Written by Cody Manning, @CodyTalksNFL
The Bucs are coming off an important win after beating the Minnesota Vikings to improve to an 8-5 record. They have a firm grasp on clinching their first playoff berth since 2007. It’s unlikely that will be secured this weekend as they need to win then have the Vikings tie the Chicago Bears in their matchup. Regardless, Tampa controls their own fate as they face Atlanta in their first of 2 games in 3 weeks. Even with the win, the team has some kinks it needs to work out before they can even think about a deep postseason run. The offense still shows its inconsistencies and they let Dalvin Cook run all over their defense in the first half. As the 2020 season starts to come to an end, here are the Top 5 things I want to see in Week 15:
1. Can Leonard Fournette get himself out of the doghouse?
The Leonard Fournette experience in Tampa has been less than ideal. Fournette has 69 rushes for 271 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns. Which he got 103 of those yards in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. Plus he has 28 receptions for 171 yards. He’s only appeared in 10 games and is coming off a week where he was a surprise healthy scratch from the lineup. Ronald Jones could potentially miss the game due to being placed on the COVID-19 list (up in the air if he tested positive or is a close contact) and having surgery on his pinky. This opens the door for one last shot to impress the coaching staff if Jones does indeed not play this week. Can the former 1st round pick take advantage of the opportunity?
2. Will the defensive line ride their momentum into the week?
One of the key reasons the Buccaneers won last week was their ability to get constant pressure on Kirk Cousins which led to the team getting 6 sacks on the day. Kaleb McGary (Personal Matter) and James Carpenter (Groin) are listed as questionable so the Falcons offensive line could be out with a couple of starters. This sets up well for Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Ndamukong Suh to have their way on Sunday. Matt Ryan is one of those quarterbacks that will struggle when they have to deal with early pressure, if the defensive front can dominate the trenches then it could be smooth sailing to a victory.
3. How does Josh Wells hold up?
The Bucs will be without their left tackle, Donovan Jones, as he was placed on the COVID-19 list as a close contact. Wells will be replacing Jones and has the most important job on the offensive line, protecting Tom Brady’s blindside. He has played in 64 NFL games, starting 11 of those so he does have game experience. We saw how much it affected the offense when the unit was missing Ali Marpet earlier in the season. Bruce Arians will have to hope that missing a starter on his line again won’t have a similar effect. Luckily for the offense, they are facing a Falcons team that struggles to get any consistent pressure off the edge.
4. What’s the secondary’s plan for Calvin Ridley?
Atlanta has already ruled Julio Jones out of the matchup which leaves Ridley as their #1 option in their passing attack. He has emerged in his third season as he has 67 receptions for 1,029 yards and 8 touchdowns in 12 games. Todd Bowles has a much easier task to scheme up how he wants to defend this offense without their star receiver but they can’t afford to overlook Ridley and let him cook them up through the air. Carlton Davis will get his opportunities to shut him down in one-on-one matchups. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the team has bracket coverage on Ridley and let the other receivers beat them. Regardless of how they defend him, if the secondary limits Ryan’s targets to Ridley, then I like their chances of shutting down the pass game.
5. Does the team handle their business?
As I alluded to earlier, the team more than likely won’t officially clinch a playoff spot this weekend, but a win will all but secure a spot in the postseason. Tampa is currently sitting at the #6 seed. The Arizona Cardinals are the #7 seed with a 7-6 record while the Vikings and Bears are both in the hunt with 6-7 records. This needs to be a game where they don’t let their division rivals get the best of them and they handle a team that is on a downward trend. The Falcons are down to their interim head coach, injuries are piling up, and players could be looking forward to their offseason plans. The Bucs need to come out early and get out to a big lead to get the easy win on a Sunday afternoon.