NFL Week 9 Picks: Can Bucs tighten up NFC South race as Falcons come to town?
According to odds released by Bovada this week, Matt Ryan is 11/2 to win the MVP, second only to Tom Brady (5/4). Julio Jones is a bit behind but still in the mix, at 50/1. Vegas could flip those Falcons stars, and I’m not sure anyone would have an objection: Ryan has been excellent, but Jones has been downright dominant. The Atlanta receiver could top 1,000 yards for the season with a strong game Thursday (he’s at 859 now) and is averaging 20 yards per reception.
No matter whom you’d deem the alpha dog on the Atlanta offense, Ryan and Jones have been a dominant tandem since Jones entered the league in 2011. They even ratcheted up their production last season when Roddy White’s career hit the wall.
This is what the Buccaneers need from Jameis Winston and Mike Evans. It’s what they have had in spurts—Evans is currently tied for the league lead with six receiving TDs, and he was a 1,200-yard receiver last season. Together, they have been a thorn in the Falcons’ side, too. Winston is 3–0 in his career against Atlanta, including a 2015 win in which Evans caught a game-winning TD, and Week 1 this season, when Winston fired four TD passes on the road.
“One thing that jumps out when you watch [Jameis] play is he is a terrific competitor,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said during a press conference this week. “It shows where he can extend plays, how he can convert when it seems like he’s hemmed up and all a sudden breaks a tackle and escapes out. You’ve seen him just throw some dimes, outside, on the run, for touchdowns. I’ve got a lot of respect for his toughness. He’ll stand in there and take the hit and make the throw.”
Winston still does have accuracy issues—they were on full display last Sunday, as he misfired high repeatedly against the Raiders, even from a clean pocket. But the Falcons did not do much to disrupt him back in Week 1, when he was not sacked in Tampa Bay’s 31–24 win.
What’s more, according to Pro Football Focus, Winston shredded the Falcons’ defense when he had time: He was 17 of 22 on passes when not pressured for 193 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
A key this time around, then, could be an Atlanta pass rush that has improved since that first meeting. Vic Beasley has been the most obvious catalyst to the turnaround, sitting on 7.5 sacks in his second NFL season. The Falcons brought down Aaron Rodgers three times in a win over Green Bay last Sunday, and they flushed Rodgers from the pocket on countless other occasions.
He did hurt them with his feet (six rush attempts for 60 yards), something Winston has not shown much ability to do. The Buccaneers’ QB would prefer to get the ball downfield to Evans, Adam Humphries or TE Cameron Brate.
Winston may have to do much of the offensive work himself Thursday, because starting running back Doug Martin and impressive replacement Jacquizz Rodgers both will miss the game due to injury. That leaves rookie Peyton Barber and Antone Smith to generate some semblance of a rushing attack.
Ball control, both via the run game and limiting turnovers, will be central to Tampa Bay’s chances. Its defense kept the Falcons in check enough to get the Week 1 victory, but even without an injured Tevin Coleman this Atlanta offense is clicking at a far more efficient rate these days. The Bucs are surrendering 8.0 yards per pass attempt (fourth-worst in the NFL) and 13.2 yards per completion (second-worst), and they definitely don’t have the size to fluster Jones or Mohamed Sanu outside.
Let’s hope this Thursday nighter is as entertaining as it looks. Both offenses should be able to move the football through the air. The difference could be in the run games—Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman provides an obvious on-paper advantage over Tampa Bay’s stitched-together group.
Key player: Noah Spence, DE, Buccaneers. The 39th pick in this year’s draft, Spence has seen an uptick in playing time over recent weeks. He was on the field for 64 snaps of last weekend’s overtime loss to the Raiders and came through with a strip-sack of Derek Carr. That was his third sack of the season; he’s had one each of the past two weeks.
The Falcons have allowed 20 sacks of Matt Ryan, three of which came courtesy of the Buccaneers in Week 1. Getting to Ryan on a consistent basis will be key Thursday, and Spence is the Tampa Bay defender bringing the most heat of late.
Bold prediction: Eric Weems breaks off a return of at least 40 yards. The Buccaneers are not allowing many kickoff returns—just eight on the season—but they’ve been a little vulnerable when it happens (24.8 yards per attempt). Weems has been dangerous with the ball in his hands, posting a 13.8-yard clip on punt returns and 22.3 on kicks.