Atlanta Falcons 2016 opponents preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Dec 6, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Justin Hardy (16) runs the ball in the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 6, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Justin Hardy (16) runs the ball in the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports /

We begin our “Scouting the Enemy” series with a look at the Atlanta Falcons’ first opponent of the 2016 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

There is still a sour taste in the mouths of just about every Falcons fan following the series sweep at the hands of the Buccaneers last season. An overtime defeat inside the Georgia Dome paired with a narrow four-point loss in Florida all but summed up the second half of the season for Dan Quinn’s team.

With a fresh season comes a clean slate. For the Falcons, an opportunity to avenge some of last season’s losses inside the NFC South, none less than the Buccaneers.

To get a better understanding of the Buccaneers’ offseason and outlook for the new season, we spoke with James Yarcho, editor at The Pewter Plank.

FB: What’s your opinion on the Buccaneers’ offseason to date?

JY: I think the Bucs’ offseason has been an extremely successful one. It started, of course, with the hiring of Dirk Koetter. This was a move I actually was in favor of mid-season because I saw the writing on the wall. Nothing against Lovie [Smith] personally – I like him immensely – but he wasn’t the right man for this or any other NFL job anymore.

After hiring Koetter as head coach, then bringing in Mike Smith as defensive coordinator, I was far more confident in the coaching staff than I’ve been since the Gruden days. Hearing Smith say he would scheme around the strengths of his players was music to most Bucs fans’ ears as we’ve grown very tired of watching schemes be forced where they don’t work.

The return of Doug Martin was essential, but the signings of Robert Ayers and Brent Grimes are big time upgrades for the defense, from skill to leadership to experience. The draft was, in my opinion, a huge success with the drafting of Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence for the defense then addressing special teams with the selection of Roberto Aguayo.

Say what you will about drafting a kicker, but this team was pathetic in the kicking game last season. On top of that, the new touchback rules make Aguayo even more valuable with his ability to rainbow kick and pin it inside the five, forcing a return with little to no chance to be taken past the 20, let alone the 25.

FB: What are the biggest storylines entering training camp for the Bucs?

JY: It’s absolutely the position battles. You have Austin Seferian-Jenkins battling to regain his starting role, a battle at starting corner between Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks – the loser potentially losing their job – Evan Smith is trying to regain his starting gig at center from Joe Hawley, and the battle to see who emerges as the number three receiver.

You have Louis Murphy, Kenny Bell who missed his entire rookie year on injured reserve, Adam Humphries who stepped up last season, plus Pro Bowl receivers still available in free agency that could potentially be brought in.

FB: What are realistic expectations for the Buccaneers this season?

JY: More improvement. The schedule this season is brutal – on paper. This is a team that went 2-14 in 2014, and were 6-6 at one point last year before ending the year with four straight losses. Realistically, this team should be .500, or better, this season.

[Jameis] Winston and [Mike] Evans have been working together in the offseason on their chemistry and timing, Martin is in great shape again, and the defense is much improved with a better play caller. Anything under 8-8, to me, is a disappointment.

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FB: Will Jameis Winston make a jump in year two?

JY: Jameis is a special player. I’ll be the first to admit (and there’s article about it out there if anyone wants to dig them up), that I was not a Winston fan when he was at FSU. Maybe it was the Noles fan base bludgeoning us to death with his hype, a lot was what appeared to be major character and maturity issues, but I just preferred Mariota at the time.

After diving in, doing my research, my due diligence, and my film study, he won me over. By draft night I was elated that Winston was the guy and he confirmed what I began to see back in January of last year.

Off the field, he’s been a model citizen. He’s involved in the community, he’s charitable, and he’s out-going. On the field, the guy just flat out hates to lost. He does everything he can to will this team to a victory. As many Falcons fans saw, and will hate to be reminded of this for, likely, the duration of Winston’s career, the 3rd-and-18 scramble said everything you need to know about him. He wouldn’t go down because he hates losing that bad.

He’s dedicated his offseason to getting into the best shape of his life and continuing to hone his craft. I’m sure there will be slight regressions here and there – that’s only natural, no matter who the quarterback is. However, for every one step back we see him take, there will be two leaps forward. Bucs fans can finally get excited about a franchise quarterback.

FB: How do you see the NFC South shaking out this season?

JY: The Panthers, unfortunately, are still the top dog in the South. The Bucs and Falcons are going to be vying for the second spot in the division and the Saints are in rebuilding mode without the ability to rebuild.

The mistakes they’ve made with the salary cap will cripple this team for the next few seasons until they are able to blow the whole thing up and start again. The Falcons were similar to the Bucs last season in the sense that you never knew which team was going to show up. Barring any major injuries, it’s hard to pick against the Panthers in this division right now.

Next: Ranking the NFC South's top 10 players

We’d like to thank James Yarcho for taking the time to talk to us. Be sure to check out The Pewter Plank for great coverage of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.