he hopes to come back from. “Coming into the year we thought we were a pretty deep position group, so it’s awful how snack-bitten we’ve been but we have all the faith in the world in Jordan stepping up. He’s been here and coaches have enough faith to pull him up and let him go.”
C.J. Uzomah has stepped up as the only one of the four original tight ends still active. He had the lone touchdown for Cincinnati last week.
The middle of the field, where the tight ends have been so effective muscling through catches for Andy Dalton, could be a point of attack this week with the Bucs missing two middle linebackers to ACL tears, including starter Kwon Alexander.
3. Pass it around
A.J. Green was the only player that actually had a decent game last week on offense, but Tampa’s defense has especially struggled against the pass this season so it could be a good opportunity to get more guys involved again.
Tyler Boyd is the next obvious choice, as well as Uzomah and running back Joe Mixon; however, John Ross is back to the sideline with groin trouble again so he’s not an option.
The Bucs allow a league-worst 327.5 yards passing per game, but they are much better against the run, ranking sixth while surrendering 90.0 rushing yards per game.
4. Changes on defense
With Vontaze Burfict out with a hip injury, and Nick Vigil (knee) and Darqueze Dennard (shoulder) still sidelined with injuries they suffered in Week 6 against the Steelers, the Bengals defense continues to shuffle players in and out.
»RELATED: Bengals secondary has something to prove after woeful performance
Jordan Evans likely moves back into the weakside linebacker starting role in place of Burfict, and Hardy Nickerson likely gets more snaps, as has been the case in other games when Burfict hasn’t been on the field, but could this be the week rookie Malik Jefferson gets snaps on defense? He has been limited to special teams to this point, but Lewis indicated changes could be coming with the defense struggling as much as it is and Jefferson seems like the next option.
“You have to correct it with the people out there, you have to correct it with the person at the point, or you have to correct it with new people,” Lewis said. “It’s kind of a three-in-one deal.”
Tony McRae started at nickel corner in place of Dennard last week.
5. Feasting on turnovers
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston has struggled with turnovers since his return from suspension to start the season, as he has six interceptions and a fumble in two and a half games, so the Bengals defense is hoping to feast Sunday.
Cincinnati’s defense accumulated eight turnovers and three touchdowns in the first five games of the season but has recorded just one interception over the last two weeks and no fumble recoveries.
Tampa Bay doesn’t run the ball much, and Peyton Barber was limited in practice early this week, so the secondary in particular needs to have a good game. After giving up 551 yards to the Chiefs last week, it will be important to see how the Bengals respond.
Buccaneers at Bengals, 1 p.m., FOX, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7