The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 5-6 following a 25-12 loss at Indianapolis. What are the six things PewterReport.com’s Scott Reynolds is looking for in Tampa Bay’s upcoming game at Indianapolis where the Colts are also 5-5 trying to win the AFC South? Find out right here in SR’s Pick 6.
Who: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Atlanta Falcons Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. When: 1:00 p.m. ET – FOX Last meeting: 23-20 overtime win in Atlanta in 2015 Series notes: Falcons and Bucs are tied at 22-22 all-time
1. PLAY BETTER RED ZONE DEFENSE
Tampa Bay’s red zone defense, which had shown improvement in wins against Dallas and Philadelphia, gave up two red zone passing touchdowns last week at Indianapolis, which proved to be costly. The Buccaneers need to play better near their own goal line against the pass and force the Falcons to score field goals rather than touchdowns this week.
Cornerbacks Jude Adjei-Barimah and Sterling Moore had been playing so well lately, but each gave up a touchdown to the Colts last week – Adjei-Barimah in man coverage and Moore in Cover 2. Both Bucs cornerbacks need to play better this week and defend the ball better. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has four red zone interceptions this year and the Bucs need to make that number grow on Sunday. Getting pressure on Ryan will also help Tampa Bay’s secondary, but that could be difficult with a banged up defensive line. Advantage: Falcons
2. TIE UP FREEMAN
Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman is having a breakout year in his second NFL season, rushing for 764 yards and nine touchdowns on 167 carries. Freeman had ripped off a season-long 39-yard run against Indianapolis two weeks ago while rushing for 43 yards on three carries before suffering a concussion that kept him out of last week’s game. Now cleared of his concussion, Freeman hopes he can energize a struggling Falcons team that has lost five of its last six games after a 5-0 start, including the last four in a row.
Freeman rushed for 88 yards on 21 carries (4.2 avg.) and caught six passes for 43 yards in Tampa Bay’s 23-20 overtime win in Atlanta. The Falcons need at least 100 yards rushing out of him in order to get back to their winning ways by beating the Bucs at their home. Tampa Bay’s defensive line will be playing without defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive ends Jacquies Smith and George Johnson, so the reserves will have to step up. And the Bucs linebackers must also do a great job in filling their gaps to prevent Freeman from getting past the second level of the defense. Tampa Bay’s run defense has been stellar this year, especially last week in holding Indianapolis to 27 yards on 26 carries, and needs another great game on Sunday. Advantage: Buccaneers
3. MELTON MUST STEP UP IN THE MIDDLE
McCoy had a surgical procedure on his hand on Monday and is listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game. McCoy has come on lately with a couple of sacks in the last two games and leads the Bucs with seven sacks on the year. Without McCoy or Smith, who has six sacks, where is Tampa Bay’s pass rush going to come from on Sunday?
Henry Melton will get the start at the three-technique in place of McCoy and needs to be the driving force up front to pressure Ryan. Melton has 15 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble this season and played extremely well in Atlanta during the teams’ first meeting on November 1. Defensive end Howard Jones, who has five sacks, including one last week in Indianapolis, needs to step up with Smith out and provide a pass rush from the outside. But the Tampa 2 defensive scheme is predicated on getting pressure up the middle from the three-technique and Melton needs to deliver. Advantage: Falcons
4. PEWTER PERFECTION IN THE PASSING GAME
The Buccaneers need to be perfect in the passing game this week against the Falcons. That means no interceptions against Atlanta from Jameis Winston, who threw a fourth quarter pick last week in Indianapolis. Winston threw a touchdown pass and ran another one at Atlanta in a 23-20 victory and didn’t throw an interception. He needs to have another game like that for the Bucs to sweep the Falcons.
Winston only completed 55.2 percent of his passes against the Falcons last time and that was due to a lot of dropped passes, especially from Mike Evans. The 6-foot-5 receiver has had his share of drops this year and needs to be more consistent catching the ball. Evans only had three catches for 48 yards in Atlanta in the first game and needs to have a 100-yard game to help Tampa Bay’s odds of winning. Doug Martin and Charles Sims will provide a strong rushing attack, but what makes the Bucs’ offense dangerous is the play-action passing game. Winston’s passes need to be accurate and Evans needs to be sure-handed on Sunday. Advantage: Buccaneers
5. NO DIRTY LAUNDRY I
The Bucs need to do a much better job of protecting their rookie quarterback in order to beat Atlanta and get back to .500. The offensive line needs to keep Winston’s jersey and pants clean on Sunday. Winston was under continual harassment in Indianapolis and was sacked a career-high five times. Tackles Donovan Smith and Gosder Cherlius, guards Logan Mankins and Evan Smith and center Joe Hawley all had some bad moments in Indy last week and need to rebound in the area of pass protection.
The Bucs offensive line, especially Smith against Falcons’ number one pick Vic Beasley, performed well in the first meeting against Atlanta, surrendering only two sacks. The return of right guard Ali Marpet from an ankle injury should help solidify Tampa Bay’s offensive line. Demar Dotson might see his first action of the year at right tackle, too, as Cherilus is questionable with a knee injury. And Hawley, a former Falcon, should be up for a rematch against his old team after playing his worst game of the year last week in Indianapolis. Advantage: Buccaneers
6. NO DIRTY LAUNDRY II
Tampa Bay played a large role in beating itself in Indianapolis with 12 penalties for 95 yards last Sunday. The Bucs lead the NFL in penalties with 109 for 894 yards and have had double-digit penalties in six of their games this season. It’s no surprise that the Bucs are 2-4 in those contests.
Tampa Bay has to, has to, has to become more disciplined and get its penalty situation under control right now while it still has a chance at a postseason run. The Bucs have to significantly reduce the number of penalties it commits down the stretch, starting this Sunday against the Falcons. The number of pre-snap (offside, false start and neutral zone infractions) and post-play (personal fouls) penalties this team commits is ridiculous. The Bucs don’t play smart football in this area and that’s one of the reasons why Tampa Bay is below .500 in December. Advantage: Falcons
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: email@example.com