Buccaneers game day is approaching, and it’s time for the PewterReport.com staff to offer up its weekly game predictions. Let us know what you think in the article comments section and add your prediction, too.
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Scott Reynolds: Even Without Smith, RoJo, Bucs Beat Falcons
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Tampa Bay’s game at Atlanta got a lot more interesting with Friday’s news on the injury/COVID front. Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith will not be available for Sunday’s game, as he has come in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Josh Wells is expected to start at left tackle against the Falcons. Bucs running back Ronald Jones II is dealing with a fractured pinkie, which required surgery to insert pins, and is also on the COVID list. Leonard Fournette will start in Jones’ place. For the Falcons, wide receiver Julio Jones and safety Ricardo Allen have both been ruled so, and those are significant starters.
Falcons QB Matt Ryan – Photo by: USA Today
So what does all this mean? The Bucs were planning to throw the ball more often with Jones being out, but might have to rethink that strategy with Smith out as Tom Brady’s blindside protector. The good news is that Atlanta’s defensive line isn’t very prolific at rushing the passer, as the team has just 25 sacks on the season. So the Bucs will still likely try to come out and throw the ball, as will the Falcons because the strength of Dirk Koetter’s offense is quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receivers Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage. The key for the Bucs will be to pressure and sack Ryan early and often. Ryan was sacked eight times by New Orleans a few weeks ago, and Tampa Bay notched six sacks last week against Minnesota.
As I wrote in my latest The Hook column this week, we all probably overestimated this Bucs team heading into the season somewhat. At least I know I did. But while the Bucs may not be on the same level as the Saints or Chiefs, they are a better football team than the Falcons and good football teams beat the teams on their schedule that they should. This is one of those games that shouldn’t be a problem. But we will know a little more about this Bucs team come Sunday at 4 p.m. when the final whistle sounds.
Bucs RB Ronald Jones II – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Things got a little more interesting this week with Ronald Jones and tackle Donovan Smith bring placed on the COVID list and the two won’t play Sunday in Atlanta. Both of those two are key contributors and aren’t easily replaced. The Bucs will turn to Leonard Fournette and we will also likely see some extended playing time for rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn along with some LeSean McCoy mixed in. But none of these three are as good as Jones, so expecting a Rojo-like day probably wont happen Where the Bucs can have success is to attack a banged up Atlanta secondary that will see Ricardo Allen and Darqueze Dennard out of the lineup. Playing on the fast turf in Atlanta should also be an advantage for the Bucs speedy receivers like Scotty Miller and Antonio Brown.
Defensively for Tampa Bay they will need to hold Matt Ryan in check, harass him all afternoon and make it difficult for receivers Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage to get open in the secondary. Both of these players are capable of hurting the Buccaneers, particularly Ridley who leads the Falcons in yards, receptions and touchdowns. I’d like to see the Buccaneers scheme up their defense they way they did last week against Minnesota and sacrifice some running yards for better coverage on the back end. I say that, but I am not sure the Bucs need to be overly concerned with any of the Falcons running backs, as none strike much fear in their opponents. Playoff teams that have Super Bowl aspirations don’t lose games like this. Let’s see if the Bucs are one of those teams.
Jon Ledyard: Time For Bucs Offense To Get On A Roll
Even without Donovan Smith and Ronald Jones, the Bucs are good enough and the Falcons are sloppy and young enough for this game to get out of hand – if the Bucs offense doesn’t shoot itself in the foot all game. Self-inflicted errors are what is holding the Bucs offense back from being among the top 2-3 in the league more than anything else, from the coaching staff to the weapons and even to the quarterback at times, like on the first two drives against Minnesota last week.
The Bucs should win without playing their ‘A’ game, as Atlanta will be missing Julio Jones, Ricardo Allen and Darqueze Dennard, and are over-matched on both the offensive and defensive lines. But this needs to be a game that the Bucs seize control of right out of the gate and don’t let up for four quarters. Playoff berth on the line, division rivalry and a chance to get to 11-5, the team’s best record since 2002 (12-4), when they won the Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay needs to wallop Atlanta. Mike Evans needs to finish on every target. Chris Godwin needs to break some tackles and make defenders miss after the catch. Antonio Brown needs to get on the same page with Tom Brady on every route. Leonard Fournette, God helps us, needs to hit every hole with speed and decisiveness. The offensive line needs to overwhelm a Falcons front that has struggled outside of Grady Jarrett’s impact this season, and Brady needs to gouge a secondary that is full of inexperienced and below-average players. Defensively, the Bucs’ defensive line needs to dismantle a Falcons offensive line that has failed to consistently protect Matt Ryan this season, while Carlton Davis locks down Calvin Ridley. The Bucs need to leave no doubt, and work the boneheaded mistakes and sloppy play out of their system before the playoffs start.
Even with Donovan Smith and Ronald Jones II out for Sunday, the Bucs still won’t be hurting as much as the Falcons with the injured they’re rolling out. Julio Jones has been a nightmare for the Bucs in his career, but Atlanta’s best weapon won’t be playing on Sunday, which should help out a Bucs’ secondary that’s also getting their second best corner back in Jamel Dean.
Bucs CB Jamel Dean – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Not having Smith isn’t great, especially with the Bucs expected to air it out, but it won’t necessarily derail Tampa Bay’s offense. The absence of Jones as well would make the Bucs that much more inclined to throw the ball against an Atlanta defense that is third worst in the league, allowing 281 passing yards per game, and with an average of just 1.9 sacks per game, Tom Brady can still sit comfortably and get the ball to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown.
We’ve said for some time now that the Bucs are good enough to beat the teams they should beat, so this week should be no difference. The defense has excelled when playing with a lead, so it’ll be hunting season for Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who are both heating up at the right time. The Bucs take care of business for a second straight win.
Despite their late season surge, going 4-4 since interim head coach Raheem Morris took over for the Falcons following an 0-5 start and head coach Dan Quinn’s subsequent dismissal, Atlanta is on the outside looking in at the NFC playoff picture. But while it may be a little too late for the Falcons to make a playoff push of their own as they were officially eliminated from playoff contention following their narrow loss at the hands of the Chargers in Week 14, it’s not too late to throw a wrench in the playoff plans of their divisional foes in Tampa Bay.
The Falcons have their problems, evident in the fact that Atlanta failed to score a single point in the second half last week en route to a 20-17 loss in which they held a 17-10 lead at halftime. These problems are only compounded with the news that Atlanta will be without at least one of their stars on each side of the ball against the Bucs, officially ruling wide receiver Julio Jones and safety Ricardo Allen for Week 15. But with that said, the Falcons have played some really good football throughout their resurgence with close losses to the Chargers and Saints, a win over the Vikings and a thorough 43-6 domination of the Raiders in Week 12.
Falcons WR Calvin Ridley – Photo by: USA Today
All-in-all the Bucs are the better team, but they won’t exactly be at 100 percent themselves as cornerback Jamel Dean remains questionable, running back Ronald Jones II is looking like a long shot to play and left tackle Donovan Smith has been ruled out as he was placed on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list this week. The Falcons always fight tooth and nail with the Bucs, mounting a comeback attempt in an eventual loss to Tampa Bay in Week 12 last season before ending the Tampa Bay’s season on an overtime, walkoff pick-six from Deion Jones in Week 17. It’s a game Tampa Bay should realistically win, but the Falcons are absolutely not a team that they can look past.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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