The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 21-15, on Sunday, holding on for an important divisional victory after taking a 21-0 advantage into the fourth quarter. A lead of that size that late into a game indicates a good effort on both offense and defense, even if both sides did falter a bit down the stretch.
And, indeed, the Buccaneers played good complementary football for those first three quarters, which proved to be enough. The offense put together three straight drives of 11 or more plays in the first half while the defense repeatedly got off the field with big plays on third down, such as the Joe Tryon-Shoyinka sack that ended Atlanta's first possession.
Individually, there were a number of standouts. Leonard Fournette got the ball 24 times, scored twice and was the primary engine of the offense. Tom Brady had his fourth straight game without an interception and his protection made sure he was not officially sacked once all afternoon. Young contributors such as tight end Cade Otton and running back Rachaad White stepped up in important ways. And, of course, when the Bucs needed a big play, there was Mike Evans.
On defense, five different players recorded a sack, perhaps none bigger than the Antoine Winfield Jr. strip-sack near the end of the first half that helped turned what looked like it would be a halftime lead of 10-3 into a more comfortable 13-0. Rookie Logan Hall got in on the sack party, too, and also had two tackles for loss. Even backup nose tackle Deadrin Senat contributed the first sack of his NFL career.
After such an all-around team effort, it's not easy to pick just one star who out-shined the rest. But that's the task not only for me and my fellow writer Brianna Dix, but also for you, the fans. After every Buccaneers victory this season, Brianna and I are going to nominate two players for that week's Game Ball. Those two will be included in a list of four candidates…and then the final decision is up to you. After you review the cases we make for two of those players, you will find a link at the bottom of the page to place your vote.
Since we can't duplicate votes and getting the first pick could be important, we are going to alternate the order of our choices from week to week. Brianna got the first choice after the Buccaneers' Week Two win in New Orleans, so now it's my turn.
So, who should get this week's Game Ball? Here are our suggestions.
Scott Smith: RB Leonard Fournette
I'm pleased to be picking first this week because it's always more fun when your nominee has a lot of numbers to throw around. And, oh yes, Fournette had the numbers.
First of all, he set his own single-game bests with 10 receptions for 83 yards, leading the team in both categories. With the Falcons bracketing the Bucs' inside receivers and loading up in the middle of the box to stop the run game between the tackles, the most obvious openings for Tom Brady were short and to the flats, where Fournette repeatedly made his way. And the veteran back delivered, giving the Bucs some crucial stick-moving yards.
"He plays tough," said Head Coach Todd Bowles after the game. "He plays tough. He ran hard, he blocked hard. He caught a lot of balls. He stretched on first downs. Even when he was behind the sticks, he broke a few tackles for us. So, everything he did today we needed."
Fournette also ran 14 times for 56 yards, which was tough sledding against a good defensive front that specifically didn't want to give up ground yards up the gut. On the final drive that sealed the game for the Buccaneers, the Falcons knew the run was coming because the home team wanted to bleed the clock dry, but Fournette still pounded for 25 yards on four carries.
Fournette also scored both of the Bucs' touchdowns, on a one-yard run in the second quarter and a one-yard reception in the third quarter. In the process, he became the first Tampa Bay running back in 15 years to catch 10 or more passes in a game.
On an afternoon in which the Buccaneers got to 420 net yards of offense one medium-sized chunk at a time, Fournette's 139 yards from scrimmage were easily the most of any of the team's many contributors. He had the ball in his hands all day; let's let him take it home with him after the game.
Brianna Dix: DB Antoine Winfield Jr.
Scott, you mentioned Leonard Fournette had the numbers and while that is certainly true, his defensive counterpart, Antoine Winfield Jr., led the defense in tackles with seven and posted two tackles for loss, a pass defensed and a strip sack of Marcus Mariota. As previously mentioned, Winfield's sack on a corner blitz for a loss of eight and ensuing fumble (recovered by Mariota), shifted the tide and turned what appeared to be an opportunity for the Falcons to trim the deficit 10-3 into a 13-0 advantage for the Buccaneers to conclude the first half.
From outpacing rushers to the sideline and stifling plays in the backfield to the effective pursuit of Mariota, Winfield made impactful plays sideline-to-sideline on Sunday afternoon. He spearheaded the defensive effort inside Raymond James Stadium and became a catalyst in the Bucs' ability to hold the Falcons scoreless in the first three frames. Tampa Bay's defense forced punts on five of the Falcons' first six drives and Winfield's physicality near the line of scrimmage set the tone in Week Five.
In his first year playing a dual role as a safety and the team's nickel corner – previously serving as the team's free safety - Winfield has bolstered the secondary with instinctual play. As the club's Swiss Army Knife with the capability of lining up in the slot, over the top or being flanked out wide to set the edge against the run, Winfield has shown up week after week for the Buccaneers. Entering the Week Five clash, the Bucs knew the Falcons tendencies: movement on jet sweeps, an inside/outside zone run game, and quarterback rollouts and bootlegs to complement Mariota's rushing ability. Winfield's read-and-react skills paid dividends in disrupting Atlanta's system. He made significant contributions and should be in consideration for this week's Game Ball!
Who deserves the Game Ball for the Bucs' win over Atlanta in Week Five? Click here to cast your vote.