Falcons (6-9) vs. Buccaneers (7-8)
All-time record: Falcons lead series 27-25
Home record: 14-13
Key Matchups (via Scott Smith):
1. Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis
Last weekend, Houston WR DeAndre Hopkins came to Raymond James Stadium red-hot, with a pair of 100-yard games in his immediate rear view mirror and four in his last eight outings. He left with just 23 yards on five catches, tying his season low. The main culprit, according to Arians: Davis, the Buccaneers' second-year corner who is showing signs of developing into a lock-down corner. Davis matched Hopkins' physical play and never let him get into the open field with room to run. That was a great tune-up for Davis for this week, because he'll have at least an equal if not greater challenge trying to slow down an even hotter Julio Jones. In just his last two games, Jones has racked up 23 catches for 300 yards and two touchdowns. Davis and the Bucs' secondary limited Jones to 68 yards in the Week 12 meeting in Atlanta but the veteran receiver has a history of strong performances against the Buccaneers. Jones is a particularly difficult challenge for any cornerback because he is so incredibly quick and sharp out of his breaks. Defensive backs worried about the Falcons' big-play receiver suddenly dashing by them to get behind the defense often find that he instead makes an instant cut outside and creates separation that wasn't there a moment ago. Like all the Bucs' young defensive backs, however, Davis has had a strong run to the end of the season in part because that group has made a point of studying extra game tape and working to recognize their opponents' tendencies. Having played Jones just over a month ago should help Davis in his preparation as well.
2. Buccaneers G Ali Marpet vs. Falcons DT Grady Jarrett
Last week, Jarrett found out that he had made his first Pro Bowl roster, and it's a pretty good bet that Buccaneers players and coaches cast ballots his way during their portion of the voting. The Bucs are well aware of what a non-stop wreaker of havoc Jarrett can be over the course of 60 minutes. Seemingly possessed of an endless well of energy and competitiveness, Jarrett gets into opposing backfields frequently, and he ranks second on the Atlanta defense with 6.5 sacks and first with 15 quarterback hits. He's an instinctive defender who can change directions quickly, allowing him to pick up sacks in pursuit when plays break down and to have an impact on the running game even when the opposition doesn't choose to run right in his direction. It might not be too long before Marpet makes his own breakthrough into Pro Bowl recognition as he's a top competitor on a line that has helped produce the third-highest yardage and point totals in the NFL this season. Though Jameis Winston has had persistent interception issues he has mostly had good time to throw in recent weeks as the Bucs have averaged 422 gross passing yards per game over the past three weeks. Marpet is strong and competitive and he and center Ryan Jensen set a physical tone in the middle of the Bucs' front wall. In the Week 12, Marpet helped the Bucs hold Jarrett to just two tackle assists and no hits on the quarterback.
3. Falcons TE Austin Hooper/RB Devonta Freeman vs. Buccaneers S Mike Edwards
In that last Bucs-Falcons meeting in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Tampa Bay's defense held Atlanta to 337 yards and 22 points; in four games since, the Falcons have averaged 404.3 yards and 27.8 points per outing. One reason for the surge is the return of both Hooper or Freeman, neither of whom played in that Week 12 game due to injuries. Hooper was having a breakout campaign before a knee injury caused him to miss three games, and since his return he's caught 12 passes for 134 yards in three games, all Atlanta victories. Freeman also missed some time in the season's second half with a foot injury, and while the first half of his season wasn't as productive as many had expected he seems to be hitting his stride in the last month since returning. That's especially true in the passing game, as he had seven catches for 94 yards and a touchdown last week. One of the defenders who should be heavily involved in slowing down tight ends and running backs in the passing attack on Sunday is rookie safety Mike Edwards, who has a bigger role after the loss of Jordan Whitehead to injured reserve. Edwards played roughly two-thirds of the Houston game at strong safety and recorded four tackles and a pass defensed. One of those stops came against TE Darren Fells and his pass break-up was on a pass intended for RB Ronald Jones. Edwards is a defender the Buccaneers' coaches feel comfortable deploying all over the formation, and he has also seen time in the slot this season, indicating his coverage skills. The return of Hooper and Freeman makes the Falcons' more difficult to defend than they were five weeks ago but Edwards and the rest of the Bucs' young secondary have been playing quite well in the time since that last meeting.
4. Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston vs. Falcons S Damontae Kazee
Winston's unusual 2019 trend is inescapable and almost inexplicable: He's thrown an interception on the Bucs' first series of the game six times this year, including the last three in a row. Winston was picked off four times in the Bucs' 23-20 loss to Houston, by four different Texan defenders, one of them returned for a touchdown. He has also been one of the NFL's most prolific passers all seasons in yards and touchdowns and he's made Tampa Bay's aerial game one of the most dangerous in terms of big plays downfield. Obviously, Winston and the Bucs' coaches are doing all they can to radically reduce the turnovers, but when that doesn't occur it can turn a game into a walk on a tight rope, as it did in that loss to the Texans and wins over Indianapolis, Arizona and Atlanta. The Falcons' defense will surely come into Raymond James Stadium on Sunday hoping to counter Winston's big plays with ones of their own, and the most likely defender to do so would have been the team's leading interceptor, veteran CB Desmond Trufant. However, Trufant landed on injured reserve with a broken arm two weeks ago, which makes Kazee the team's leading interceptor with three. That's no fluke; Kazee tied for the NFL lead last year with seven picks in his first season as a regular starter. Kazee was also a ballhawk in college at San Diego State, with another seven interceptions in his final year. A true centerfielder with good awareness and instincts, Kazee picked off a pass in last year's season finale against Tampa Bay, which proved to be the turning point in Atlanta's rally for a 34-32 victory.
The game will kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. The broadcast can be found on FOX, locally. It will also be available on a live stream that can be accessed through the Buccaneers Official App and Yahoo Sports. See below for details.
How to Watch:
Tim Brando, Matt Millen, Sara Walsh
The stream is available through Yahoo Sports, the Buccaneers Official App and online at Buccaneers.com.
*Geographic and device restrictions apply. Local & primetime games only. Data charges may apply.
How to Listen:
*In-market fans can listen through the Bucs Official App
Gene Deckerhoff, Dave Moore, T.J. Rives
98ROCK (97.9 - Tampa)
The Boot (103.9 FM – Brooksville)
ESPN SW Florida (99.3 FM – Ft. Myers/Naples/Punta Gorda)
Citrus (95.3 FM - Homosassa)
WLKF (96.7 FM and 1430 AM – Lakeland)
WYGM (740 AM/ 96.9 FM – Orlando and Melbourne)
WSTU (1450 AM - Port St. Lucie)
ESPN Tallahassee (97.9 FM – Tallahassee)
WTMP-FM 96.1, 101.9 and WMGG-AM 1470 (Tampa)
WIXC – AM 1060 (Melbourne/Orlando)
Sirius/XM Channel 88
On the Bucs Official App*
*Access restricted to Tampa area