The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Atlanta Falcons in Week 13 on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mike Evans. In the Bucs' Week 12 win in Indianapolis, Evans was limited to three catches for 16 yards as the offense was primarily funneled through Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette thanks to the Colts' defensive approach. That snapped a streak of four straight games for Evans in which he scored a touchdown, but he remains tied for the NFL lead in touchdown receptions with 10. Even with a good number of opposing defenses showing the Buccaneers a high percentage of two-safety shells, soft zones and double coverage of the outside receivers, Evans has still topped 60 yards in seven of 11 games this season and has scored in six of them. He had five catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons in Week Two and snared six passes for 110 yards the last time the Buccaneers visited Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium. As the Buccaneers continue to thrive with Fournette against light boxes and a lot of quick throws underneath, opposing defenses will eventually shift strategies again and Brady will get more opportunities to push the ball downfield and to the boundaries. Evans has historically thrived on such plays; NFL Next Gen Stats, which has been tracking such numbers since 2016, has Evans' average depth of target (ADOT) at 13.4 yards. By way of contrast, the average ADOT in the NFL this season is 9.3 yards.
Shaquil Barrett. Barrett appears to be heating up for the stretch run, most recently racking up two sacks in Indianapolis last Sunday, one of which caused a momentum-shifting fumble by Carson Wentz. Barrett, who caused pressure on 15.2% of his pass rush snaps last season, started this season a bit slowly, with a pressure rate of 8.5% in the first four games. However, he has picked it up since, with a pressure rate of 12.1% from Weeks 5-11, and against the Colts that shot up to 19.4%, his second-best mark of the season. The strip-sack of Wentz last Sunday marked the 15th turnover that Barrett has caused while pressuring the quarterback since the start of 2019. That not only leads the league but is four better than the next two players on the list, Myles Garrett and Trey Hendrickson. Atlanta has protected Ryan fairly well, allowing 21 sacks on an offense that has a very high volume of throws, but Barrett could change that if he stays on his hot streak. He more often rushes from the left side of the defensive front, putting him over the right tackle, and Atlanta's more accomplished tackle, Jake Matthews, plays on the other end. The Buccaneers know that Ryan can put up big numbers if he routinely has time to throw, so the pressure that Barrett and company are able to play could be critical to the outcome.
Cameron Brate. We pointed to Rob Gronkowski in this space last week and didn't want to repeat ourselves, but obviously Gronkowski is the team's go-to player at the tight end position right now. After he hauled in seven passes for 123 yards and racked up a whole bunch of bruising Gronk-style yards after the catch in Indianapolis you'll probably be watching him anyway. But Gronkowski's return has also meant more effective snaps for Brate in two-TE set-ups, and he has contributed five catches in the past two games feeding off Gronkowski's presence. Brate also drew a critical defensive pass interference call in Indianapolis on a route into the end zone that turned a third-down incompletion into a first-and-goal opportunity. Brate has just 19 receptions so far but 11 of them have produced first downs, like one in the third quarter in Indy that made it first-and-goal at the five and another in the fourth quarter that set up a new set of downs at midfield on the game-winning drive. With opposing teams having to respect Gronkowski's releases from the line and his routes that stretch defenses down the field, Brate should have more room to operate over the middle as he has in recent weeks.
Carlton Davis III. Davis was activated from injured reserve on Friday, a long-awaited development for a secondary that has been beset by a rolling wave of injuries throughout the season. Though the team now has new concerns at safety following the practice injury to Jordan Whitehead and the suspension of Mike Edwards on Thursday, the cornerback group could be close to the same lineup with which it started the season. Sean Murphy-Bunting just returned from his Week One elbow injury two weeks ago and Jamel Dean was able to practice all week despite his new shoulder injury. Davis will be able to take over one of the outside spots again, allowing Murphy-Bunting to move into the slot in nickel packages. Davis was the team's most reliable and productive cornerback over the previous two seasons, leading the NFL with 37 passes defensed from 2019-20, and he had broken up another five passes through four games earlier this season before he suffered his quad injury. Given the injury issues at safety, the Bucs' cornerbacks could be asked to help with the coverage of tight end Kyle Pitts, who operates like a speedy 250-pound wideout anyway. Davis gives the Buccaneers' defense rare size at cornerback to match up with big pass-catchers like Pitts.
Tom Brady. Brady could be on the player watch list every week, of course, but he's worth mentioning specifically this week because of what he has done to the Falcons in the past. Brady has faced Atlanta nine times in his career, including one very memorable postseason game, and he has won all nine of them. If he can lead the Bucs to another victory on Sunday he will join John Elway (vs. the Patriots) and Andrew Luck (vs. the Titans) to win 10 or more starts against a specific team without a loss, postseason included. In those nine games, Brady has thrown 24 touchdown passes against just three interceptions while averaging 330.3 passing yards per outing. That all adds up to a career 114.2 passer rating against the Falcons that is not only his best mark against any opponent but also the third-best mark by any quarterback against any team in NFL history (minimum 250 pass attempts). Brady recorded just a single touchdown pass against the Colts last Sunday as Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones repeatedly took care of business on the ground inside the five-yard line, but he still leads the NFL with 30 TD tosses, already just 10 shy of the team record he set last year. Brady threw five touchdown passes against the Falcons in Week Two and was not intercepted, ending up with yet another NFC Offensive Player of the Week plaque on his wall.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 96.6%/81.8%. With a three-game lead in the NFC South and six weeks to go, the Buccaneers are in a strong position when it comes to the conference playoff hunt. However, this week could be the real tipping point as to making the postseason a virtual certainty for a number of teams, including Tampa Bay. Barring a tie in Atlanta, the Buccaneers will be either 9-3 or 8-4 at the end of the week. Since 1990, 96.6% of the teams that started a season 9-3 made it to the playoffs and 66.7% of them won their division. In that same time span, teams that have started the season 8-4 have gone on to make the playoffs 81.8% of the time and win their division 43.6% of the time.
- 400/500/4/4. The emergence of Cordarrelle Patterson as more than just a dynamic kick returner has been one of the most surprising stories in the NFL in 2021. Patterson has become the central focus of the Atlanta offense and he is the only player in the NFL who has recorded at least 400 rushing yards and at least 500 receiving yards so far. Patterson is also one of just three players who has already scored at least four times on the ground and through the air, joining San Francisco's Deebo Samuel and the Charger's Austin Ekeler.
- 32-585-9. If Tom Brady likes playing against the Falcons, as the above notes would suggest he would, he's got a kindred spirit in wide receiver Chris Godwin. The Bucs' fifth-year receiver has more yards and touchdowns against Atlanta than he does against any other team, but he has been particularly hot over his last six meetings with the Falcons. In those six games he has caught 32 passes for 585 yards, averaging 97.5 yards per game and scoring a total of nine touchdowns. Godwin has scored at least once in each of those six games, including the Bucs' Week Two win over the Falcons in Tampa.
- 15.5%/21.4%/12.8%/125.4. Thanks to good protection by the offensive line and his own extremely quick release rate this season (2.52 average seconds to throw), Tom Brady has only been pressured on 15.5% of his dropbacks this season, the lowest rate in the NFL. Meanwhile the Falcons' pass rush has exerted pressure on opposing passers on just 21.4% of their dropbacks this season, the second lowest figure behind Detroit's 21.3%. When the Bucs and Falcons met in Week Two, Brady was only pressured on 12.8% of his dropbacks and when he wasn't pressured he compiled a passer rating of 125.4.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- The Buccaneers lost half their safety depth on one bad afternoon Thursday. Jordan Whitehead sustained a calf injury in practice, one that Bruce Arians described as "very, very" significant and he was ruled out for Sunday's game on Friday. Later on Thursday, Mike Edwards received a three-game suspension from the NFL. The only other safety on the Bucs' depth chart besides starter Antoine Winfield, Jr. is Andrew Adams, who presumably will step in for Whitehead. Cornerback Ross Cockrell has also trained at safety, both during training camp and over the last six to eight weeks, according to Arians.
- Atlanta played its Week 12 game at Jacksonville without one of its key pieces on defense, as linebacker Deion Jones was held out due to a shoulder injury. However, Jones practiced all week without limitations and on Friday was given no game-status designation for the contest against Tampa Bay. The only player ruled out for Atlanta is defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, who also missed last week's game with an ankle injury. Rookie fifth-rounder Ta'Quon Graham made his first NFL start in Bullard's absence.
- The Buccaneers' usual starting offensive line will be intact if left guard Ali Marpet returns from his one-game absence due to an abdomen injury. Aaron Stinnie started in Marpet's place in Week 12 but sustained a knee injury early in the game against Indianapolis and has since been placed on injured reserve. First-year player Nick Leverett stepped in to finish the game at left guard, seeing the first regular-season action of his NFL career, but Bruce Arians said on Friday that he hopes Leverett won't have to play this Sunday. Marpet was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report. His missed start in Week 12 marks the only game any of the team's opening-day starters on the offensive line have missed this season.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE FALCONS
The Falcons' offensive line has provided Matt Ryan with good protection in 2021, ranking 10th in sacks allowed per pass play, and Ryan has a long history of success against the Buccaneers, including a 300-yard, two-touchdown effort in Tampa in Week Two (albeit with three interceptions). Cordarrelle Patterson has emerged out of the blue as one of the NFL's most productive dual-threat players, as noted in more detail above. The Falcons' defense features a much younger player who has also moved into the ranks of the league's elite at his position in second-year cornerback A.J. Terrell. Terrell plays almost exclusively at left cornerback and has made his area of the field a no-pass soon on many occasions this season. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts has hit a bit of a midseason slump, at least statistically, averaging just 3.0 receptions and 38.3 yards per game over the last three weeks and not scoring in any of those contests. However, he will remain the top concern in the passing game for Tampa Bay's defense, which allowed him to catch five passes for 73 yards in their first meeting this season. Pitts leads the Falcons with 45 catches for 661 yards, but it is his 14.7-yard average per catch that underlines the main issue: Pitts is more dangerous deep down the field than the vast majority of tight ends. In fact, through the first 11 weeks of the season, the rookie first-rounder led all NFL tight ends in targets, receptions and yards on passes that are thrown 10 or more yards down the field in the air. The Buccaneers are coming off a game in which Colts tight end Jack Doyle hit them for 81 yards and a touchdown on six catches, and they have also allowed at least five catches and or a touchdown catch to the Cowboys' Dalton Schultz, the Bears' Cole Kmet, the Patriots' Hunter Henry, the Rams Tyler Higbee and, of course, Pitts. In addition, the Buccaneers will be playing without safeties Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards.
Tampa Bay ballcarriers and any one who catches a pass in the short to intermediate range on Sunday in Atlanta will have to be prepared for the presence of not one but two extremely rangy and active off-ball linebackers. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, both Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun have ranked in the top seven in "hustle stops" since the start of last year; hustle stops are defined as tackles resulting in a successful play for the defense where the player covers 20 or more yards of distance from his spot at the snap to the point of the tackle. Atlanta has enjoyed the presence of a linebacker who can fill up every line on the stat sheet for six years in Jones but since last year they've had two of those in their lineup with the emergence of Oluokun. Both players have more than 90 tackles so far this season, both have two sacks and both a fumble recovery; Oluokun has three tackles for loss and seven quarterback hits and Jones has seven tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. Both players are also strong in coverage and have combined for five passes defensed, with Oluokun notching an interception. Jones also makes a noticeable difference in the quality of the Falcons' run defense. Since 2016, when he is on the field the Falcons allow 4.3 yards per carry; when he's not on the field that numbers goes up to 4.8 yards per carry.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On how the Buccaneers are able to remain strictly focused on the next opponent, in this case the Falcons:
"It starts with the coaching staff and the veterans. We have great veteran leadership and we talked a lot about it at the end of this practice, guys taking care of their room. Especially the young players – they're starting to hit the wall a little bit and we've got hopefully 10 more games, nine or 10. We can't get mentally fatigued right now."