The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jamel Dean. Two games ago, the rookie cornerback broke up four passes and had a game-changing interception in the fourth quarterback in a comeback win over Arizona. That was only the second real stretch of defensive action for Dean, who had been pressed into service the week before in Seattle thanks to Carlton Davis's pregame injury and had produced mixed results. Dean's big game against the Cardinals seemed to promise more work for the 2019 third-round pick moving forward but in Week 11 the Bucs played a zone-heavy scheme and chose to use another rookie, safety Mike Edwards as the primary slot corner. Since, both Head Coach Bruce Arians and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles have made it clear they intend to get Dean more involved in the defense again. If he does play against the Falcons, it could be as one of the two outside cornerbacks in the sub package, with starter Sean Murphy-Bunting (yet another rookie) moving into the slot. Dean is the fastest of the Bucs' defensive backs, which would help if Matt Ryan tries to go deep with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Dean also has the size to match up against the bigger Jones.
Jameis Winston. Obviously, the quarterback in any game is a player to watch, but Winston may be under more intense scrutiny than ever as he enters the stretch run of the last season of his rookie contract. Winston continues to put up big numbers and he's leading a high-scoring offense dependent on the passing attack, but turnover problems have plagued him and the team. As Arians has noted, not all of the interceptions or fumbles credited to Winston are really his fault, and he has been sacked a career-high 36 times, but the quarterback is always going to get the lion's share of the credit and the blame. Winston has always been adept at difficult intermediate-range routes, such as his precise deep outs to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the sideline, and this year he has shown improvement in his deep ball, such as the perfect 48-yard bomb he threw to speedy rookie Scotty Miller last Sunday. A strong six-game finish to the season could help clarify Winston's NFL future, and that starts this weekend in Atlanta.
Devin White. Bowles this week on the Buccaneers' rookie linebacker, who went fifth-overall in the draft thanks to his unusual range of talents, including top-level speed for the position: "Every week we've seen flashes all of the time in practice. I think he is playing faster in the games. He had some big hits – obviously, we need a lot more of them. As it grows mentally on him, and the faster he plays, we see the progress every week, so we are happy with Devin." Indeed, White looked particularly fast in last week's game against the Saints, in which he was all over the field racking up 13 tackles, a number of them quick closes on short passes to open-field dynamo Alvin Kamara. As White grows more comfortable in his first NFL defensive scheme and plays more and more instinctively, those rare skills will be unlocked and turn into big plays, which Tampa Bay's defense sorely needs. Eighth-year veteran Lavonte David continues to play at a very high level, so as White improves the Buccaneers' defense will have one of the best LB combinations roaming the middle of the field.
Mike Evans. It could be a big day for Evans, and he's certainly had big days against the Falcons in the past, with a career average of roughly 85 yards per game and eight touchdowns in 10 total contests. Evans is averaging 99.3 yards per game, second in the NFL, which means he should have no trouble hitting his first milestone of the day. A mere seven yards would get him to 1,000 for the sixth time in his six-year career, something only Randy Moss has done in league history. Evans is also climbing up the all-time chart for most yards in the first six seasons of a career, and just a few players ahead of him is Atlanta's Jones. More importantly, the Buccaneers need to get the ball to Evans and fellow wideout Chris Godwin in order to keep their offense humming throughout the game in Atlanta. Last week, the Saints focused on shutting those two down as much as possible and succeeded until well into the second half before Evans and Godwin contributed a string of big plays. This weekend, the Bucs will hopefully get those two going much earlier in the contest.
Donovan Smith. Grady Jarrett may be the Falcons' most dangerous player up front (more on that below) but in the past two weeks Atlanta has gotten 7.5 sacks from defensive ends Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Takk McKinley and Allen Bailey. There were some injury concerns among that group heading into the weekend but the Falcons will have enough edge rushers available to keep up their recent turn of aggressive play. Smith and the rest of the Buccaneers' offensive line will be tasked with repelling that rush and giving Winston time to throw. In last week's game against New Orleans, Winston dropped back 53 times but was only sacked twice. Smith is the stalwart on that front line, having started 74 straight games since being drafted in the second round in 2015, and Winston has complete confidence in Smith's ability to keep him upright.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 31.3/6.0. The first number is how many points per game the Falcons had given up through the first eight weeks of the season, which at the time was the most in the NFL. After those eight weeks, Atlanta finally had its bye and during that extra time of self-evaluation the team made some changes to the coaching staff. Most notably, former Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris went from tutoring the Falcons' receivers to working with the defensive backs and helping with the defensive play-calling. According to current Bucs Head Coach Bruce Arians, the Falcons have simplified their approach on defense, as well, and all of those changes seemed to have worked wonders. In the two games since the bye, Atlanta has allowed a total of four field goals, or just 6.0 points per game, to the Saints and Panthers. Is this dramatic improvement for real? We'll find out on Sunday when the Falcons face the sixth-highest scoring offense in the league.
· 63/25. Despite their gradual slide from +4 in turnover differential in Week Five to -10 heading into Week 12, the Buccaneers are still second in the NFL in points scored off takeaways. Tampa Bay has 63 of those; only Pittsburgh has more, with 73, and the Steelers have 10 more post-takeaway drives than do the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay's game-winning points against Arizona in Week 10 came after that interception by Dean mentioned above, but last week the Bucs did not take the ball away against the Saints and thus obviously had no points off turnovers. That 25 above is how many points Atlanta has off turnovers this week, which is only tied for 23rd in the NFL. As Arians noted again this week, takeaways often seem to come in bunches, and if the Bucs can get back to taking the ball away it could be a big advantage on Sunday.
· 122.0. Dirk Koetter's offense in Atlanta may try to bomb away on Sunday against a Buccaneers' pass defense that has given up more big plays than it expected to. On passes thrown more than 21 yards in the air downfield this year, the Bucs are allowing a passer rating of 122.0, which is 32nd in the NFL. Opponents haven't necessarily had a huge success rate on those attempts, completing just 34.9% of them (15th-lowest rate allowed among defenses) but it's the TD/INT ratio of 5/0 that has pushed that rating upward. Tampa Bay will try to keep a lid on the deep ball this Sunday against Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
· 60.0%/53.3%/26.5%/7.1%. Tampa Bay's defense has been good on third downs for the most part this season, ranking ninth in the NFL with a success rate of 35.2% allowed. Last week, however, the Saints drove that percentage up a bit by converting on seven of 13 attempts, or 53.8%. The main reason: seven of those 13 attempts needed three yards or fewer and the Saints converted six of those. Obviously, most defenses are going to see their success rates go up as third downs get longer, and that's what the numbers above indicate. The Bucs have allowed 60.0% of attempts from 1-3 yards to be converted, 53.3% from 4-6 yards, 26.5% from 7-10 yards and just 7.1% when it's longer than 10 yards. Creating long third downs with more success on the first two downs will be critical for the Bucs in Atlanta; of course, the Falcons' offense just happens to rank second in the NFL with an average of 6.4 yards per first down.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· The Buccaneers could be closer to full strength up front if outside linebacker Carl Nassib is able to play after missing two games with a groin injury. The Bucs have spent most of the season using a four-man OLB rotation of Nassib, Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and rookie Anthony Nelson, but both Nassib and Nelson were knocked out in Seattle in Week Nine. Nelson won't return from his hamstring injury this week but Nassib got in some practice and was considered questionable heading into the weekend. His return would help Barrett and Pierre-Paul get a few breaks; those two have played the vast majority of Tampa Bay's defensive snaps the last three weeks.
· Falcons TE Austin Hooper was in the midst of a breakout season when he sustained a knee injury in Week 10 in New Orleans; he was actually leading the team in receptions at the time. Hooper, who has 56 catches for 608 yards and a team-high six touchdowns, has been ruled out for Sunday's game. Former Buccaneer Luke Stocker started in Hooper's place last week but it was first-year player Jaeden Graham who provided the tight end production in the passing game with two catches for 23 yards.
· WR Scotty Miller was on the field for 35 offensive snaps against the Saints in Week 11, and other than a Week Six game in which WR Brett Perriman didn't play, that's the most playing time the rookie has seen so far. Perriman had been getting roughly five times as many snaps as Miller per game but against the Saints those two logged an almost equal amount of playing time. Miller responded with a 48-yard catch that set up a touchdown and a career-best 71 yards on four carries. He could be in line for even more work in Week 12.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE FALCONS
Atlanta's offense is likely to be without two key contributors on Sunday as both tight end Austin Hooper and running back Devonta Freeman are sidelined by injuries. The Falcons also traded away third receiver Mohamed Sanu in October. All of that said, any offense that features Matt Ryan throwing to Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley is going to be dangerous, and the Falcons have scored 55 points during their two-game winning streak. On defense, the recent resurgence has included a much better pass-rush, as Atlanta had recorded just seven sacks through its first eight games before getting the aforementioned 11 in the last two weeks. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Atlanta's Week 12 injury report is heavy with defensive ends, with Takk McKinley not practicing the first two days of the week and Adrian Clayborn and John Cominsky both being limited. However, the biggest threat from the Falcons' line comes from the inside, where defensive tackle Grady Jarrett can take over a game with his boundless energy. In Atlanta's 26-9 win in New Orleans two weeks ago, Jarrett wreaked havoc in the Saints' backfield with 2.5 sacks and five quarterback hits. Jarrett is quick and strong and he competes to the limit on every snap. He's also firm at the point of attack and is difficult to run through. When opposing teams try to run away from Jarrett, his excellent pursuit skills can blow that up, too. The Buccaneers would like to present a more balanced offense – certainly not wanting to duplicate last week's 51-pass, eight-run experience – but establishing the run against Jarrett and a defense that has allowed just 3.91 yards per carry this season won't be easy.
Julio Jones is clearly the most daunting challenge for Tampa Bay's defense. Jones has averaged 121.5 receiving yards per game against the Buccaneers in his career and he is Atlanta's top yardage creator this year with 882 of them on 59 receptions. Jones is not only big at 6-3, 220 but he has incredible body control, allowing him to make catches many other receivers would be incapable of coming down with. The ninth-year receiver is a huge challenge in man-to-man coverage because he can stop and come back to the ball on a dime or he can accelerate smoothly past a defensive back. It's easy for a defender to get fooled when Jones begins a break, and that's how the Falcons' perennial Pro Bowler can turn what looks like good coverage into a wide-open look in mere moments. Second-year man Calvin Ridley is emerging as a big-play threat opposite Jones, but it's still the proven veteran who is Tampa Bay's number-one concern on Sunday.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On how Buccaneers players responded during the week of practice after a disappointing loss the previous Sunday:
"Outstanding. It was really another good week. I can't ask for any more effort on the practice field or in the classroom. It just needs to show up on Sunday."