The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into their bye week with a 2-4 record and a third-place spot in the NFC South. There are 12 teams ahead of the Buccaneers in the overall conference standings, but the majority of the season still lies ahead. Despite taking a two-game losing skid into the bye, the Buccaneers are still eyeing a playoff run.
When the Buccaneers come out of their midseason break they will have 10 games remaining, against nine different opponents. They will likely need to win at least seven of those games to have a shot at the playoffs. Now that a third of the season has been played and teams around the league have revealed some of their strengths and weaknesses, let's take a look at how Tampa Bay matches up with each of its upcoming opponents, continuing with the Atlanta Falcons in Weeks 12 and 17.
Opponent: Atlanta Falcons
Dates, Locations: Game 1: Week 12, November 24, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Georgia. Game 2: Week 17, December 29, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Top Offensive Performer: WR Julio Jones…34 receptions for 467 yards (10th in the NFL) and four receiving touchdowns (tied for third in the NFL)
Top Defensive Performer: LB De'Vondre Campbell…57 tackles (fifth in the NFL), 3 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles (tied for seventh in the NFL)
Notable Strength: Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are still putting up big numbers in the passing game together, and with Austin Hooper suddenly emerging as one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL (42 catches for 480 yards and three touchdowns), the Falcons' passing attack is ranked second in the NFL with 317.8 yards per game. Ryan is completing 72.1% of his passes and has thrown 15 touchdown passes, the most in the NFL, and though he has negated some of those efforts with seven interceptions, only one of those seven has come in the last three games. The Falcons lead the NFL in passing first downs and are third in completions of 20 or more yards. They're also converting third downs better than all but five other teams, at 47.8%.
Notable Weakness: The Falcons' defense has had very little luck getting after the passer so far this season. Atlanta's five total sacks are tied with Miami for the lowest total in the league and it's 2.60% sacks-per-pass play rate on defense is the worst in the NFL. Grady Jarrett has been a disruptive force for the Falcons for the last four seasons but his two sacks are a team-high at the moment. The lack of a pass rush has likely contributed to the Falcons' defense also picking off just two passes, both by top corner Marcus Trufant. It all adds up to the league's 27th-ranked pass defense, as Atlanta is giving up 271.2 aerial yards per game while ranking third-to-last with 8.47 yards per pass play allowed. Ryan and Jones can still light up a scoreboard but they almost have to, as the Falcons are allowing 31.0 points per game, second-highest in the NFL.
How the Bucs Match Up:
If the Falcons' pass rush does not heat up between now and the end of November, the Buccaneers may enjoy an afternoon in which protecting quarterback Jameis Winston isn't as challenging as it has been against recent opponents. Winston's worst game of the year, a five-pick outing in last weekend's loss to Carolina, coincided with the most pressure he has felt, as he was sacked seven times by the Panthers and hurried throughout the day. When Winston has had a clean pocket this season he has been a very productive passer, and it's hard for any defense to stay in coverage too long against Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Trufant is one of the league's better cornerbacks but the Falcons have still ranked third-to-last in defending opponents' number-one receiver, according to Football Outsiders. They're also second-to-last against number-two receivers, and the Evans/Godwin duo is coming off a game in which they combined for 247 yards.
Atlanta has been somewhat better against the run, ranking 20th in yards allowed, and has the ninth-best opponent yards-per-carry figure at 3.92. With rangy linebackers De'Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones roaming behind Jarrett and Tyeler Davidson, the Falcons should be able to make the going difficult for the Bucs' running back tandem of Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones. Of course, the Bucs may not need huge production from the ground game if they're as successful against the Falcons' pass defense as the matchup would suggest they will be.
Of course, Tampa Bay's secondary will be tested at least as severely by Matt Ryan and company. The Buccaneers have given up the most passing yards in the league so far and Ryan's sky-high completion rate is a concern against a crew that has allowed opponents to connect on 63.6% of their passes. Ryan has a career 66.5% completion rate against the Buccaneers and he's had some big days at Tampa Bay's expense, with 35 touchdowns in 22 games and nearly 260 yards per outing. His current crop of pass-catchers is one of the more talented in the league, with Jones, Hooper, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu all over 300 receiving yards already.
The Buccaneers' ability to slow Ryan down could come down to their pass-rush, which itself has slowed down in recent weeks, with just four sacks in the last three games combined. However, the Buccaneers should have Jason Pierre-Paul back in time for both Atlanta contests, and that in turn could be the key to getting September NFC Defensive Player of the Month Shaq Barrett some more one-on-one looks.
Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman might be in high gear by Week Twelve, too. Freeman had a slow start to the season despite no longer sharing the backfield with Tevin Coleman, but he has topped 100 yards from scrimmage twice in the last three weeks and has three touchdowns in that span. Freeman is a dual talent, doing almost as much damage in the passing game (203 yards) as he has in the running game (278 yards) so far, and scoring all three of his TDs on receptions. Tampa Bay's run defense has already shown it can contain such backs, however, most notably in two suffocating performances against Carolina's Christian McCaffrey. As always, the Buccaneers will plan to shut down Freeman early so they can dial up the pass rush against Atlanta, but it won't be easy beating the Falcons' talented offensive line. That unit has allowed just 14 sacks of Ryan so far.
The Falcons are 1-5 and behind the Buccaneers in the NFC South standing, but they will not be a pushover in either of the upcoming two meetings. The Falcons have lost two of those five games by three points or less, and while the defense has given up a ton of points, Ryan, Jones, Hooper, Freeman, Ridley and Sanu provide the firepower needed to keep Atlanta in any game.