Bucs, Falcons both hoping to snap skids
The headline for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week is that Jameis Winston is back as the team's starting quarterback. The headline for the Atlanta Falcons is ... just win a game.
The two teams meet in Atlanta on Sunday, and the Falcons (1-4) will be looking to snap a three-game losing streak.
"I think you just need to find a way to win next week and keep that mindset that small," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "That's probably the best way that I know how to do it. We have to get all our energy and focus on playing well and getting a win next week. Beyond that we need to keep that approach moving forward."
The Falcons will try to take advantage of Tampa Bay's propensity for giving up the football. The Bucs have lost two fumbles and thrown seven interceptions. Atlanta will need to find some semblance of a pass rush, although that may be difficult without defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and defensive end Derrick Shelby.
The Falcons will also try to get receiver Julio Jones, the third-most productive receiver in the NFL this season, his first touchdown catch.
"There's no frustration," Jones said. "(Pittsburgh) had a good game plan for me -- a lot of two-man, things like that. Discouraged me early on, you know in the game, that two guys were going to be on me throughout the whole game."
Tampa Bay (2-2) has had a week to design a scheme to keep Jones out of the end zone. The Bucs are coming off a bye week.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said the lack of activity by Jones in a loss to Pittsburgh last week was "not by design."
"Just to make sure he gets as many touches as we can in the game," Quinn said. "He's one of our best and most explosive players every game. We want him involved."
For Tampa Bay, it will be about the transition to Winston from veteran backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had an productive run while Winston was serving a three-game suspension. Fitzpatrick set an NFL record by passing for at least 400 yards in three consecutive games to start the season.
When Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter learned in July that Winston would be suspended, he took a look at the schedule and in his mind figured Winston would return as the starter at Atlanta this Sunday at 1 p.m. in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Fitzpatrick was effective in pushing the football downfield with deep passes to Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. That's been the strength of the Bucs this season as their defense is allowing 34.8 points per game, the most in the NFL.
The question is whether Winston can continue to keep the Bucs as the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL, producing 363 yards per game.
"Obviously, they're both their own player and have their own style but from the beginning, one of the things we liked about Fitz when we evaluated him as a backup was his style of play was similar to Jameis' in that he could push the ball downfield and make those deeper to intermediate throws," Bucs quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian said. "I don't think much will change from (the play-calling) standpoint. Our offense, the types of plays we're running, I don't anticipate much difference."
The Bucs are coming off two straight losses, including an embarrassing 48-10 loss at Chicago Sept. 30.
Winston started the second half of that game, and the garbage-time reps were valuable for Winston, who organized workouts with 25 unsigned NFL players and undrafted free agents during his three-game suspension.
"He hasn't changed," Bajakian said of Winston. "He's come back with a great attitude and the same work ethic he's always had. He's a competitor and a worker and he's going to approach the game the same way."
But Winston could feel some added pressure, not only because the Bucs need a win, but because Tampa Bay's defense is terrible.
Former Falcons head coach Mike Smith has come under fire as the Bucs defensive coordinator. His defense was last in the NFL a year ago in total yards and had the fewest sacks with 22. This season, in addition to having the worst scoring defense, the Bucs are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 77.1 percent of their passes.
But Smith remains unbowed.
"The sky is not falling," Smith said. "I can assure you, it felt like it was frickin' crumbling on top of us when we walked off that field in Chicago. But that's an anomaly; that's one of one. And as a defense, we are committed together to right that ship and not play defensive football like we played there."
As the former head coach of the Falcons, Smith said he is used to the criticism.
"I've got tracks on my back through the years," Smith said. "That's part of it. You're in this business, hey, it's a week-to-week business. And the great thing about it is you get to go out and do it again. It doesn't hurt my feelings that anybody has their own opinion. That's just the way this world is. That's what makes it go around.
"You just go out and do your job. You try to be focused on the task at hand. And the task at hand is real simple in the NFL. It's to have one more point than the other team. And we've been able to do that 50 percent of the time in the first quarter of the season, and I just want to say there's a lot of football to be played."
The Bucs have been hurt by injuries, particularly in the secondary. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and safety Chris Conte are on injured reserve. Three rookies -- cornerbacks Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and safety Jordan Whitehead -- have been counted on as starters while battling injury.
Defensive tackle Beau Allen, who has not played since injuring his foot in Week 2 against the Eagles, returned to practice on Wednesday for Atlanta. Tight end O.J. Howard, who was expected to miss 1-2 weeks with a MCL sprain, also practiced on Wednesday on a limited basis. Whitehead, who did not play at Chicago due to a hamstring strain, had full participation in practice on Wednesday.
For the Falcons, Jarrett (ankle, knee) missed the Steelers game, but could return this week. Shelby (groin) missed his second game, but could also return this week. Cornerback Justin Bethel (knee) did not play against Pittsburgh, but is close to returning. His status won't be known until later in the week.
Updated October 10, 2018