Matt Williamson is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns, and spent the last 10 years at ESPN as a scout and co-host of “The Football Today Podcast.”
Considering both the status of Tampa Bay’s defense and how well Matt Ryan and Atlanta’s offense are playing, Jameis Winston is going to have to be spectacular at home Thursday night. While he’s certainly capable, he’s also been rather erratic in his second season.
The Falcons clearly have one of the NFL’s best offenses. At best, Tampa Bay’s defense is middle of the road or slightly below average when compared to the other 31 units in the league … and that might be a kind assessment. Atlanta should score plenty of points in this game.
Winston should have opportunities too – no defense has allowed more passing touchdowns than the Falcons – but with Mike Evans likely to see a lot of Desmond Trufant, a truly elite cornerback and Atlanta’s best defensive player, Thursday’s matchup doesn’t look as good for the Buccaneers as you might initially think. However, Trufant did not exclusively shadow Evans when these teams met in Week 1. (And Atlanta’s subpar defense at least may have better days ahead of it, with some of its young players like Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and Keanu Neal improving rapidly.)
Winston is playing like a league-average starting quarterback this year. In the larger scheme, that’s a good thing for a young quarterback who’s only ready to make his 24th career start. Maybe the general expectations for him going into this year were higher, but it is still quite clear that Tampa Bay has its long-term starter at the league’s most important position.
However, with the exception of Evans – who could make beautiful music with Winston for a very long time – the young quarterback is not getting enough help from this supporting cast. This isn’t to say Winston is without fault. His accuracy has come and gone and he has certainly turned the ball over far too often, having averaged one interception per start thus far in his career.
Winston has a mentality of invincibility and turnovers might plague him his entire career. Much like Brett Favre, you can live with that if he compensates with consistency and high peak moments to his game. With the problems around him and often coming from behind this year, Winston has too often tried to do “too much,” but that’s a trait you want in your quarterback as opposed to being bashful or meek – two words no one would use to describe Winston.
Tampa Bay’s offense is rather old school, meaning it’s a run-first offense with a fair amount of play action, slower developing deep routes, and deeper quarterback drops. Unlike many teams around the league, Winston is not operating a quick-hitting horizontal passing game that stresses getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands swiftly.
In order to pull this off, the Buccaneers need a big-time running back to lean on, which is why they paid Doug Martin as much as they did this past offseason. Having Martin behind Winston provides a great safety blanket and level of comfort for the young quarterback. Also, Tampa Bay needs to have an upper-tier offensive line, both in protection for these deeper routes as well as opening holes in this power-running game. As we are seeing in Arizona, when the line starts to break down, an offense like this really struggles.
Needless to say, with Martin out of the lineup for much of the year and a revolving door at running back, that position has been a liability, despite some big numbers by Jacquizz Rodgers. And Thursday night could really show this, as Tampa Bay is very deep into its running back depth chart.
Even more concerning is the offensive line. Overall, Tampa Bay’s offense has been a little better through the air than on the ground, but it is a stretch to say this group is well-equipped in either facet. The left side of the line has been particularly poor.
The Buccaneers should look to add a starter or two to their offensive line this upcoming offseason, plus probably two more pass-catchers, either at wide receiver or tight end. Evans is excellent, but there just isn’t enough for Winston to throw to right now.
Winston has a great arm, has lost weight, and is moving around much better. He has the mental makeup you want from your leader, and generally plays his best when it matters most. Winston also doesn’t turn 23 years old until January There is still an awful lot to like about this young player.
Defeating Atlanta on Thursday as well as keeping up with the Falcons in the AFC South will be a major uphill climb for the Buccaneers, but rest assured, their quarterback is in place. Now, they have to do more to build around him.