TAMPA, Fla. -- While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' final four games haven't provided a formidable challenge going into the postseason -- at least not on paper, facing teams with a combined 19-41 record -- there are certain components of the 4-11 Atlanta Falcons that can help give the Bucs the tune-up they need this week as they prepare for the postseason.
That particularly holds true for the defense, which has been a work in progress since defensive coordinator Todd Bowles stepped in last year, with the secondary regarded as their Achilles' heel. Can they grow up in a hurry and give quarterback Tom Brady the necessary support he needs to make a deep postseason run? Can the pass rush help this young group out?
Here's what they need to work on with one final regular-season game left.
The Bucs’ defense has surrendered 1,222 passing yards to play-action this season -- eighth most in the league. In Week 15, the Bucs allowed Matt Ryan to go 14-of-16 (87.5%) for 215 passing yards and a touchdown off play-action -- the most the Bucs have given up all season. Even in the second half against the Falcons, when they tightened up their defense, they still surrendered 94 passing yards off play-action. This is an area they need to focus on.
The Los Angeles Rams (9-6) use it the third most of any team in the league, while the Green Bay Packers (12-3) use it the sixth most and the Washington Football Team, the 10th most. Should the Bucs advance to the Super Bowl and face either the Buffalo Bills or the Kansas City Chiefs, those teams are No. 1 and No. 2 for most usage of play-action in the league.
The good news is that the Bucs have done a solid job this year against play-actions involving throws outside the pocket, which the Rams and Seattle Seahawks do more than any other teams in the league. The Bucs haven’t given up too many deep passes like this -- surrendering just 80 total passing yards -- second fewest in the league behind the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Seeing growth from their young cornerbacks
When Bucs coach Bruce Arians was asked what lessons the defense could take from its first meeting with the Falcons, he said, "We'll try to control Calvin Ridley a whole lot better than we did in that game, and Kansas City tried to because he's on fire right now."
There’s a reason the Chiefs' Tyrann Mathieu called Ridley “one of the best route runners” they’ve seen all year. The Falcons wideout can do it all. He's exceptionally good against press coverage -- to the point that few teams try it against him -- but he's also very strong playing off-coverage. He can adjust his speed and he can win in jump-ball situations.
The Bucs' defense ranks 22nd against the pass, allowing 245.8 yards per game. And their secondary isn't just fighting age and inexperience right now. They're banged up with some injuries. Jamel Dean just returned from a concussion and then a groin injury, and played what this coaching staff believed might have been one of his best games this season against Atlanta. He also had a key interception against the Packers that led to them coming back from a 10-0 deficit. But even he's been tested this season, particularly when it comes to double moves, which we saw against the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants.
Carlton Davis missed the Detroit Lions game with a groin injury. The coaching staff has also said that Sean Murphy-Bunting isn't anywhere close to the health he had at the end of last season, when he had two game-winning interceptions. He's also been fighting some confidence issues. How much can they get out of him? And how much can they trust Ross Cockrell, whom Arians called the "biggest surprise" of this season, as they approach the postseason?
Get home with their pass rush
The Falcons had a difficult time last week against the Chiefs protecting Ryan. Their pressure was suffocating at times, sacking Ryan four times with 12 QB hits. On multiple occasions, it was a free rusher who took Ryan down. But that wasn't always the case. In a sack from Frank Clark in the third quarter, the Falcons left everyone in to protect Ryan and only had a two-man route downfield, so he had nowhere to go with the ball. On the very next play, Chris Jones sacked Ryan again after he had nowhere to go.
"If we don't get to Matt Ryan, they're gonna find [Ridley] because he's playing at a really, really high level," Arians said. "We've gotta get to Matt Ryan better than we did in the first half last week."
Perhaps the Bucs won't be afraid to dial it up earlier against Ryan this time, although ideally, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett should be getting home. Barrett was double-teamed four times and Pierre-Paul 11 times, whereas Ndamukong Suh was double-teamed all day. They need to win their one-on-one matchups. Matt Gono, whom both faced, has started four games this season. And while he's performed well, he certainly doesn't have their level of experience, playing in just his second season.
Looking ahead to the postseason, yes, the Bucs might have pummeled Aaron Rodgers in Week 6, but the Packers have still given up just 20 sacks this season, and the Rams just 23 times with Jared Goff. There's a window of opportunity should they face Washington, as it has given up 47 sacks this season, with a shaky QB situation if Alex Smith is unable to get healthy from a calf strain.