Fresh off their bye week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers return to action with a division foe, as they travel to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in Week Six. The Bucs lost their last two before the break but could put themselves right back in a good position in the playoff race with a win at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which would make them 3-2 with a 2-0 record within the division. The Falcons are trying to right their season after getting off to a 1-4 start, and they still possess a very potent offense. Here are five issues to consider while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's key divisional matchup:
1. Will the Bucs' bye-week round of self-scouting produce some answers for a pass defense that has struggled to contain opposing offenses so far?
The Buccaneers rank last in the league in pass defense, surrendering 358 net yards through the air per game, and they haven't gotten good results, statistically, in any of the four games yet. Of course, Tampa Bay faced some of the NFL's most prolific aerial attacks in the first quarter of the season, and the secondary did contribute some key plays to help the Bucs secure wins over the Saints and Eagles while narrowly losing to the Steelers. It was in the fourth game, at Chicago, that the pass defense performed poorly enough to raise concerns over how it would fare the rest of the season.
Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears still only rank 24th in the NFL in passing offense, even after 344 yards and six touchdowns against the Buccaneers in Week Four. Yet Tampa Bay's young secondary struggled with communication errors and other mistakes and too often allowed Chicago pass-catchers to find wide-open swaths of grass. A similar performance in Atlanta could prove fatal against the likes of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Of course, the Buccaneers don't expect a similar performance this weekend, believing the severity of the troubles in Chicago to be an anomaly. While there are likely to be more bumps along the way with three rookies in big roles in the secondary, the team expects to improve its communication, cut down on mistakes and find ways to emphasize what those young players do best.
"We absolutely stunk from me down in the fourth game, but we did some things in the first three games that you can look forward and say, 'Gosh-darn those guys – they've got a chance to do some things well,'" said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "Overall, we have not done what we need to get done. I think there's some young guys that have shown spurts of being good players. I think there's been times when they've shown their youth."
An idle week after the Chicago game allowed the coaches to do a deep round of self-scouting, which presumably pinpointed the problem areas. The Bucs can also look at tape of the Falcons' Week Five game, in which Pittsburgh was able to hold Ryan to one touchdown pass and keep Jones relatively in check (five catches for 62 yards). This feat was pulled off not by one of the best pass defenses in the league but by the team that currently ranks 29th in that category.
"Pittsburgh obviously did some things that tried to take him out and they worked," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter of the Steelers limiting Jones, who ranks third in the NFL with 546 receiving yards. "Sometimes you can have a call that you think is trying to take him out of the play and he still beats it. Julio – much like Mike [Evans] for us – he gets double-teamed a lot. They can do different things to get him open. They can move him into the slot. They can put him in motion. They can pick for him. They can run for him. They can do different stuff like that, but he's a tough player to stop. He's definitely on our game-wrecker list for this week and he will be for every team they play."
The Bucs will have to snap a recent trend if they are going to handle Ryan and Jones as well as Pittsburgh did. Over four games during the past two seasons, Ryan has thrown for 1,207 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions against the Buccaneers. Jones has accounted for 484 of those yards and four of those touchdowns. Ryan would seem to have an advantage against the Bucs' young secondary with his wealth of experience, which will make it harder for Tampa Bay to confuse him with their pre-snap looks.
"Matt's throwing the ball extremely well," said Smith. "He knows where to go with the ball pre-snap, so we've got to make sure we do a good job of trying to disguise it. Again, that get to be a conundrum when you're playing with some of the youthful players that we're playing there in the secondary."
2. Will Jameis Winston exhibit any rust in his first start of the season?
Of course, the single biggest individual story of this divisional matchup is Jameis Winston stepping back into the starting lineup. He missed the first three games of the season while serving a league suspension and then was a reserve in Chicago behind Ryan Fitzpatrick, as was the plan all along. Now that the bye week and the run of practices leading up to Sunday's game have allowed Winston to get back in the flow, he is set to take over the Bucs' offense again.
There's every reason to believe that Winston will be able to hit the ground running. He took great pains during his suspension to put in work commensurate to what he would have been doing with the team, even assembling a roster of players to help him field full practices. He was sharp down the stretch in 2017 and that continued into this year's preseason. And he has had a good week of practice, according to Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken, quickly finding his timing with his pass-catchers.
Most importantly, while Winston is taking the reins from Fitzpatrick, he's going to be playing with the same dynamic cast of characters that helped the latter passer put up some very prolific numbers in the first quarter of the season.
"Every year I just reflect on how good this team has gotten," said Winston. "That gives credit to [General Manager] Jason Licht and to the hard work that these guys who came in with me have been putting in since they've been here. I'm just blessed to have the opportunity to quarterback a team with a good offensive line, dynamic guys on the outside and great guys in the back field."
That includes rising-star tight end O.J. Howard, who seemed unlikely to be available in Week Six in the aftermath of the knee injury he suffered in Chicago. However, Howard made a somewhat surprising return to practice this week and was a full participant in Friday's workout, earning a "questionable" designation for Sunday's game. Howard, Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Cam Brate and Adam Humphries comprise one of the best set of skill-position players in the NFL, and they've helped Tampa Bay put up a league-leading 363.3 yards per game.
In addition, Winston has generally fared well against the Falcons and in Atlanta. In five games against the division foe, he has completed 66.9% of his passes, averaged 249 passing yards per game and compiled a 12-2 TD-INT ratio. His all-time passer rating against Atlanta is a sparkling 110.0. In his three games played in Atlanta, Winston has a 68.8% completion rate, an average of 252.3 passing yards per game and eight touchdowns against one pick.
3. Will a deeper defensive line rotation lead to a more effective pass rush?
Defensive tackle Vita Vea, the 12th-overall pick in the 2018 draft, finally made his NFL game debut in Week Four after missing seven weeks with a calf injury. A lopsided scoreboard allowed the Bucs to give Vea a bit more playing time in Chicago than originally planned, and now he's had another two weeks to get re-acclimated to game speed. He should be able to handle a decently-sized load of playing time on Sunday in Atlanta.
In addition, veteran defensive tackle Beau Allen could potentially return on Sunday after missing the last two games with a foot injury. If so, the Buccaneers will be getting a lot closer to the deep defensive line rotation they envisioned fielding when that unit was rebuilt over the offseason. During the first quarter of the season, the Buccaneers had to rely on their healthier linemen to absorb more reps, and while Jason Pierre-Paul and Gerald McCoy generally want to be on the field as much as possible, slightly smaller workloads could lead to everyone being more effective when they are on the field.
Not that Tampa Bay's pass rush has been completely ineffective. Pierre-Paul has led the way with four sacks and both he and McCoy were in the top 10 in quarterback hits after the first four weeks of the season. Still, the Bucs' defense ranks seventh from the bottom in sacks per pass play, and getting more pressure on the quarterback is the only reliable way to slow offenses down in what is shaping up as the most prolific passing season in NFL history.
"I think there's times that we've shown that we're able to put pressure on the quarterback and there's other times it's not," said Smith. "We've been an inconsistent group and really that's frustrating as a coach because you don't like to put the inconsistencies out on the field."
Vea didn't make a huge impact in his debut in Chicago, but he is definitely huge, and hugely powerful. As he gains experience, the Buccaneers expect him to be a difference-maker.
"Well he's got unbelievable power, freakish power," said Smith. "There was a play in the game where I think they ran a screen or something and to see him run 40-yards down field. We all saw what he could do when he played in college and it's just going to take a little bit of time. He'll be fine."
As good as Atlanta's passing attack has been, the front line has allowed him to be sacked 16 times through five games. The Falcons' offense ranks 25th in the NFL in sacks per pass play allowed, so there could be an opportunity there for the Bucs' new-look line to affect the game in a big way.
4. Will Ronald Jones make a significant impact as the Bucs seek a more productive rushing attack?
While the Bucs have the NFL's top-ranked passing attack, as noted above, the running game is producing only 69.5 yards per game, which is third from the bottom, and 3.05 yards per play, which is last. Everyone at the AdventHealth Training Center agrees that this is a team-wide problem that can't be laid solely at the feet of the running backs, the offensive line or the play-caller. Still, the Bucs are looking for a spark in their ground game, and it could come from their rookie back, Ronald Jones.
After being inactive for the first three weeks in favor of fellow rookie Shaun Wilson, who was holding the kickoff return role at that point, Jones got his chance in Week Four at Chicago. His 29 yards on 10 carries didn't ignite the ground game on that last afternoon, but the Bucs believe bigger days are ahead for the former big-playmaker at USC.
"He's only going to continue to get better and he has shown that," said Monken. "He's continued to work awfully hard at it, so it's week-to-week for everybody that we have – we said that a few weeks ago. All of our players in terms of who gives us the best chance to win. I think he continues to improve and will continue because he's got talent. He's got a chance to be a really good player. Now, it's just putting it all together."
As many dynamic options as the Buccaneers have in the passing game, they are probably not going to morph into a run-first team at any point in 2018. However, a more productive ground-game complement would impact the offense in a number of positive ways, from better protection to more bite in the play-action game. And there's a psychological effect to punishing your opponent with a powerful running game.
"This is still a game of grown men trying to dominate the man across from him," said Koetter. "When you're getting dominated physically and they're running on you at will – and I've been on both sides of games like that – it's unbelievable when you're on the good side of that and it's horrific when you're on the other side of it."
5. Will this end up being the shootout that most predict it will be?
Sunday's game in Atlanta has all the makings of a scoreboard-roller waiting to happen. The Falcons have allowed 32.6 points per game through five outings, a higher average than every team in the league except the Buccaneers, who have surrendered 34.8 per contest in four games.
And shootouts have become common enough in the NFL to make predictions of, say, a 39-36 final score, far from outlandish. There have already been nine games through five NFL weeks in 2018 in which each team has scored at least 30 points, led by the Bucs' 48-40 downing of New Orleans in Week One. In the 10 years prior to this season, there were 158 such games, or 6.17% of all regular-season games played. Nine of the 78 games played in the first five weeks of this season qualified, or 11.54%.
Not only have both the Bucs and Falcons surrendered a lot of points, but they will both be facing a prolific passing attack with multiple dynamic weapons. Understanding this, the competing coaches may go into the game believing they have to be aggressive with their decision-making in order to keep up in a high-scoring game, which would only serve to compound the shootout.
That said, these games don't always unfold in what would seem like the obvious manner. For instance, the Falcons and Eagles were anticipating a high-scoring affair when they met in Week One but the Eagles eventually prevailed, 18-12, in a game in which both teams were mistake-prone. Perhaps this shootout-on-paper will turn into something completely different. We'll find out on Sunday afternoon.