Dave Choate: This isn't based on a particularly thorough watching of Buccaneers games, but it seems to me that Jameis Winston is improving week-by-week. Is that true, and what are the weaknesses of his game that the Falcons might be able to exploit?
Sander Philpse: It's not a strict upward motion, but Winston is certainly displaying a clear upward trend. His worst games came in week one and week four, while his best came in week two and week seven so there's some inconsistency, but that's that to be expected out of any rookie. Overall, though, he's looked like he'll turn into a quality NFL quarterback, and I'd say his performance last week was very impressive for any NFL passer.
Prior to the past two games I would have said his biggest weakness was a tendency to miss underneath defenders, leading to far too many turnovers -- but he's completely eliminated that problem from his game since then. That's not to say he's perfect in reading coverages, but he hasn't thrown an interception or even a near-pick over the past two games, so I'm not sure how much running some combo coverages is really going to do to confuse him.
One thing Winston has struggled with is responding to pressure -- he generally does a good job of moving within the pocket, but he can be overly reactive to a pass rush and scramble a little too quickly. The Bucs have compensated for that by consistently giving the offensive a lot of help in pass protection,
Dave Choate: I'll ask a running back question, too, I guess. Doug Martin looks like he's returning to his rookie form in 2015. What gives there?
Sander Philipse: What gives is that he's simply playing good football right now. I don't know why -- in fact I don't know anyone knows why -- but he's making people miss, he's reading his blocks well, he's redirecting quickly when the blocking isn't there, he's regained his lateral agility and the Bucs are doing a solid job blocking for him -- though the improvement is much more on him than the line. He simply looks like his rookie self, rather than the plodding, stiff back he appeared to be the past two years. We can only hope he keeps it up -- though I assume Falcons fan will hope he doesn't.
Dave Choate: It looks like the Buccaneers are really hurting for receiving options. If V-Jax and ASJ are out, how will the Buccaneers attack a Falcons defense that has struggled with covering tight ends?
Sander Philpse: With the run and Mike Evans. Because those are the only ways the Bucs can attack a defense if Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are both out. Their backup tight ends are completely useless in the passing game, while everyone on the roster at receiver behind Evans and Jackson is either an undrafted rookie, or a special teams specialist. Though Russell Shepard has looked okay when asked to play in the past. The Bucs have struggled with this problem all season (they haven't had a fully healthy skill group in any game), and they've mostly compensated by bringing in extra blockers and relying on the ground game -- and they've found a decent amount of success doing so.
That said, I'd expect Seferian-Jenkins to return this week, which should really help the Bucs' passing game. He looked like a reliable and explosive option in the middle of the field before his shoulder injury, and Winston seemed to really love throwing the ball to him.
Dave Choate: What's going on with the defense? I look at the team and think you've got some nice pieces and a defensive-minded head coach, but games like Week 7's have to be painful. Where does the fault lie, and how would you attack the unit?
Sander Philpse: They can't cover and they can't rush the passer, though they're at least solid at stopping the run. It's really that simple -- and this isn't a new problem for the Buccaneers. They don't have the edge rushers to help out Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald, and they don't have outstanding talent in the secondary to compensate for the lack of pass rush. That's not really going to get fixed this year regardless of what happens.
But there's something else going on, too: The defense has no clue what to do far too often. There are multiple coverage breakdowns in every game, communication mistakes are incredibly common, and even simple alignment mistakes are a constant. It's really weird given that the Bucs have a very experienced coaching staff with a history of success, and almost all of their defensive starters are veterans as well. It's a mystery, really, but the defense really is playing like garbage.
Dave Choate: How will this game go, and are there major changes in the offing for the Buccaneers?
Sander Philpse: I think it'll be a solid win for the Atlanta Falcons, and potentially even a blowout. The Bucs defense has simply made too many mistakes to stop Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman -- even if they've struggled the past few games. From where I'm sitting the Falcons' biggest issue is the offensive line, and the Bucs don't have the talent on the defensive line to exploit that effectively. Meanwhile, Matt Ryan is good enough to see the Bucs' coverage screwups and get the ball to the wide open receiver.
That said, the Bucs aren't going to roll over and this could well turn into a solid shootout. The Bucs do have the talent on offense to exploit the Falcons' mediocrity on defense, especially if Jameis Winston can keep up his level of play from last week. Still, I don't think that will be enough for the Bucs to win in Atlanta.