The Tampa Bay Buccaneers conclude their 2019 season on Sunday with a rematch against the Atlanta Falcons, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Shaquil Barrett. Am I displaying a lack of creativity by including Barrett on this list for a third straight week? Maybe, but that's not going to stop me. In fact, I've moved him to the top of said list. The reason is simple enough: Barrett has one final chance to be the undisputed single-season king of sacks for the Buccaneers. He closed the gap on Warren Sapp's 2000 record of 16.5 with a rush of five sacks between Weeks 12 and 15, and then was shut out last weekend in Houston. No matter what happens in Week 17 against the Falcons, Barrett will have had a marvelous debut season in Tampa, will have at least a share of that coveted single-season record and will clearly be a priority for the franchise as free agency approaches. Until the final whistle on Sunday, it will be enjoyable to keep an eye on Barrett to see if he gets the sack he needs, and even after that to see if he can pad his lead for the next time someone chases the record. The last time Barrett faced the Falcons, at the beginning of his aforementioned hot streak, he had one of the Bucs' six sacks on Matt Ryan and also set a personal single-game best with five quarterback hits. Atlanta's offensive line is right in the middle of the league pack in sacks allowed per pass play but Ryan has tended to take them in bunches; he's had four different games this year in which he's been sacked five or more times.
Ronald Jones. It finally happened for Jones last Saturday against Houston: He broke out into the open field, made a couple nifty moves and busted out a killer stiff arm, all of it leading to a 49-yard run. Most importantly, when he looked back his teammates were also rushing down the field to join him, rather than glumly waiting back at the line of scrimmage where a yellow flag had been thrown. Jones had lost most of his longest runs this season to penalties but this one stood, and it was the longest one by any Buccaneer in more than four years. Jones would finish that game with 109 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, important production for an offense that suddenly finds itself without Pro Bowl wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who had been combining for roughly 183 yards from scrimmage through the Bucs' first 13 games and who had also accounted for 17 touchdowns. Jones has had a breakout season relative to his lost rookie campaign but he's still looking for his first career 100-yard rushing game. That would be a fine way for him to finish his sophomore NFL campaign and it would also give the Bucs a much better chance of beating the Falcons and getting their record back to even for the end of the year. The Bucs might also need to get the ball into Jones's hands in the passing game on Sunday if the Falcons are able to shut down new number-one receiver Breshad Perriman and the offense has to adjust to a new way of keeping the chains moving.
Lavonte David. The season finale is also one last chance to enjoy the wildly-unappreciated excellence of Lavonte David, who is yet again flying under the radar during a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign. David did recently earn a spot on NFL.com's All-Decade Team for the 2010s, and as the author of that piece noted, David topped "all off-the-ball linebackers in forced fumbles (20), tackles for loss (116) and solo tackles (709)." That apparently didn't include last Saturday's game against Houston because David collected his 21st forced fumble in that contest; it can be hard to keep up when David just keeps building on his numbers, week after week, season after season. You know a defender is worth the price of admission when a coach who spends countless hours absorbing defensive tape gets particular enjoyment out of watching that player. Says Bucs Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles: "He's one of my favorite players. I think he's a complete football player. He plays the run very well. He plays the pass very well. He can blitz. He can play zone. He can play man. He's very intelligent – he has a lot of football savvy and he understands the game, and that's priceless."
Jameis Winston. I don't normally include the quarterback on this list because no football fan needs to be told to watch the passer. The cameras make that a sure thing. I'm making an exception because there's just so much volume to what Winston has been producing for us to watch this season and with one more game it will be fascinating to see what he adds. He is the NFL's leader in passing yards and is only 92 yards away from becoming just the eighth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. He's already broken the Buccaneers' single-season record with 30 touchdown passes and has only gone one game all season without throwing at least one. Without Mike Evans and with Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller sidelined in the process of the game, Winston threw for 458 yards in Detroit. Without any of those three he threw for 335 yards last Saturday against Houston. He racked up 313 yards and three touchdowns in the Week 12 win over Atlanta and the Falcons bring the NFL's 23rd-ranked pass defense to Tampa for the rematch. And there are, undeniably, the interceptions. Winston leads the NFL in that category with 28, including eight in the last three weeks. How to move forward with Winston as his rookie contract nears its expiration in March is the single biggest decision that faces the Buccaneers in the months to come, so every game is a valuable bit of information.
Carlton Davis/Jamel Dean. Though it's not as high-profile as a sack record or the passing yardage competition, there is one NFL statistical lead that is within the grasp of the Bucs' young cornerbacks, Davis and Dean. Davis is one behind the league leader in passes defensed, as he has 18 to the 19 for New England cornerback Stephone Gilmore, who is considered a leading candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Davis is tied with Tennessee cornerback Logan Ryan, and then just behind those two are Buffalo Pro Bowler Tre'Davious White and Dean, the Bucs' on-the-rise rookie, with 17. Davis's appearance in that knot of five is particularly impressive given that he has really only played six games on defense this year. The improved play of those two plus rookie cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting is one of the key factors in the Bucs' remarkable second-half turnaround on defense. Davis and Dean play on the outside when the Buccaneers are in a nickel package, which is the majority of the snaps in most games, which means one or both of them will be dealing with Julio Jones on Sunday. Davis is coming off an impressive battle with a receiver at the same talent level of Jones, as he was the defender primarily responsible for holding Houston's DeAndre Hopkins to 23 yards last Saturday. If Davis and/or Dean can contain Jones even half that well it will greatly improve the Bucs' chances of victory.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 99.6/62.8. Matt Ryan remains as dangerous as ever at the helm of the Falcons' offense and he's finishing his 12th NFL season hot, with 907 passing yards and five touchdowns during his team's current three-game winning streak. Ryan's passer rating of 92.9 is down nearly 16 points from a year ago, but much of that had to do with a rash of early-season interceptions that did not persist. But, like many quarterbacks, Ryan sees his efficiency drop notably when he's pressured. According to Sportradar, Ryan has a 99.6 passer rating on throws on which he's not pressured (which is defined as being sacked, hit or hurried) and a 62.8 rating when he is. The results for the Falcons in this regard have been easy to see: In their six wins, Ryan was sacked an average of 1.5 times per game; in their nine losses, he was sacked 3.7 times per game.
· 123/119. Turnovers are often a game's deciding factor, particularly when they lead to points. That simple connection is a bit muddied for the Buccaneers, however, because they have both scored and allowed a huge amount of points off turnovers. In fact, despite being -11 in turnovers overall, Tampa Bay leads the league with 123 points off takeaways, which includes five that were returned directly for touchdowns. On the other side, the 119 points the Bucs have allowed off turnovers, including six returned direction for touchdowns, is the most of any team as well. More of the former and less of the latter on Sunday and the Bucs could take away their eighth win of the season. Tampa Bay is 4-1 this season in games in which its defense scored a touchdown.
· 1,094. Tampa Bay's rush defense continues to be the NFL's stingiest, allowing a league-low 1,094 yards through 15 games, or 72.9 per game. If the Buccaneers can hold Atlanta to 105 rushing yards or fewer on Sunday, they would be the first team to allow fewer than 1,200 rushing yards in a season since the 2014 Detroit Lions. Tampa Bay has held five straight opponents to fewer than 70 rushing yards, the longest such streak in franchise history. Atlanta comes to town with the NFL's 30th-ranked rushing attack, averaging 84.9 yards per game.
· 244/238. Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium will pit the two offenses in the NFL most likely to break off big plays of 10 or more yards at any given moment. The Buccaneers rank first in that category, with 244 such gains, while the Falcons are just behind in second with 238. Both have done it primarily through the air, also ranking first and second in 10-plus-yard pass plays this season with 209 and 204 respectively. No other team in the league has even cracked 190.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Tampa Bay's defensive youth movement was almost complete in Week 16. That game marked the first time all season that all four defenders the Buccaneers selected during the first two days of the 2019 draft were in the starting lineup: first-round ILB Devin White, second-round CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, third-round CB Jamel Dean and third-round safety Mike Edwards. Fifth-round OLB Anthony Nelson didn't play in the game but was active for the first time in seven weeks after coming back from a hamstring injury. That entire draft class will factor heavily into the Bucs' defense in Sunday's finale, too.
· Takk McKinley started 13 of the Falcons' first 14 games at one of the defensive end spots, opposite Vic Beasley, but he landed on injured reserve 10 days ago due to a shoulder injury. Last week, former Buccaneer Adrian Clayborn stepped into the starting lineup in McKinley's place but he sustained a knee injury against Jacksonville and will be out for Sunday's game, too. The Falcons promoted defensive end Austin Larkin from the practice squad on Dec. 17.
· Chris Godwin's breakout Pro Bowl season is officially over. Though he was not placed on injured reserve, like fellow Pro Bowler Mike Evans was, he has already been ruled out for Sunday's finale due to the hamstring injury he suffered in Week 15. Since Evans went down in Week 14, the Buccaneers have seen four pass-catchers make their NFL debut in Ishmael Hyman, Spencer Schnell, Cyril Grayson and Codey McElroy. Most recently, the team promoted Jaydon Mickens from the practice squad and he could make his Buccaneer debut on Sunday.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE FALCONS
The Falcons have the NFL's fifth-ranked offense and third-ranked passing attack, and even though that offense recently lost number-two receiver Calvin Ridley to injured reserve it also has gotten tight end Austin Hooper and running back Devonta Freeman back into the mix in December. Atlanta keeps the chains moving on offense with a league-high 238 passing first downs and they have greatly improved their protection of Matt Ryan during their three-game winning streak. The Atlanta defense gives up 25.1 points per game, which is 10th-most in the league, and has had trouble sustaining a pass rush, ranking fourth-to-last in sacks per pass play. However, edge rusher Vic Beasley is on a hot streak and the middle of the defense features a pair of play-making linebackers in Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Hooper was sidelined by a knee injury when the Buccaneers and Falcons met in Week 12 and his presence could make a big difference in the rematch. At the time he was injured in Week 10, Hooper was second in the NFL among all tight ends with 608 receiving yards and tied for first with six touchdown receptions. Last week, his third game back from injury, Hooper was a big part of a strong offensive showing for Atlanta in Jacksonville with seven catches for 82 yards. Hooper is fast and agile and could pose a big problem for a Tampa Bay defense that, according to Football Outsiders, ranks 23rd in the league in covering tight ends, giving up 63.1 yards per game to that position. In that Week 12 win for the Bucs, Hooper's replacement, Jaeden Graham, started the game with a 53-yard catch down the middle of the field, but that proved to be the only reception by a Falcons tight end all day. Hooper is likely to remain a more prominent part of the Falcons' passing attack the entire game in Week 17.
Grady Jarrett was just selected for his first Pro Bowl in 2019, but the Buccaneers have known what a force the nonstop defensive tackle can be for years now. Jarrett is disruptive against both the run and the pass, with 11 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hits, both team highs for the Falcons this year. The 6-0, 305-pound ball of energy is difficult to run at directly but he's also very good at chasing down plays in backside pursuit when teams run away from him. Jarrett also has a team-high 6.5 sacks this year and has forced a pair of fumbles. The fifth-year veteran has seen his sack total rise in every season of his career; he's clearly an improving player but his defining characteristic has remained the same throughout those five years – he competes as hard as he can on every snap.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On the second-half turnarounds by the Buccaneers and Falcons, both of whom are 5-2 since their season's respective midway points:
"Yeah, especially with [Atlanta's] coaching changes in the middle of a season. I credit their leadership. They have veteran players. Credit those guys on defense for hanging in there. I was really glad to see Thomas [Dimitroff] and Dan [Quinn] get that next year because they're great guys and they do a hell of a job. They deserve it.
"Ours was a little different in the youth on defense. It was just a matter of youth. Offensively, it's the turnovers. We're going to move the ball and we're going to score points. Defensively, it was the growth of the secondary that really has solidified us into a really solid defense."