As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' topsy-turvy season draws to a close, the young team faces one final test, a home game against the Atlanta Falcons. The team has grown over the past 15 games, showing steady improvement particularly on defense.
While the Bucs have long been out of playoff contention, there are still things left to play for: pride, progress and employment. Tampa is trying to avoid its eighth losing season to close out the decade, which would show that Bruce Arians has the team on the right track.
Some players need to show that they still have value, as free agency looms in just a few months. Finally, on a team as young as the Bucs, the young starters need to prove they are indeed the future by hanging with the stars of today.
Here are three Bucs to watch in the Bucs 2019 finale against the Falcons:
RB Ronald Jones II
At this point of the season, the question on every Bucs fan's mind has to be, "why is Ronald Jones not the clear starter at running back?" While he averages a modest 3.8 yards per carry, Jones is by far the most dynamic running back on the roster. His touchdown runs are clear evidence:
Jones has 23 broken tackles this season, averaging a broken tackle every seven rush attempts. That's over double that of Peyton Barber's eight, averaging a one every 18.5 attempts.
Yet, Jones has just 13 more rush attempts this season. He all but split carries with Barber in the Bucs' last matchup with Atlanta, but averaged 4.3 yards per carry to Barber's three. Jones may have some gaps in his game particularly in pass protection, but it's clear that he should be the primary ball carrier in the season closer.
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
"Broken neck? No sweat," Jason Pierre-Paul may have said. Or thought. At the very least, he did it. Since returning from his broken neck, Pierre-Paul picked up right where he left off as the Bucs' leading pass rusher last season. At 6.5 sacks, he's averaging nearly a sack per start and already has 19 total quarterback pressures, more than any other Bucs linebacker except the stellar Shaq Barrett.
Pierre-Paul was instrumental in the last game against Atlanta. He strip-sacked Matt Ryan and the fumble was returned for a touchdown by Ndamukong Suh.
Ryan has taken a beating this year from a combination of poor pass protection and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's scheme. The Bucs pass rushers, Pierre-Paul in particular, should have a similarly productive day taking Ryan down on Sunday.
The Bucs and Pierre-Paul agreed to a restructured contract earlier this season, making the veteran a free agent in the spring. A big game against Atlanta will drive his price up even more, making it harder for the Bucs to bring him back next year.
CB Carlton Davis III
The Falcons offense has not been especially consistent this year, but wide receiver Julio Jones is far from the reason. He has the third-most receiving yards (1333) and seventh-most receptions (92) in the NFL. In short, he is still the same offensive beast he's always been.
Fortunately, the Bucs have a stud in the making of their own. Carlton Davis took on the role of Tampa's top corner and largely made good on it. He has allowed just 48.1 percent of passes targeting his receivers to be completed and has 18 pass breakups, second-most of any defensive back in the NFL.
Davis was especially effective against the Falcons in their Week 12 matchup, recording five pass breakups and an interception. This is especially remarkable given Davis' assignment on Jones. Though he managed five receptions for 68 yards, Jones was largely held in check by Davis.
This next matchup will be Davis' final opportunity to prove he is the future CB1 in Tampa Bay. In the likelihood that Davis covers Jones again, his ability to limit a receiver of Jones' caliber will show Davis is ready to be counted among the NFL's best defensive backs.