Buccaneers-Falcons Preview

Atlanta has matched its 2014 win total in just seven games, but if you ask Julio Jones, all is not well with the Falcons.

Turnovers are at the heart of a receding offense, but they’re still finding ways to win games. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are finding ways to lose them, which bodes poorly as they head back to the Georgia Dome for the first time since last season’s 42-point defeat.

The Falcons (6-1) looked capable of potentially repeating that 56-14 thrashing from Sept. 18, 2014, in their first four games, averaging 34.2 points and 403.2 yards of total offense with two total turnovers.

While the yardage has continued to hover around 403.0 per game in the last three, eight turnovers have limited them to an average of 18.7 points. Even so, Atlanta has escaped with two wins, including last Sunday’s 10-7 victory at Tennessee.

The results, though, do not mean the teams deems it acceptable.

"We are just in a funk," Jones said. "We have to get out of it. We have to keep battling and keep going and keep trying to get better and fix these things."

That probably starts with the passing game and Matt Ryan, who has accounted for six of the giveaways – four interceptions and two lost fumbles – in the last three games.

Efficiency has also been an issue with Ryan’s completion percentage dipping from 67.1 in the first four games to 61.3 in the last three and his yards per attempt following suit from 8.41 to 6.45.

Jones is second in the NFL in receptions (58) and yards per game (110.9), but teams have keyed on him after he caught 34 passes among 46 targets in the first three weeks.

It could be even easier to focus on him Sunday with No. 2 receiver Leonard Hankerson ruled out. Hankerson left last Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury.

Devonta Freeman, however, has only added to his league-leading rushing total of 621 yards. The second-year back is averaging 136.0 yards with 5.68 per carry in the last three and hasn’t turned the ball over all season.

"I think Devonta has played awesome, he really has, and he played awesome again," Ryan said. "His confidence is growing every week, and I think our offensive line’s confidence is growing every week."

The Tampa Bay rush defense might have a shot at slowing him down. The Bucs (2-4) have limited opponents to 3.75 yards per carry, which ranks seventh in the NFL and has improved in the last two weeks with a 2.92 mark against Jacksonville and Washington. Whether that holds up against a better offense remains to be seen.

The Bucs are coming off Sunday’s 31-30 loss in Washington after leading 24-0 late in the second quarter, and they’ve allowed 20.3 points per game in the second half over the last three.

Coach Lovie Smith remains optimistic, and there might be some statistical support for his outlook. The Bucs have outgained their last three opponents 419.7-308.0 on average but have only one win to show for it.

"I’ve made the statement that we are getting better as a football team," Smith said. "I think first off you have to be a decent team to get up 24-0 on a team in the NFL. That’s telling you a little bit of what you can be. Hopefully, that’s going to tell us a lot about what we’ll be in the future."

Five turnovers in a 37-23 home loss to Carolina did them in before a turnover-free 38-31 home victory over Jacksonville. After throwing four interceptions against the Panthers, Jameis Winston hasn’t turned the ball over in what have easily been his two best games of the season with a 125.9 rating, 70.8 completion percentage and 10.54 yards per attempt.

"When you take care of the football, we see it gives us a chance to win," Winston said. "And that’s something I’m always going to focus on week to week."

Who Winston’s targets will be this week is very much up in the air. Vincent Jackson (knee) and Louis Murphy (ACL) were injured against the Redskins. Murphy landed on injured reserve and Jackson is still being evaluated, which could mean Russell Shepard and rookie Donteea Dye are forced into significant roles.

Mike Evans, however, is coming off his best game of the season with eight catches for 164 yards, and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins could return after missing the last four with a shoulder injury.

Things could be further complicated because the Falcons have been impressive defensively the last three games with an average of 19.0 points and 303.7 yards allowed. Strong safety William Moore, however, won’t play due to a groin injury.

The Falcons have won 10 of the last 13 meetings, including both last year as part of a disappointing 6-10 season.