The 8-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 4-9 Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul. The Buccaneers' leading sack artist in 2020 needs just a half-sack more to get to double digits for the second time in three seasons since the team acquired him in a trade with the Giants. He likely would have made it in 2019, as well, as he racked up 8.5 sacks in just 10 games after returning from an offseason neck injury. In just 39 games as a Buccaneer, he's already recorded 30.5 sacks, good for eighth-most in team history. For reference, the player just ahead of him on that list with 33.0 sacks, Brad Culpepper, played in 93 games for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers just hope Pierre-Paul can stay on his late-season hot streak in Atlanta this Sunday, as he has 3.0 sacks, four QB hits, two interceptions and a forced fumble in his last four outings. Pierre-Paul has a penchant for finishing seasons strong; his career totals of 27.0 sacks and 44 QB hits in December are his most in any month of the season and last year he had 5.0 sacks in just the Bucs' last two games. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has actually handled pressure quite well this season, with a 95.3 passer rating on passes when he was pressured, but Pierre-Paul and his equally-hot running mate Shaquil Barrett (5.0 sacks in his last five games) will try to solve that problem by not just hurrying Ryan but getting him to the ground.
WR Mike Evans. Nobody in the Bucs' passing attack put up particularly prolific numbers in an efficient but low-output win over Minnesota last week, but Evans averaged 18.7 yards on his three catches and set up a pair of touchdowns with 20-plus yard receptions. At this point, Evans is a long shot to extend his career-opening streak of 1,000-yard receiving seasons to an NFL-record seven – he would need to average about 110 yards per game over the last three weeks – but he is surely more focused on something he hasn't done before, and that's take part in a playoff game. A strong finish to the regular season by the seventh-year receiver would go a long way towards helping the team achieving that postseason goal. Evans remains one of the main focal points of the Bucs' passing attack and is particularly deadly in the red zone, as evidenced by his 11 touchdown catches this year. Two more will break his own team record in that category. There's also the matter of his career-long trend of putting up big numbers against the Falcons. He has averaged 5.5 catches and 82.4 yards per game against Atlanta and his eight touchdowns in that line are his most against any team in the NFL.
CB Jamel Dean. After practicing fully on Thursday and Friday, Dean appears to have a decent chance to return to the Bucs' defense after missing one game due to a concussion and another due to a groin injury. Head Coach Bruce Arians said that Dean would be a game-day decision on Sunday but he did not receive a game-status designation on Friday. While Ross Cockrell has held up well as the slot corner, with Sean Murphy-Bunting moving to the outside full-time in Dean's absence, the Bucs would definitely like to have their main three-man corner rotation back in action. Dean in particular would be helpful on the outside containing Falcons' big-play receiver Calvin Ridley, who is averaging 15.4 yards per catch. Ridley runs a high number of deep routes in the Falcons' offense and Dean may be the Buccaneers' fastest cornerback. Even with his recent absence, Dean still ranks second on the team with seven passes defensed. Last year, Dean came on strong in the stretch run during his rookie season, with nine passes defensed and his one interception over the last six games. After missing time he's surely eager to get back into the mix and close out another regular season on a hot streak, and the Bucs need all the help they can get to slow down Ryan and the NFL's sixth-ranked passing attack.
T Tristan Wirfs. Buccaneers coaches can't stop heaping praise on Wirfs, the rookie first-rounder who has handled the starting right tackle job even better than the team anticipated when they traded up to get him at number 13. Most recently, Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin said Wirfs was destined to be an All-Pro and that the team now "can't imagine life without him." With left tackle Donovan Smith rather suddenly rendered unavailable due to close contact with a family member who tested positive for COVID-19, the Buccaneers need their other four usual starters to be even more vigilant in their protection of Tom Brady. Josh Wells is expected to step in for Smith on the left side and it's possible the team will more often give him blocking help from a tight end. Wirfs has certainly shown the ability to go one-on-one with some of the NFL's best edge rushers and keep them well away from Brady. His extremely impressive play as a rookie has solidified the Buccaneers' front line, which has only allowed 16 sacks this season, including just three across the last four games, and is ranked third in sacks-allowed-per-pass-play. Wirfs has shown no signs of hitting a rookie wall and the Buccaneers need him to continue playing at a high level as they chase the last couple victories they need to make the playoffs.
ILB Devin White. The last time White faced the Falcons he broke a Buccaneer record with a 91-yard fumble return for a touchdown, the longest one in team history. Earlier in the season, in the Bucs' win in Atlanta, White had his first career two-sack game. It's safe to say he has enjoyed playing against the Falcons in his short career and has been looking forward to these two late-season matchups. White leads the Buccaneers and is tied for fourth in the NFL with 118 tackles and he remains the only player in the league with at least 100 tackles and at least five sacks. However, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles says White's biggest improvement in his second season has nothing to do with the stats. Says Bowles: "Well, the biggest thing is his leadership, and the leadership comes with commanding the defense and knowing the defense. He's playing a lot faster, understanding the defense and getting everybody else to play fast. His talent is already there. He's already way ahead of the game from that standpoint, but the game has slowed down for him from a mental standpoint and he's leading us."
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 70.8/48.9/109.3/87.8. The Buccaneers beat a good Vikings team by 12 points last Sunday and one of the main factors in that scoring differential was red zone efficiency. Tampa Bay's offense got three red zone opportunities and came away with two touchdowns and a field goal. The Vikings breached the Bucs' red zone four time and did get two touchdowns but came up empty on the other two. That area of the field could be an advantage for the Bucs again in Week 15; the first two number above are the Bucs' and Falcons' red zone touchdown efficiency on the year, with Tampa Bay ranking sixth and Atlanta ranking 31st. Tom Brady's passer rating in the red zone in 2020 is 109.3, which while quite good is actually just 12th-best in the NFL. Meanwhile, Matt Ryan's red zone passer rating is 87.8, which ranks 37th.
· 55.3. That's the distance in the air that Brady's 48-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Miller traveled last Sunday, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Miller caught the pass with only one yard of separation between him and the defender. That was Tampa Bay's longest touchdown pass of the year so far, and Brady's four longest completions in terms of air yards this season have gone to Miller. Now healthy after fighting through hip and groin injuries in the middle of the year, Miller may be poised to deliver some more big plays down the stretch.
· +3/7-0. The Falcons are tied for 12th in the league with a turnover differential of +3, and that makes them a significant outlier. Of the top 17 teams in the league in terms of turnover differential, only the Falcons and the Panthers have a losing record. Atlanta has generally made their takeaways count, too, averaging 4.1 points per turnover forced to tie for fifth in the NFL. Improving their differential on Sunday would probably be the best way for the Falcons to deny the Buccaneers the win they need for their playoff hunt. The Bucs are 7-0 this season when they win the turnover battle and 1-5 when they tie it or lose it.
· 68.5%/84.0%. This one is simple. Since the NFL expanded its playoff field to six teams per conference in 1990, 124 teams have started out with an 8-5 record and 85 of them, or 68.5%, made the playoffs. That's where the Buccaneers stand now. A win in Atlanta would improve their record to 9-5, and teams with that record have been much closer to a playoff lock. In the same span, 106 teams started out 9-5 and 89 of them, or 84.0%, made the playoffs. The last 9-5 team to miss the playoffs was the N.Y. Jets, but they did finish with a 10-6 record, which would be enough to put the Bucs in this year. In fact, all of those percentages would be a little higher if there had been seven playoff spots per conference, as there are this year.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· As noted above, Donovan Smith will not be available against the Falcons on Sunday after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. This will be just the second start out of a possible 94 that Smith has missed since entering the league in 2015. Similarly, the first one came late last year in Week 15 on the road (in Detroit), with Josh Wells stepping in as his replacement. Wells is likely to get the call again on Sunday.
· The Falcons will be without star wide receiver Julio Jones, who has been dealing with a hamstring injury for much of the season. This will be the fifth game that Jones is missed in 2020, though it will mark the first time he's sat out two in a row. Russell Gage stepped into Jones's starting spot last week against the Chargers and caught five passes for 82 yards.
· The Falcons may have to turn to some reserves on their offensive line. Right tackle Kaleb McGary missed last week's game against the Chargers due to what the team termed "personal matters" and he did not practice at all this week. Left guard James Carpenter has missed the last two games due to a groin injury and was limited in practice all week leading up to this Sunday's game. Both players are listed as "questionable" on Atlanta's Friday injury report. They were replaced last week by Justin McCray at left guard and Matt Gono at right tackle.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE FALCONS
The Falcons have two things that are not common for a 4-9 team: a positive scoring differential (+0.5 points per game) and a positive turnover margin (+3). As has been the case for virtually all of Matt Ryan's decorated career, the Falcons have little difficulty moving the ball through the air. They rank sixth in passing yards per game in 2020 and haven't ranked lower than eighth in that category in any season since 2010. Even with Julio Jones sidelined, that passing attack features one of the NFL's best receivers in third-year man Calvin Ridley. The Atlanta defense ranks 10th against the run and its kicker, Younghoe Koo is deserving of All-Pro honors in his first full season in the job. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
One key goal for the Buccaneers' offense on Sunday, particularly it's blockers up front: Know where linebacker Deion Jones is and where he's likely going. Jones, who made the Pro Bowl in 2017 but may be having his best season yet in 2020, is the Falcons' most productive defender across the board. He's second on the team with 84 tackles, first with 3.5 sacks, tied for first with eight tackles for loss, second with eight quarterback hits, second with two interceptions and tied for first with six passes defensed. Those numbers paint an accurate picture of a middle-of-the-field defender who can make impact plays on all three levels. Smith's speed and fluidity makes him one of the league's best coverage linebackers and he can take a tight end deep down the middle of the field when drawing that assignment in Cover Two looks. He's instinctive, too, using that speed to quickly close on running backs in the gap. And he's shown a newfound pass rush ability in 2020, already more than doubling his career highs for both sacks and QB hits. Expect to see a lot of quarterback and linemen finger-pointing in Jones' direction before the snap on Sunday.
The Buccaneers' secondary needs to be prepared for wide receiver Calvin Ridley to go deep. At midseason, he had the highest number of deep routes run in the NFL, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Through 13 games, he has produced 17 receptions of 20 or more yards, including five over 30 with a long of 63. Four of those 17 catches have come in the first quarter, so Matt Ryan may not wait long to target his top receiver (particularly with Julio Jones out) down the field. Ridley doesn't often operate out of the slot, and he has more frequently lined up wide right (304 snaps) than left (227). However, he has more often gone deep from the left side, with nine of his 13 longest routes run coming off plays where he lined up on that side. If the Buccaneers chose to keep their corners on their usual sides and not have Carlton Davis travel with Ridley, that would mean Jamel Dean will be in coverage on Ridley when he lines up to the left, which is a good speed matchup for Tampa Bay. Ridley leads the Falcons in targets and that won't change with Jones out. He has produced 1,029 yards and eight touchdowns and is averaging 15.4 yards per catch.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On the importance of Sunday's game and the challenge the Falcons present despite their 4-9 record:
"We're in the playoff hunt, so we can't overlook anyone. Every single game is maximum importance. There's a ton of respect, it's a division ballgame. We know these guys – they're extremely talented. They've lost a lot of close ballgames and we know we're getting their best shot, so we better make sure they're getting ours."