BY IRA KAUFMAN
There’s something about those Tampa Bay uniforms that seems to bring out the best in some opponents. Let’s single them out for what they are – pure, unadulterated Buc killers.
Two of the four still reside in the NFC South. One just beat the Bucs en route to a championship. The other villain remains a free agent, despite credentials that undoubtedly earn him a bust in Canton.
Collectively, these traditional Buc killers have a lot of talent. Although they generally play very well against the entire league, they seem to take particular pleasure in tormenting Tampa Bay. Buc fans have seen the Fab Four too much.
Let’s start the festivities with Julio Jones, still available on the free agent market.
For a decade in Atlanta, Jones was a reviled figure in Buc Nation. In 16 career games against the Bucs, Jones caught 114 passes for 1,841 yards and 11 touchdowns, for an average of 115 receiving yards.
It’s an outrageous production, even by its high standards. Recall that Jones ranks No. 1 all-time with a career average of 91.9 receiving yards per game. He played for the Titans last season and at 33, Jones has been hampered by injuries in recent years.
When Buc fans think of Jones, they usually think of a 2017 game that ended in a 34-20 home triumph for the Falcons. Jones was targeted 15 times that day, hauling in 12 passes for 253 yards and two scores. No opposing player had ever racked up so many receiving yards against Tampa Bay.
As the game progressed, members of Buc’s media in the press box couldn’t believe their eyes. Buc’s coaching staff kept sending Ryan Smith to cover for Jones…without help. The results were painful to watch as Jones caught seven passes of 20 yards or more.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s best cornerback Brent Grimes was never deployed to follow Jones.
“It’s not often we get so many single chances in a game, but we got it today,” said a grateful Matt Ryan.
Smith started that fateful day and was on the field around the corner for Tampa Bay’s 64 defensive snaps. He’s only started one game in the past three years and is currently a free agent, coming from a torn ACL.
Another big physical receiver who has caused the Bucs annual heartbreak is Michael Thomas of the Saints.
In nine games against Tampa Bay, Thomas has 74 receptions for 899 yards, catching 81% of the targets sent. That’s a nice round average of 100 yards per game.
In 2018 and 2019, before an ankle injury threatened to ruin his career, Thomas was virtually unstoppable against the Bucs. In those four games, he hung on 46 of 53 targets, averaging 11 1-2 catches and 144 receiving yards.
It’s easy to forget how Thomas destroyed the Buc secondary in Game 1 of 2018, when Tampa Bay won a 48-40 shootout behind Ryan Fitzpatrick at the Superdome. All Thomas did that day was catch 16 of 17 passes for 180 yards.
But that all changed on the 2020 season opener, when Thomas suffered a sprained ankle in New Orleans on Tom Brady’s Buc debut.
Thomas wasn’t the same player when he returned that year and he didn’t play at all last season.
Next on our list is a recent addition from the City of Angels. His name is Cooper Kupp and Todd Bowles still hasn’t figured out how to cover him.
To be fair, Kupp has done it all in 2021, earning NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors with a season for the ages. But in three regular season games against the Bucs since 2019, Kupp has 29 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.
And who can forget the playoff game last January, when Kupp caught nine balls for 183 yards and a score. With the game in play, it was Kupp who opened up deep in the middle for the catch that set the winning field goal.
Including the playoffs, Kupp averaged 9 1/2 catches and 136 yards against Tampa Bay, carrying 75 percent of his targets.
Now we come to a marauder on the other side of the ball who enjoys breaking Buc’s hearts.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan was a big reason the Saints went 17-5 against the Bucs under his watch. During that span, he has 17 sacks, 33 QB hits, 5 forced fumbles and 6 passes defended.
No matter which Buccaneer lines up in front of him, Jordan usually wins the battle.
Last year, Jordan was credited with three sacks and two forced fumbles against Tampa Bay.
He dominated the line of scrimmage when New Orleans blanked the Bucs 9-0 at Raymond James Stadium. His first sack came when he lined up inside and beat Alex Cappa. Later he came out from the left edge and manhandled Tristan Wirfs, who hadn’t allowed a sack all season.
For an encore, Jordan sprinted past Wirfs and forced a fumble on Brady, who was on the move because the pocket had broken down.
Give it up for Jones, Thomas, Kupp and Jordan. As far as Buc killers go, those guys are Mount Rushmore.