By Max Luckan
This Sunday, just three days after Thanksgiving, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play the Atlanta Falcons in what will surely be their toughest challenge so far this season. The 9-1 Falcons come into Raymond James Stadium as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, and pose a plethora of challenges for the Bucs. Both teams play in the NFC South, which makes this one of the better rivalry games in the league. The Bucs are currently riding a four-game winning streak, and the Falcons are coming off a close victory over the Arizona Cardinals, in which they turned the ball over six teams.READ MORE: Trump says he took the Fifth in questioning in New York Attorney General fraud investigation
Bucs cornerback Eric Wright did not participate in practice on Wednesday, as he’s been dealing with an Achilles injury for most of the season. Wright’s injury keeps flaring up, and head coach Greg Schiano has said that they will deal with it on a week-to-week basis. Schiano said on Wednesday that it’s “too early to tell” if Wright will be able to go on Sunday. The Bucs will certainly need Wright against Matt Ryan and the high-powered Falcons offense that features wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
WR Arrelious Benn, S Cody Grimm, and S Ahmad Black were the other players that sat out Wednesday’s practice for the Bucs.
DE Michael Bennett was limited because of a shoulder injury, and DE Aaron Morgan and WR Tiquan Underwood participated fully.
The Bucs have been made aware of the increasing number of hits that starting quarterbacks around the league have been taking, and are looking to minimize the amount of hits Josh Freeman takes. While not easy to do, the Bucs will have to find a way to slow down the Falcons’ pass rush and protect the quarterback.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said that there are a few things the Bucs can do in order to ensure Freeman is better protected.READ MORE: Gabby Petito's Family Seeks $50 Million From Utah Police Department For Inadequate Response To Brian Laundrie's Abuse
“There are some things we can do as far as moving the launch point, getting some quicker, rhythm-type throws, doing things in rhythm so he (Freeman) can get the ball out faster,” Sullivan said. “I really think it’s a combination of things from a protection standpoint, executing a little bit better up front, and then when you’re facing a tough group like that, it’s going to be a challenge.”
The offensive line has been banged up all year and two key starters have gone down with injuries, but they have held their own up to this point. However, the rate at which Freeman took hits in last Sunday’s game against the Panthers is unsustainable.
On defense, the Bucs are well aware of the multitude of weapons the Falcons possess. Wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones are deep-threats and both have great speed. And on top of that, White is excellent at running routes. There’s no doubt Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will exploit the Bucs’ last-ranked pass defense, but the Bucs will have to find a way to minimize the number of big plays they give up. Schiano thinks there’s a way they can do that.
“We’re going to have to put pressure on the quarterback,” Schiano said. “I think the perimeter pass coverage is getting better. Now we’re going up in class, for sure. It’s going to be some challenge.”
At first glance, the Bucs appear to be overmatched in this week’s matchup against the Falcons, but if they make the right adjustments on offense and defense, as they’ve done throughout the season, they will have a good shot at bettering their playoff positioning with a big win.
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Max Luckan lives in Tampa, FL and is a sports writer covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFL. Luckan has been covering the Buccaneers for a few years now. You can find more of his work at Examiner.com.