Sander Philipse: When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers first met the Atlanta Falcons, the sky was falling: they'd won just two games, Lovie Smith was presiding over a terrible defense, Jameis Winston was promising but inconsistent and the regime had to fear for continuity. Just a few weeks later, things look very different: the Bucs have a 5-6 record, are right in the thick of the NFC wild card race and have a chance to get ahead of a rival by beating the Falcons this weekend. There's a sense of optimism and growth that just wasn't there last time, which is a massive difference.
But we can point to specific changes as well. On offense, Winston has gotten more consistent and more consistently productive, not turning the ball over much and his down moments generally only happening when the offensive line breaks down repeatedly during one game. Doug Martin has been a more dominant runner as well, and the offense has shown flashes of an ability to score in the red zone rather than settling for field goals.
But to me, the biggest difference is the defense. The Bucs had a good run defense back then, but they're dominant now. The pass defense has taken some massive steps forward, though: inserting undrafted rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah and veteran Sterling Moore at cornerback has given the secondary some stability, and two players who at least do their jobs and don't blow coverages by just being out of position. In fact, they've played surprisingly well. Meanwhile, the rest of the defense has slowly improved. The pass rush is still inconsistent, but both the linebackers and the safeties are a lot more reliable and disciplined in coverage and the Bucs have done a very good job of preventing big plays and forcing turnovers.
One downside: last week represented a step back both on offense and defense, after a month of trending upwards. This game is crucial for the Bucs not just because of the playoff implications, but also to maintain the feeling of optimism. A second step backwards would be a big blow to fans' confidence that the team is on the right track.
Head to Bucs Nation for much more ahead of Sunday's game.