The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't find out how they match up with their division rivals from one state up until the last three weeks of the 2020 season.
Last year, the Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons split their two contests, with Tampa Bay winning in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the Falcons returning the favor with an overtime victory at Raymond James Stadium to close out the season. The 2020 series will take place in the same order, but not until the season is almost done.
The Buccaneers and Falcons each finished the 2019 campaign with 7-9 records but Atlanta closed out on a hot streak, winning their last four games and six of their last eight. That was a run that likely convinced Owner Arthur Blank to keep Head Coach Dan Quinn for at least a sixth season, if not many more. The 2019 Falcons were predictably good at moving the football, particularly through the air, ranking third in the league in passing offense and fifth in total offense, though just 13th in scoring. However, the Falcons were 23rd in scoring defense and Atlanta once again had trouble rushing the passer effectively.
The Buccaneers will find out how much Quinn's defense has improved on Dec. 20 when they play the Falcons for the first time in 2020 during Week 15. Just two weeks later, the two teams will conduct a rematch at Raymond James Stadium on January 3 as the NFL closes out its 2020 regular season.
2019 Record: 7-9
Scoring Offense: 13th (23.8 points per game)
Total Offense: 5th (379.7 yards per game)
Rushing Offense: 30th (85.1 yards per game)
Passing Offense: 3rd (294.6 yards per game)
Scoring Defense: 23rd (24.9 points per game)
Total Defense: 20th (355.8 yards per game)
Rushing Defense: 15th (110.9 yards per game)
Passing Defense: 22nd (244.9 yards per game
Turnover Margin: t-24th (-5)
Gone from that Falcons defense are cornerback Desmond Trufant (now a Lion), inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (now a Cardinal) and front-line men Vic Beasley (now a Titan) and Adrian Clayborn (now a Brown). The Falcons do still have edge rusher Takk McKinley but the team chose not to pick up the 2021 fifth-year option for this former first-round pick so he may not be viewed as a long-term answer to getting after opposing passers.
Not surprisingly, the Falcons devoted much of their 2020 draft to defense, landing a Trufant replacement in first-round cornerback A.J. Terrell of Clemson and following with a pass-rush piece in Auburn's Marlon Davidson in the second round. Davidson may primarily team with Pro Bowler Grady Jarrett in the middle of the line but also has some edge rush potential. While Foye Oluokun likely steps in for the departed Campbell, who led the 2019 team in tackles, fourth-round linebacker Mykal Walker out of Fresno state has a wide array of talents that will likely get him on the field early, too.
Falcons' 2020 Draft Class: CB A.J. Terrell (Round 1, 16th overall), DL Marlon Davidson (Round 2, 47th overall), C Matt Hennessey (Round 3, 78th overall), LB Mykal Walker (Round 4, 119th overall), S Jaylinn Hawkins (Round 4, 134th overall), P Sterling Hofrichter (Round 7, 228th overall)
The Falcons' one big move in free agency was also aimed at defense, as they landed edge rusher Dante Fowler after Fowler's breakout 11.5-sack campaign for the Rams in 2019. The Beasley and Fowler moves essentially swap the eighth pick in the 2015 draft for the third pick in that same frame. Atlanta's defense could also benefit from a move it made in the second half of last season. The Falcons hit the bye week with a 1-7 record and among the changes they made during that reflective period was to switch former Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris from coaching wide receivers to working with the defensive staff, specifically working with defensive backs (his pre-head coach specialty) and linebackers. The Falcons defense immediately improved after the break, helping spark that second-half run. Atlanta forced only four turnovers in the first eight games but collected 16 in the final eight.
Key Veteran Additions: OLB Dante Fowler (UFA), RB Todd Gurley (FA), TE Hayden Hurst (T-BAL), WR Laquon Treadwell (UFA)
Notable Departures: RB Devonta Freeman (Released), TE Austin Hooper (UFA), CB Desmond Trufant (Released), LB De'Vondre Campbell (UFA), DE Adrian Clayborn (UFA), OLB Vic Beasley (UFA)
Atlanta's offense didn't need much help but still needed some rearranging thanks to an extremely tight salary cap situation. The Falcons cut their leading rusher from 2019, Devonta Freeman, and had to let Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper walk in free agency, where he got a lucrative deal from the Browns. The responses were to pick up former Rams running back Todd Gurley shortly after he was released by Los Angeles and send second and fifth-round draft picks to Baltimore for former first-round tight end Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round pick. As has been widely noted, with the additions of Gurley and Hurst and the signing of former Vikings wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, Atlanta could start an entire three-wide offense of former first-round picks.
Of course, Atlanta still has quarterback Matt Ryan, a former MVP still operating at a very high level, and wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Jones hasn't had fewer than 1,394 yards in any of the last six seasons. If Gurley's troublesome knee doesn't hold him back, the Falcons could add a power rushing attack to what will undoubtedly be a high-powered passing offense in 2020.
Even before the Buccaneers and Falcons were paired in the new NFC South in 2002, the two franchises had been heated rivals. The all-time series has remained very close through the years; the Falcons currently own a 28-25 lead but that lead has changed hands multiple times during the rivalry. Over the last five seasons, each team has won five times, including three road victories for each team. This year, the Buccaneers and Falcons meet first in _ and then play the rematch _ weeks later at ___.