The Falcons are going to need to beat 13 teams in 2015 just to make the playoffs. We're breaking down the best way to win against each one, starting with the team's familiar NFC South opponents.
2014 Record: 2-14
Key Additions: QB Jameis Winston (R), S D.J. Swearinger, T Donovan Smith (R), DT Henry Melton, LB Bruce Carter
Key Subtractions: S Dashon Goldson, DE Michael Johnson
Falcons vs. Bucs in 2014: Falcons 56, Bucs 14 (Week 3), Falcons 27, Bucs 17 (Week 10)
I won't mince words: The Buccaners got better after a nightmare 2014 season, but they're not going to be good enough just yet. Harsh, but I think fair.
The biggest upgrade is at quarterback, where rookie Jameis Winston has a strong arm, underrated accuracy and enough mobility to keep defenses honest. After suffering through Josh McCown and Mike Glennon a year ago, the Bucs will be glad to have a legitimate quarterback to build around, and Winston should be worth at least a couple of wins for this team.
Aside from that, though, it's not clear how the Buccaneers have really improved significantly over a year ago. Melton is a nice player when his head's screwed on straight, Swearinger should be an upgrade for a perenially disappointing safety corps and Bruce Carter is a nice upgrade at linebacker. All together, though, this is largely the same team with a more stable defense, an upgrade at quarterback and a nice young tackle who is likely to scuffle a bit in his first year, like most rookies at the position. That's a recipe for improvement, especially given this team's nightmarish performance in close games, but vaulting ahead of the Falcons, Panthers and Saints will require more than that.
This is a team with a young QB, quality receivers and promising pieces on defense, so they're not that far away from contending, and they remain the divisional team I'm most concerned about over the long haul. I just don't think they're ready yet.
How should the Falcons attack them?
I turned to Sander Philipse, the editor-in-chief at our friendly rival Bucs Nation, for a more complete look at his favorite team's weaknesses and strengths.
1) The offensive line is probably their biggest weakness, so I'd blitz blitz blitz blitz. The Bucs have a rookie quarterback with one or two rookie starting linemen, and they had the worst line in the NFL last year. Put pressure on the quarterback and offense to get everything right, snap in snap out, and you'll see them mess up a whole lot more than you'll see them succeed. At least that's what I'd expect out of a rookie quarterback. It helps that most of their receivers are built for the deep ball and not the quick bailout passes to counter the blitz.
2) On defense, the Bucs' biggest weaknesses are probably at defensive end, safety and middle linebacker. Intriguingly, their run defense was actually pretty good last year and those weaknesses showed up mostly in the passing game -- and they haven't done enough to fix those holes. Which to me suggests that you should try to target the middle of the field a lot -- target Julio Jones on deep posts and use tight ends to punish the strong safety and middle linebacker when you can. Commit extra blockers to stopping Gerald McCoy and be content with leaving the offensive tackles on islands and you should have enough time to get the ball off, too.
The Bucs' biggest strengths are likely going to be throwing the ball up for grabs to Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, and potentially Austin Seferian-Jenkins depending on his development. On defense, the tandem of Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David is devastating as always, but they only function within the context of the defense as a whole.
The Falcons are well-equipped to beat the Buccaneers again in 2015, because they can attack the secondary with a plethora of receiving options, the Bucs' ground game is still shaky and their defensive is incredibly stout up the middle, but considerably less so on the edges. All of this is on paper, of course, and we still don't know exactly what Kyle Shanahan's offense and the Quinn/Richard Smith/Raheem Morris defense will look like. But I feel reasonably confident that small strides forward from the defensive front seven and a proficient passing attack will put them in a good position.
If WInston can get time—and he might, given the still uncertain state of the pass rush—this a team with the receivers to give that Falcons secondary fits, and you can never count out a team with superstar-caliber players like Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. I have the Falcons splitting the season series, but if the Falcons can execute on what they do best, they can beat Tampa Bay.