By Cedric Williams

After spending the last two weeks on the road, the Atlanta Falcons will finally make their return to the Georgia Dome this Sunday with a matchup against their longtime NFC South rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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The Falcons and Buccaneers are among the surprise teams in the league this year, as is the entire NFC South Division, which came into this season the one division no one thought had any good teams in it. Now with the first-place Carolina Panthers standing at 6-0, the Falcons sit right behind at 6-1, with the Bucs and the New Orleans Saints still both within striking distance, it is the NFC South that boasts the best combined record of any division in football with a mark of 17-9.

Season Record

Tampa will come to town with a 2-4 record, which already is a major improvement over the 2-14 mark the Bucs posted last season. That dismal 2-14 campaign, which ended with six straight losses to close the season, earned Tampa the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s Draft, which the Bucs used to take former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston.

Just last week, the Bucs showed how much they had improved as a ballclub by jumping out to a 24-0 lead on the Washington Redskins. And even though the Redskins staged a furious rally, Tampa still lead 30-24 with less than a minute to play.

Unfortunately for the Bucs, young and inconsistent teams are prone to letting games slip away and that’s exactly what happened, as Washington scored a touchdown with 24 seconds left to steal away a win and hand Tampa a stinging loss.

“All losses really hurt, but you have some that really leave a deep scar,” Tampa head coach Lovie Smith said in his post-game press conference. “And this is definitely one of those.”

Tampa Bay on Offense

Despite the inconsistency, the Bucs are pretty good on offense, where they rank No. 13 overall in total yards per game (363.8)

Much of that is due to the improvement at the quarterback position provided by Winston, who has thrown for 1,471 yards, nine touchdowns, seven interceptions, and has an 85.7 overall passer rating. Winston has been especially good when throwing the ball to either of his rather large (both players are listed at 6’5) wide receivers, Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson.

Evans, a second-year man out of Texas A&M, has 45 catches for 338 yards, while Jackson, an 11th-year pro out of Northern Colorado, has 41 receptions for 319 yards.

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But the place where Tampa has really excelled is in the run games, where the Bucs rank fourth overall with 133.7 rushing yards per game. Fourth-year tailback Doug Martin is having a magnificent season, with 541 rushing yards (third-best in the league) and a 5.0 yards per carry average.

Tampa Bay on Defense

Many might be surprised to find out that despite the 2-4 record, the Bucs are a top 10 group on defense. Tampa ranks sixth overall in total yards (328.2 yards allowed) and are fifth overall in pass defense (219.5 yards allowed).

Where the Bucs have had trouble is when they do allow an opposing offense to gain almost any yards, it almost always turns into points, evidenced by Tampa’s worst in the league points allowed total of 29.8 ppg.

In fact, that’s almost exactly what happened on Sunday. The Tampa D was terrific for most of the day against Washington, but once things began to slip away, they totally slipped away and the Redskins were able to come all the way back for one of its most dramatic wins in several seasons.

Tampa Bay‘s Players to Watch

The player to watch on Tampa’s offense will be the running back Martin, who will have to carry a big load for the Bucs despite going up against Atlanta’s second-ranked run defense. If Tampa’s going to have any shot, especially with a defense that gives up so many points on the other side, its going to need to slow down the game and control the time of possession.

On defense, the key for Tampa could be its improving pass rush. For years, Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy was basically by himself out there. But this year, the Bucs have found him a complement in second-year end from Mizzou, Jacquies Smith.

McCoy is again on a Pro Bowl pace with 4.5 sacks this season, but it’s actually Smith who leads Tampa with 5.0 sacks this year.

Outlook

Atlanta showed last week that it can still win games without scoring big. But it seems very unlikely that Tampa’s worst in the league points allowed defense will be able to keep the Falcons from scoring enough to get to 7-1.

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Cedric Williams, a lifelong St. Louisan and proud UMSL alum, has been a full-time reporter/photographer covering St. Louis area sports for nearly two decades. Most recently, he has been working as a credentialed beat writer covering the NFL, as well as college and high school sports for the St. Louis American, Patch.com, and other outlets from around the area. Please share any comments, questions, or feedback with Cedric at cedricwilliams510@gmail.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.