A short walk from the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta stands the new College Football Hall of Fame. Open a little more than a year, the three-story, 95,000-square-foot museum features hundreds of helmets, a 45-yard replica field, lots of touch screens, product placement and even more helmets.
Near an exhibit where legendary coaches walk you through some X's and O's — Lou Holtz on the option offense, Barry Switzer on the wishbone — there's a small sign that features a pearl of wisdom from former Rutgers and Bucs head coach Greg Schiano.
Think Lovie Smith can identify with that these days?
After Sunday's disheartening 31-30 loss to Washington, Bucs fans fed up with blown leads, poor clock management and penalties took their hashtags and jumped aboard the #FireLovie bandwagon. They're angry. And they have every right to be. The product they're paying for is far from good enough.
The Week 5 win at home against the Jaguars brought some much-needed relief, but the 24-0 lead against Washington turned out to be just a cruel tease. Now, with a trip to Atlanta — where last season the Falcons did everything to the Bucs but perform a Sub-Zero spine rip — things look extraordinarily bleak.
Does Tampa Bay stand a chance?
For this week's preview and film study, I reached out to a former Buccaneer who played a key part in the franchise's late 1990s transformation from division doormat to playoff contender — Pro Bowl cornerback Donnie Abraham. Abraham, who is IMG Academy's defensive coordinator, was a rookie in 1996 when the Bucs lost eight of their first nine games in Tony Dungy's first season as head coach.
That Bucs team went through many of the same things this Bucs team is going through, Abraham said, but even as the losses piled up, Dungy did not waver and stayed the course.
"The simple message was just stay together," he said. "We have to do this. Nobody's going to help us do it. You stay together, we'll pull through this thing. When you don't stay together, that's when the ship sinks. … But if you stay together, you can weather any storm together."
Starting with a 20-17 overtime win against the Oakland Raiders in Week 11, the Bucs won five of their next seven games to finish the season 6-10. They went on to reach the playoffs in five of the next six seasons, culminating with a Super Bowl championship in 2002-03.
As painful as the loss to Washington is, it's just one loss. And, really, were you expecting better than 2-4 through six games? If there's a positive to take away from the Falcons' 56-14 beatdown last season, it's that it did not carry over the next week into Pittsburgh, where the Bucs stunned the Steelers 27-24 for their first ever win in the Steel City.
Players should be itching to get back out onto the field, Abraham said.
"(The good thing about football is) you get to come back and play, and if you're still thinking about last week in the present game, then you're in trouble," he said. "It shouldn't have any bearing on this week, this game. It shouldn't have any lingering effects or anything. An 'L' is an 'L' no matter how you lose it."
The Bucs will have their hands full as it is with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones capable of hooking up on a 40-yard touchdown pass faster than Kirk Cousins can scream "You like that?!"
On the other side of the ball, Jameis Winston will be going up against one of the league's best young defenders, third-year cornerback Desmond Trufant. In fact, if the trend from the first seven weeks of the season holds, Trufant will have an impact, and you might not even hear the Fox announcers call his name.
Why? Like terrified babysitters running from the Boogeyman, opposing quarterbacks have almost completely avoided him. He's targeted less often than any other cornerback — once every 25.7 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. The Titans targeted him twice last week, completing one pass for 6 yards.
The Houston Texans tried to challenge Trufant in Week 4 and failed miserably. Ryan Mallett threw into his coverage eight times but completed only three passes for 47 yards. Trufant was credited with three pass deflections. Overall, he has six this season, just slightly off last season's pace.
I wondered what it was about Trufant that spooked quarterbacks, so I asked Abraham for his impressions of the cornerback's performance against the Texans. Here are our observations.
Situation: No score, third-and-5 at the 50-yard line, 12:08 remaining in the first quarter
Trufant lines up on the left side of the defense and across from the Texans' top receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins runs a slant, and Trufant presses him as he begins his route. Trufant often played in off coverage last season, but under new head coach Dan Quinn — the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014 — he's playing more press man technique.
Hopkins is able to cut inside, but it's a struggle. Mallett wants to throw the ball sooner but has to wait. The delay allows linebacker Paul Worrilow to react and help Trufant break up the pass. The tipped pass bounces in the air, and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux comes down with it.
Though Hopkins is able to muscle in front, Trufant is successful "because he has hands on the receiver and he's disrupting the release and the route," Abraham says. His physicality wins out and results in a takeaway, but he's fortunate he wasn't penalized for tugging on Hopkins' jersey.
Situation: Falcons lead 14-0, first-and-10 at the Houston 21-yard line, 14:32 remaining in the second quarter
The Texans come to the line with two receivers to Mallett's left and Hopkins out wide to his right. Once again, Trufant is across from Hopkins. Rarely does he leave the left side of the defense to track a receiver, so the Bucs on Sunday might put Mike Evans on the opposite side of the field and sacrifice, say, Russell Shepard, who has five career receptions. Brandon Coleman played that role for the Saints in Week 6 and saw a grand total of one target.
The Falcons counter with a version of Cover 3 (zone coverage in which the high safety and outside cornerbacks are each responsible for one-third of the field). Note how the safety is over near slot receiver Cecil Shorts.
"If (the safety is) favoring the other side, then they have great confidence in (Trufant) that he can be a Richard Sherman-type player, and I think that's what they're doing here," Abraham says. "They're not worried about his side of the field."
Note, too, the differences in technique before the snap between Trufant and Jalen Collins, the cornerback on the other side of the field. Collins' hips are parallel to the sideline — he's playing bail technique — while Trufant's hips are square to Hopkins. Collins is playing true Cover 3 on his side of the field, and Trufant is playing man-to-man.
Hopkins runs a skinny post and actually beats Trufant. Mallett's throw is accurate and leads Hopkins toward the middle of the field, yet somehow Trufant is able to disrupt the pass.
"He moves well laterally," Abraham says. "And he can find the ball, which is tough for DBs to do that quickly. A lot of times, as DBs, we don't see the ball until it's halfway there. … This play would have been open probably on 60, 70 percent of the DBs in the league."
Situation: Falcons lead 28-0, first-and-10 at the Atlanta 47-yard line, 1:02 remaining in the second quarter
The Texans line up with three receivers. Both of the plays above have featured a single safety high and the other low with the linebackers. On this play, the Falcons have a safety high and over the middle while the other is lurking behind the cornerbacks on the left side of the defense.
It appears as though the Falcons are in man coverage, Abraham explains, so Mallett sees his slot receiver, Shorts, and thinks that the only defender he has to beat is the one in front of him. But it's a trap!
Trufant peels off his man — passing him off to the safety — and attacks Shorts' route. He arrives at the same time as the ball and jars it loose.
The Falcons don't run a complicated defense — a heavy amount of Cover 3, plus some man-to-man — but it'll be interesting to see how Winston adjusts to potential wrinkles such as this one.
After catching 34 passes for 440 yards and four touchdowns in the Falcons' first three games, Julio Jones, slowed by a hamstring injury, has caught just 24 passes for 290 yards and one touchdown in the Falcons' past four.
According to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which compares success on every play to a league average that is adjusted for situation and opponent, the Bucs are an NFL-worst 47.2 percent below-average when defending opponents' No. 1 receivers. The Falcons, meanwhile, are 22.8 percent above-average when defending opponents' No. 1 receivers. (They have, however, allowed running backs to post a league-high 72.7 yards per game.)
Jones hasn't eclipsed 100 receiving yards since Week 3, but he should Sunday against the Bucs. The pick: The Falcons, but by less than a touchdown.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.