Week 15 brings the latest start of 2017 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and maybe that's a good thing. The Buccaneers have frequently fared better late in games this season.
Tampa Bay welcomes the Atlanta Falcons to Raymond James Stadium on Monday night for a prime-time, nationally-televised contest between fierce division rivals. The two teams met just three weeks ago in Atlanta, in a game that saw the Buccaneers dig a 27-6 hole before rallying to make it a close game at the end. The same thing happened just last week against Detroit, when the Bucs erased a 21-7 deficit only to lose on a last-minute field goal, 24-21. Similar rallies took place in earlier losses to Arizona, Buffalo and Green Bay.
As Head Coach Dirk Koetter noted, the Buccaneers simply took better advantage of their opportunities late in last Sundays' contest. To beat Atlanta, which brings an 8-5 record and very real playoff hopes to Tampa, the Buccaneers will need to do so for a full 60 minutes.
"[It was] just execution of simple plays that were there," said Koetter. "Our issue all season has been more about our own consistency and our own ability to execute things that are there than anything else. We did a good job of that at the end of that Detroit game; it just wasn't quite enough."
Some of the lost opportunities against the Lions were the product of turnovers – Tampa Bay had five of them, including three lost fumbles. Overall, the Buccaneers have a plus-4 turnover ratio in 2017 but they were negative-two against the Lions. In Atlanta in Week 12, the Bucs created the only turnover of the game but didn't turn it into any points thanks to a failed fourth down deep in Falcon territory in the fourth quarter.
"Turnovers will get you every time, and five in a game, it's going to be very tough," said Koetter."
Tampa Bay's takeaway in Atlanta was a Brent Grimes fumble recovery after Kendell Beckwith had poked the ball out of Terron Ward's arms near the Bucs' goal line. Tampa Bay did not pick off or even slow down Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 26 of 35 passes, 12 of them to Julio Jones for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Notably, Ryan was not sacked, and he was only hit four times. For better results against Ryan and the Falcons' passing attack in the rematch, the Bucs will need to find a way to increase the quarterback's level of difficulty.
"To stop any pass game, the number-one way you can make it better is pressure the quarterback, make the quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket," said Koetter. "We've had a hard time doing that the majority of the time this year but that doesn't change it. That's still the best way to stop any pass game."
Atlanta is trying to keep pace in the NFC South with the Panthers and Saints, both of whom won on Sunday to improve to 10-4. The Falcons also have to worry about a Wild Card chase in which both Dallas and Detroit improved to 8-6 with Week 15 victories. The Buccaneers have no postseason carrot to chase but they want to finish the season strong and make things a little tougher on their division foes. All three of their remaining games are rematches, including this Monday-nighter that reconnects two teams that played 22 days earlier.
"It's the same for both teams, so there's really no advantage," said Koetter of the quick rematch. "The difference is, both teams have played two games in between and your injury situation is different. Based on what key guys might be out for both teams, that's an adjustment. Other than that, you're already familiar with your division teams and you're trying to make adjustments, build on what went well for you the first game and correct the things that you didn't do well the first game."
Both teams indeed have some important injury developments. Monday's game could have been a replay of some interesting individual matchups, such as Gerald McCoy on Andy Levitre and Lavonte David on Tevin Coleman. That won't happen, however, because all four of those players are inactive due to injuries. Clinton McDonald returns from his own injury absence to help cover for the loss of McCoy, while the team will dip into its admirable linebacker depth to get by without David.
"That just means that Kendell Beckwith and Adarius Glanton will have bigger roles, and they've been there before," said Koetter. "Probably our deepest position is linebacker; those guys are going to play fine."
In addition to the three inactive defensive starters, the Bucs will be without running back Doug Martin, who is inactive due to a violation of team rules. The rest of Tampa Bay's inactive list is quarterback Ryan Griffin, offensive lineman Mike Liedtke and wide receiver Bobo Wilson. The Buccaneers are expected to move Beckwith to David's weakside linebacker spot and use Glanton on the strong side.
In addition to Levitre and Coleman, the Falcons deactivated guard Sean Harlow, cornerbacks Leon McFadden and Deji Olatoye, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and wide receiver Nick Williams.
Those men won't play, but the national spotlight will soon be shining on the 92 players who are suiting up for the game. It's a stage on which everyone enjoys being featured. ESPN broadcaster Jon Gruden will be on that stage, as well, even more than usual because he will be inducted into the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor during a halftime on-field ceremony.
"First, congratulations to Coach Gruden," said Koetter. "What a great honor to be in the town you live in, have your name on the stadium, have a Super Bowl championship. [It's] much deserved and [I'm] very happy for him. Of course, all the players and coaches on both teams look forward to Monday Night Football because it's the only game on."
The Buccaneers and Falcons kick off at 8:30 p.m. ET at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, playing in front of a national audience on ESPN. The game will also be broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.