The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) can actually clinch a playoff spot this week. They'll need some help elsewhere around the league, including a tie between Minnesota and Chicago, but none of that will matter if they can't beat the Atlanta Falcons (4-9) on the road Sunday.
While Atlanta has struggled this season, the club has played some solid football as of late after firing head coach Dan Quinn following an 0-5 start to the season, something that hasn't happened in Atlanta since 1997. Interim coach Raheem Morris, who served as the Bucs' head coach from 2009-11, is 4-4 since taking over in Atlanta. The Falcons have lost two straight but only by a combined seven points to the New Orleans Saints and the LA Chargers.
Bucs' quarterback Tom Brady is 6-0 all-time when facing the Falcons, including the infamous comeback victory in Super Bowl LI. On Sunday, Brady will look to keep his record perfect and help lead Tampa Bay to the postseason for the first time since 2007. For that to happen, the Bucs must do these three things on Sunday in Atlanta:
1. Slow down Falcons' receiver Calvin Ridley
The Falcons will be without star wide receiver Julio Jones on Sunday, it was reported Friday, so expect wideout Calvin Ridley to have to step up big time to help fill the void of Jones. Ridley has already had a really solid season hauling in eight touchdowns and over 1,000 receiving yards.
Luckily for the Bucs, they should have cornerback Jamel Dean back Sunday after missing the last two games. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles spoke about what Dean brings to the secondary.
"When you have a tall corner who can run and get hands-on you – and a heady corner – that always helps out," Bowles said Thursday. "At the same time, Ross [Cockrell] has stepped in, and [Sean Murphy]-Bunting has stepped outside and we haven’t missed that much of a beat. That speaks to the depth of some of the guys we have playing behind him."
The Bucs' secondary struggled against the Kansas City Chiefs three weeks ago allowing quarterback Patrick Mahomes to throw four touchdowns and 462 yards. Last week the secondary performed a bit better, holding Vikings' Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen to just three catches and 39 yards. Still, Bowles is welcoming Dean back with open arms.
"You always feel a little bit of a difference when you are down one of your top players, so when and if he comes back, we’ll be happy to have him," Bowles said. "We just have to make sure he’s ready to go.”
The Bucs will need to limit Ridley and his playmaking abilities on Sunday. Having Dean back should help out the secondary a lot this week.
2. Get to Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan
Part of why the Bucs' secondary did a good job of limiting Thielen is because the defensive line sacked quarterback Kirk Cousins six times, keeping the pressure on him most of the game. Tampa Bay will have to continue to bring the pressure this week when facing Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan.
Ryan has thrown for over 3,600 yards and 19 touchdowns in large part because of the time he has gotten when completing passes. Ryan has the fifth-longest amount of time to throw the ball, 2.91 seconds, in the league, according to NFL NextGen stats. If you're curious, Brady gets about half a second left which doesn't sound like much but in the NFL it makes a difference for quarterbacks.
The Falcons have allowed 33 sacks this entire season, which is tied for the 10th most in the NFL. With that in mind, it should be a field day for Bucs' linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, who has recorded 9.5 sacks this year which ranks 7th in the league.
The last time these two teams met, in Dec. 2019, linebacker Shaquil Barrett recorded three sacks and it should be expected that Barrett will have a similar performance this week. Meanwhile, linebacker Devin White has recorded the fourth-most tackles (118) this season.
Bowles has been happy with the play of the Bucs' linebackers.
"They help each other out where you just can’t try to double one or the other, as well as the guys up the middle," Bowles said about the outside linebackers. "They’re doing a good job getting to the passer. Sometimes the ball is coming out fast, so we’re happy with the production and we’re happy with the pressure.”
Tampa Bay will have to continue to cause problems for Ryan on Sunday.
3. Continue to have success in the red zone
We know about Tampa Bay's ability to score touchdowns once inside the red zone. The Buccaneers offense has scored a touchdown on 34-of-48 trips inside the red zone this season while leading the NFL with a 97.9 scoring percentage (47-of-48) on red zone drives.
The Bucs' success in the red zone shouldn't change this weekend as Atlanta has one of the worst red zone's defense, allowing opposing teams to score a touchdown 68.18% of the time which ranks 29th in the NFL. Still, Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich believes a lot has changed since Morris has taken over as interim head coach.
“For one, they’re playing hard [and] they’re playing physically," Leftwich said. "The guys with their hand in the ground are playing exceptionally well and that’s helping the guys on the back end. Obviously, throughout a season, things happen. But what you see on tape throughout the year is how hard these guys play."
While the Buccaneers are expected to have kicker Ryan Succop this week after dealing with COVID-19 issues, it's critically important that Tampa Bay continues to score touchdowns and not leave points on the field.
"These guys play hard [and] this is a good football team that we’re going up against that’s played a lot of tough teams well [and] has lost a lot of games there right at the end," Leftwich said. '"This is a team that can easily have a different record – we understand that. We just have to make sure we’re ready to play and we’re trying to use this week to get ready to play.”