If you were to chart a course for the respective seasons of the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers based solely on the first game of the season, you’d probably have the Bucs leading the NFC South right now. After all, Jameis Winston threw for four touchdowns against an overmatched Atlanta defense, the Falcons looked anemic offensively for much of the day, particularly on the ground, and the Falcons dropped that game at home.
Thankfully, seasons are not decided by sometimes-fluke happenings in the season’s first week against a divisional opponent, and the Buccaneers are emphatically not leading the NFC South. Instead, they’re scuffled their way to a 3-4 record with games against the Falcons, Cowboys, Seahawks, and Chiefs still to go, which isn’t particularly promising. Atlanta’s had its share of ups and downs, but they’re currently 5-3 and leading the South. What’s changed for both teams to get them to this point?
The pitiful ground game against Tampa Bay was an aberration, while the largely efficient passing game was not. The Falcons put up just 24 points against the Buccaneers because they were poor in the red zone and completely one dimensional, something that has cropped up a handful of times in the season, but has not been a dominant theme the way it was a year ago. The Falcons are still one of the best offenses in the NFL, eight weeks in, and I think they just hadn’t found their footing yet in that first game.
The pass rush materialized
You can still beat these Falcons linebackers at times, the penalties we saw in the first week of the season are still a huge factor, and the pass protection still has poor stretches. Since Week 1, when the Falcons barely got close to Jameis Winston throughout much of the day and finished with zero sacks, Atlanta’s put together 18 sacks in seven games, which is just one off their 2015 total. That’s coincided with Vic Beasley’s emergence as a quality pass rusher, Adrian Clayborn getting going, and the team being able to apply genuine pressure from a few different quarters.
It’s far from great just yet, but as we saw on those occasions where the Falcons got to Aaron Rodgers Sunday, it can help you end drives. It just can’t always help you from not allowing four touchdowns in the passing game.
Jameis Winston has stalled
You’ve got to indict Winston’s supporting cast, especially his protection, before you go ahead and point the finger at him. For all those struggles around him, though, it’s true that Winston’s Week 1 did not indicate the massive step forward many foresaw for a player who was pretty damn good in his rookie season.
Winston’s sitting at 14 touchdowns and 9 interceptions on the year, having completed under 60% of his passes and making some truly puzzling decisions along the way. There’s a ton of talent here and he’s likely going to be a very good quarterback before long, but he’s not right now, and with the Bucs struggling on so many other fronts, that has been damaging. It is worth noting that Winston has played cleaner football the last three weeks, however.
The Bucs are kind of a mess in general
What do you get when your best running back is Jacquizz Rodgers and you give him almost 20 carries per game? What do you expect to accomplish when you allow opposing quarterbacks to torch you, especially when you allow Derek Carr to put up 513 (!) yards against you? What happens when your defense misses tackles like the Mike Smith Falcons defenses of yore?
What happens is that you lose more games than you win. The Buccaneers put together a nice two game stretch against a reeling Panthers and truly awful 49ers team, but even though they hung tough with the Raiders, their problems were so myriad they eventually collapsed under the weight of them. This Tampa Bay team has been perpetually rebuilding and lunging toward relevance, often making the cut as a sleeper team for national analysts, but it hasn’t really translated to anything concrete. I liked both Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith when they were in Atlanta, obviously, but they’ve made some baffling decisions, and they have a kicker who has perma-yips. That they drafted in the second round.
I don’t hang most of this on Winston, but instead on a weirdly constructed roster that may not be well-coached. Tampa Bay has enough talent to pull it together and challenge the Falcons for the NFC South crown, but they’re going to have to start doing it soon. It’s no great secret why they haven’t yet.