Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Countdown to Kickoff: Falcons-Bucs

Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski will be two Buccaneers looking to stay on hot streaks as the team welcomes Atlanta to town for the first NFC South matchup of the year…Players to watch, key stats and more

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Atlanta Falcons in Week Two, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:

5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH

Antonio Brown. Brown had the three longest plays of the Buccaneers' Week One win over Dallas with catches of 47, 28 and 27 yards. The 47-yard play was a touchdown that gave the Bucs a halftime lead they would not relinquish, and it was also his fifth touchdown in Tampa Bay's last four regular-season games. Three players have had five touchdowns in that span and two of them are Bucs, with Chris Godwin matching Brown's scoring output. Brown has certainly enjoyed facing the Falcons in his career, though he had only done so twice before last December. In his four games against Atlanta he has averaged 113.8 yards per game, which is highest mark against any opponent that he has faced at least four times. That's also the best average against the Falcons by any player since the 1970 merger, with a minimum of four meetings. Brown is technically the Bucs' third receiver but the offense operated out of the 11 formation (three receivers) on roughly two-thirds of its plays in the season opener and has every reason to want Brown, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the field as much as possible. After undergoing knee surgery in the offseason, Brown is able to plant and cut more sharply and is closer to the form that made him the NFL's most productive receiver from 2013-18.

Ndamukong Suh. Vita Vea (one of our five players to watch last week) drew a lot of attention for his dominant performance against Dallas, in which he routinely drove various Cowboys linemen well back into the pocket. Atlanta has surely seen that game tape multiple times since and might be inclined to send extra blockers in Vea's direction so that he doesn't completely derail its passing attack. The problem with that plan is that the Bucs also have Ndamukong Suh, who generally teams with Vea when the team goes into its sub package with two down linemen and an extra defensive back. Since the start of the 2019 season, his first as a Buccaneer, Suh has logged 79 quarterback pressures, which is the fifth most by an interior defensive lineman in the NFL in that span. Suh also had 6.0 sacks last year, most among the Bucs' interior pass rushers, and was a key part in helping the Buccaneers finish first against the run in each of the last two seasons. The Falcons also might be a little vulnerable in the middle of the trenches, with second-year center Matt Hennessy and rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield boasting very little NFL experience between them. The Eagles pressured Matt Ryan on 18 of his 38 dropbacks in Week One.

Rob Gronkowski. The Buccaneers opened the season with 16 players over the age of 30 on their active roster, the most in the NFL. Fortunately, most of those 'senior' NFL players are performing as well as they did in their 20s, and that includes a rejuvenated Gronkowski. After he scored two touchdowns last February in Super Bowl LV, Gronkowski opened the 2021 season in similar fashion, with two more scores in the win over Dallas. Off-the-wall note: The record for consecutive games with two-plus touchdowns by a tight end is just three, set by Ben Coates with the Patriots from the end of 1993 through the first two games of 1994. Anyway, Gronkowski had a very productive and efficient outing overall against Dallas, catching all eight of his targets for 90 yards. The last time Gronkowski had at least eight catches, 90 yards and two touchdowns in a game was Super Bowl LII against Philadelphia, when he hauled in nine passes for 116 yards and two scores. Gronkowski came out of a one-year retirement to join the Bucs (via trade from New England) after his pal Tom Brady signed in Tampa. He impressed largely by playing in and starting all 20 games, but he also finished third on the team with 623 yards on 45 catches. His first game of 2021 suggests he may be able to do even more in Year Two in Tampa.

Jordan Whitehead. The Bucs played their season opener without Whitehead, who also started all 20 games last year. Mike Edwards filled in quite ably next to Antoine Winfield, Jr. in the starting lineup and will still be involved in the safety rotation this week, but the Buccaneers will be glad to have Whitehead's physical presence back on the field. He was last seen forcing two fumbles in the 2020 postseason, including a critical one in Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game that led to a touchdown just after halftime. Whitehead frequently moves up into the box before the snap and is a big part of the team's very stout run defense. He also could be key on Sunday in disrupting any attempts by the Falcons to get the ball to rookie tight end Kyle Pitts on short, quick passes. Whitehead should be raring to go after missing about three weeks of action due to a hamstring strain, and he could be the source of the big plays in the secondary the Bucs were mostly lacking in their season opener.

Ali Marpet. Somebody has to deal with the nonstop, frenetic presence in the middle of Atlanta's front line that is Grady Jarrett, and Marpet will probably have a lot to do with that effort. He and the rest of the Bucs' offensive line kept Tom Brady clean all night in the opener, as Tampa Bay was one of just two teams not to allow a sack in Week One. On the other hand, the Buccaneers did not get much of a running game going against the Cowboys and would prefer to hit Atlanta with a more balanced attack. Bruce Arians said on Friday that the Buccaneers "definitely" need to run the ball more this week than they did in Week One. A mauler who loves to run block, Marpet will be key in clearing lanes for the duo of Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette. It isn't always easy to keep an eye on the offensive linemen when watching a football game, but when Jarrett (#97) lines up directly across from Marpet (#74) it will be worth focusing in on that one-on-one duel for a few extra seconds.

4 STATS THAT MATTER

  • 62.7%/41.6%/11.6%. The Buccaneers are looking for their first 2-0 start to a season since 2018 while the Falcons are trying to avoid a second straight 0-2 opening. No matter what the outcome of their meeting is on Sunday, both teams will still have plenty of games left to pursue a playoff spot, especially now that the season is 17 games long. Still, each team would be better off with a win, obviously. Since 1990, when the playoffs expanded to six teams in each conference, teams that start the season 2-0 have made the playoffs 62.7% of the time. That playoff rate drops to 41.6% for the Buccaneers if they drop to 1-1. Teams that start out 0-2 have only made the playoffs 11.6% of the time, which is the fate the Falcons are eager to keep at bay.
  • 3.75/4.77. New Falcons Head Coach Arthur Smith had one of the league's best rushing attack while he was the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator in 2019 and 2020. Smith didn't get to bring Derrick Henry with him to Atlanta but he is still widely expected to improve a Falcons rushing attack that hasn't finished better than 27th in the league since 2017. Week One was promising in that regard for the Falcons, as the newly-arrived duo of Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson led the way to 124 rushing yards even in a lopsided loss. Most notably, after finishing next-to-last in the NFL in 2020 with an average of 3.75 yards per carry Atlanta upped that by more than a yard in the 2021 opener, to 4.77.
  • 2.5/118.8. The Buccaneers' passing attack succeeded in Week One when Tom Brady got rid of the ball quickly. Brady threw 50 passes against the Cowboys and on 24 of them he got rid of the ball in less than 2.5 seconds. On those plays, he completed 75.0% of his throws, had two touchdowns and one interception and finished with a passer rating of 118.8. Bruce Arians' offense obviously likes to push the ball deep – the Bucs threw the ball 20 yards or more down the field a league-high 14.4% of the time last year – but against the Cowboys they opted to do so on only 8.0% of their throws.
  • 68.9%/3-5/53.5%/0-2. If the game on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium turns into a tightly-contested affair, the winner may be the one that does the most with its scoring chances. That could favor the Buccaneers, who ranked seventh in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage last year at 68.9%. The Bucs got touchdowns on three of five red zone trips in their opener. Atlanta has struggled in the red zone the past two seasons, last year finishing 26th with a 53.5% touchdown rate. The Falcons were 0-2 in their opener.

3 LINEUP NOTES

  • Jordan Whitehead has practiced fully all week and is expected to return to the starting lineup on Sunday after missing Week One with a hamstring strain. Mike Edwards started next to Antoine Winfield, Jr. in Whitehead's absence and the Bucs are likely to use all three safeties at various times in Sunday's game to take advantage of their various strengths.
  • Atlanta rookie Jalen Mayfield struggled in his debut as the Falcons' starting left guard, a position he wasn't expected to play before veteran Josh Andrews suffered a broken hand and was put on injured reserve. Will Mayfield still be in that spot on Sunday? The Falcons haven't said and Arthur Smith says all options "are on the table," including giving a shot to another rookie, fourth-round pick Drew Dalman. Dalman played one series at that spot against Philadelphia in Week One.
  • The Buccaneers had to put starting cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting on injured reserve after he dislocated an elbow in the opener against Dallas. That will make Jamel Dean the full-time starter on the outside and will thrust veteran Ross Cockrell into the slot corner role. The Buccaneers' fourth cornerback is now Dee Delaney, who has played in just four regular-season NFL games.

2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE FALCONS

The Falcons traded Julio Jones, the top receiver in franchise history, to Tennessee in June but still have plenty of weapons surrounding veteran quarterback Matt Ryan. That includes their new number-one receiver, Calvin Ridley, as well as rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, who drew eight targets in his first NFL game. The Falcons' defense struggled in 2020 and had a tough Week One outing against Philadelphia but has a new-look secondary with three battle-tested veterans in safeties Duron Harmon and Erik Harris and cornerback Fabian Moreau. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.

The Falcons signed Cordarrelle Patterson in April and they appear determined to make the most of his interesting skill set. Originally a receiver drafted in the first round by Minnesota in 2013, Patterson first made his mark as a Pro Bowl return man in his rookie season. He's never had a 500-yard season as a pass-catcher but has gradually morphed into something of a WR-RB hybrid. He got a career-high 64 carries with the Bears last year but is likely to surpass that easily in his first year in Atlanta after he got seven carries for 54 yards in the season opener. Patterson is now fully listed as a running back for the Falcons, but that doesn't mean he will be limited to the backfield. On Friday, safety Jordan Whitehead noted that Atlanta used Patterson in places you would usually find a receiver, a running back and a tight end in Week One. While used primarily as part of a backfield tandem with another new Falcon, Mike Davis, the 6-2, 240-pound Patterson also caught two passes for 13 yards against Philadelphia. Figuring out how to match up with Patterson in his various roles will be a test of the Bucs' communication in the secondary.

Linebacker Deion Jones has one Pro Bowl in six seasons on his resume but probably should have a couple more. He is the do-everything player in the middle of Atlanta's defense, last year leading the team with 4.5 sacks while also recording 106 tackles, 10 quarterback hits, two interceptions and six passes defensed. Jones had 11 tackles and a pass defensed against Philly in Week One and is likely to thrive in the new 3-4 defense installed by coordinator Dean Pees. If the Buccaneers want to succeed in their goal of fielding a more productive running game in Week Two than they did in Week One, they will have to scheme ways to get Jones blocked as much as possible, as he is an outstanding tackler in run defense and fast enough to get from sideline to sideline.

1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS

On if it's tempting to simply throw on every down given that the Bucs have Tom Brady and a deep group of standout pass-catchers:

"I think when you get into that type of game, your quarterback's going to get hit a lot. I think it's got to be balanced where we're just not teeing off on the quarterback all the time. That's one of our goals defensively, here, is to stop the run and get after the quarterback. We have to run the ball and stay balanced. Is it 20-40? Is it 40-20? Who knows? Each game dictates it. I think to keep your quarterback clean in this league you have to have a running game."

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