Survey the NFL landscape. It’s a wasteland of mediocrity. More than two thirds of the league is a game above .500, a game below .500 or exactly .500.
It’s a muddled mess right now, but order soon will be restored.
Welcome to Separation Sunday.
Think about where we were after Week 5 last season.
• The Patriots, the eventual AFC representative in the Super Bowl, needed three missed field goals by Nick Folk to beat the Bucs and keep pace with the Bills and Jets.
• The Eagles, the eventual Super Bowl champions, had four wins but hadn’t beaten anyone good.
• After throwing five interceptions in a blowout loss to the Jaguars, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger started soul-searching, asking deep questions like “Am I good enough to play football anymore?” and “Is it okay to dine in at Arby’s by yourself?”
Now think about where we were after Week 6.
• Tom Brady won his record-setting 187th regular-season game, and the Patriots beat the Jets to take sole possession of first place.
• Carson Wentz threw three touchdown passes as the Eagles beat the 4-1 Panthers to secure that all-important “signature win.”
• The Steelers upset the unbeaten Chiefs, the first of eight straight wins.
• The Bucs forgot to show up for the first half of their game against the Cardinals and suffered the second of five straight losses.
Back to the present. This is the week when we find out who teams really are. When good teams roll and bad teams crumble. When surprise teams emerge as true contenders or get exposed as frauds. When struggling teams, like the Bucs and Falcons, either right themselves or sputter into dumpster fire mode.
The 48-10 loss to Chicago two weeks ago didn’t torpedo Tampa Bay’s season; it just felt that way. I ran the numbers, and the Bucs, at 2-2, are very much alive. If the playoffs started today, they would qualify, thanks in part to wins over two quality opponents, the Saints and Eagles. But if Tampa Bay is to hold off Washington, Green Bay, Minnesota, Seattle, Dallas and Detroit, it needs to beat Atlanta. Teams get to the playoffs by handling their business against inferior opponents. At least that’s what happens in the NFC. Over in the AFC, they let anyone in, even the Titans and Bills.
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Sunday’s game is as close to a must-win for the Bucs as it gets. If they can’t beat a reeling 1-4 Falcons team, when will they win again? It’s not like they have a bunch of cupcakes on their schedule. The next three games look much more challenging than they did a month ago — home against the Browns, away against the Bengals and away against the Panthers.
This is it. It got late in a hurry, didn’t it?
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What to watch for: Run the ball!
It took a lot for me to write that, but after some counseling, I finally mustered the courage. I still feel shame, like I took a bite out of a cheeseburger that just fell on the floor. Regular readers know that I believe teams should pass early and often. Why run the ball toward seven defenders when you can throw the ball to a receiver who is covered by one defender? It’s crazy.
If the Bucs are ever going to run the ball for any reason other than to drain the clock, this is the game to do it. The Falcons are in tatters. Among their injured starters (cue the M*A*S*H theme): Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal, Pro Bowl middle linebacker Deion Jones, safety Ricardo Allen and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.
Sure, it’s fun to watch DeSean Jackson knife through a defense and catch a pass 40 yards down the field, but Atlanta’s scheme is designed to limit explosive plays. The Falcons usually play a three-deep zone (each defensive back is responsible for covering a third of the field) with eight defenders up near the line of scrimmage. It’s an effective scheme … when you have players with range and speed. Atlanta had them, but then it started losing players like you lose socks in the wash.
Against an undermanned defense, the Bucs shouldn’t press. Patience, not aggression, is the key. They don’t have to fight to win. They just have to take what the Falcons are willing to surrender. As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
To that end, Tampa Bay might try to emulate Pittsburgh’s game plan from last week. With a receiving corps of Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and second-round draft pick James Washington, the Steelers had the weapons to spread out the defense and shred it with passes. Instead, they came out in formations featuring two tight ends and attacked the interior.
The strategy represented a significant break from their early-season tendencies. In their first four games, they aligned in 12 personnel (code for one running back and two tight ends) less than 10 percent of the time. Against the Falcons, they aligned in 12 personnel a third of the time.
Out of those formations, the Steelers were effective both through the air and on the ground. They passed seven times, gaining 9 yards per attempt, and rushed 11 times, gaining 5 yards per attempt.
The plan was simple: Give the ball to running back James Conner and let him dodge tackles.
By the end of the first quarter, he had gained nearly 100 yards from scrimmage and had broken roughly 20 ankles.
It would seem that Sunday would be a good occasion for the Bucs to take rookie running back Ronald Jones II out of storage and give him the chance to showcase his open-field elusiveness.
In his first start since returning from a three-game suspension, Jameis Winston will be amped up, but unlike in seasons past, he doesn’t need to carry this offense. Not on this day anyway. As the first clip above shows, Atlanta’s linebackers tend to drift back in coverage and leave swaths of space open underneath. If they’re willing to concede 6 or 7 yards, take it. And if they try to clamp down, hit them with intermediate in-breaking routes off of play-action.
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Key matchup: Falcons running back Tevin Coleman vs. Bucs linebackers
The obvious area of concern for the Bucs is Falcons receiver Julio Jones. He’s a baaaaad man. If I’m defensive coordinator Mike Smith, I’m hiring someone to hide Jones’ car keys and phone before the game.
A sneakier player to keep tabs on: Tevin Coleman, who will be starting in place of Devonta Freeman (cue the M*A*S*H theme again). Atlanta shouldn’t miss a step, as Coleman is just as explosive a presence in the backfield — and arguably more so. He ranks among the most efficient pass-catching running backs in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders’ ratings. The Falcons don’t target their running backs as often as the Patriots or Saints, but not every defense is as generous as the Bucs, who have allowed running backs to gain an average of 79.1 receiving yards per game, second to only the Chiefs (90.1).
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Receiver Mike Evans has gained 5,005 receiving yards in his career and needs just 14 more to pass Mark Carrier and become the Bucs all-time leader. Carrier played in 88 games for Tampa Bay from 1987 to 1992; Evans, the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft, will be playing in his 66th game.
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These teams are remarkably similar — two high-octane offenses and two dreadful defenses. Both are allowing an average of three points per drive. Think about that. A field goal per drive! So, hold on to your butts, folks. We’re going to see a shootout Sunday that will make pistol-wielding lunatic Yosemite Sam seem like a reasonable, law-abiding citizen. The team that makes the most of its opportunities in the red zone wins. The pick: Bucs 30, Falcons 27.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference and Sharp Football Stats. Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tometrics.