Thursday Night Football: What’s at Stake When the Tampa Bay Bucs Take on the Atlanta Falcons?

(Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

 What’s At Stake?

 Give or take a victory, most objective observers pegged the Buccaneers as a .500 team this year, meaning they had them finishing somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7. Well, as they reach the midway point in their season the Bucs are proving to be exactly what those not wearing pewter-colored glasses thought they’d be. The twist is the Panthers are nowhere near what anyone thought they would be and that has allowed the Bucs to stay alive in the NFC South title race. Despite their 3-4 record, the Bucs can tighten that race significantly tonight by beating the pace-setting Falcons. A win would leave Tampa Bay just half a game out of first in the division and would further strengthen the Bucs place in the wild card race because it would leave them 3-0 in the division and 4-2 in the conference.

 Key matchup

 The Bucs defense had rough go of it last week, surrendering a franchise-worst 626 yards, including 513 through the air, during a 30-24 loss to the Raiders at Raymond James Stadium. Now the Falcons come to town and with the league’s second-best passing attack they are more than capable of putting up the same kind of numbers. The key to preventing that is two-fold. For starters the Bucs have to keep the ball longer on offense. Secondly, they have to get after quarterback Matt Ryan. Though coordinator Kyle Shanahan has him moving around a little bit more now than he did in the past, Ryan is still pretty much a pocket passer who needs time to scan the field and find open targets. The Bucs have to find a way to collapse that pocket and at least hurry Ryan into some mistakes. Absent that pressure, the Bucs defense could be in for another long evening.

 Statistically speaking

 Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant became the Falcons all-time leading point producer last week, passing Morten Anderson (806 points) with a PAT he kicked in the first quarter of Atlanta’s victory over the Packers. It’s a bit ironic that Bryant’s next game should come here in Tampa because Bryant was once a Buccaneer. He spent four years with the Bucs establishing himself as one of the league’s more consistent kickers but was released in an effort to bring Mike Nugent onboard. That obviously didn’t work out and while the eventual decision to hand the kicking duties to Connor Barth did, the Bucs are once again looking for consistency from their kicker. Rookie Roberto Aguayo has missed on five of his 12 field-goal attempts and two of his 15 PAT tries so far, but Bryant is proof that patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to field goal kickers.

 He said it

 “It’s very difficult. These guys are going through a whole lot, both physically and mentally, because they didn’t get a chance to process the last game. We (didn’t) even talk to them about the last game. Not one word. We moved on to the next one (immediately) because that’s the challenge we have. We can’t do anything about the last one. But the physical part, they have to do a great job of resting, getting with the trainers, getting into the cryo (tank), all the things you can do because the most important thing is to be rested. The team that is the most rested is going to have a step up on the other group.’’ Former Falcons head coach and current Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith on the challenges of playing a Thursday night game.

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