-Tight end Cameron Brate is having a great season completely under the radar. He connected with quarterback Jameis Winston on the Bucs’ first score of the game yesterday to give him his third touchdown reception in as many games. The touchdown tied Vincent Jackson for the ninth-most touchdown receptions in franchise history. Step back a little further and Brate is tied with Jimmy Graham for the most touchdown receptions in the NFL among tight ends since the start of the 2016 season with 17. Winston is a welcome return for him, who he’s worked copiously outside of practice with over the past couple years. The two have nailed down their timing because of after-practice work they get in with each other to this day.
Brate had a good connection with backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, too, and it’s led to a quietly successful season since Tampa Bay locked him up with a new contract extension this past offseason. In those past three games where he’s had a touchdown, his touches have been limited but he capitalizes on them, recording a completion on seven of nine targets. It’s made even more impressive considering the routes he’s often asked to run. Brate will make some extremely tough catches, both contested and in traffic. He often uses his size to wrestle the ball down and is as reliable as any of the Bucs’ pass catchers. Though this isn’t something that will show up on a stat sheet, it seems he’s often served as a catalyst to get the offense going and you don’t need to look further than yesterday’s game, where he scored on the Bucs’ first drive, to see that.
-In his first start of 2018, quarterback Jameis Winston seemingly picked up where Ryan Fitzpatrick left off. More than that, he showed both tangible and intangible improvements to his own game. Tangibly, Winston went 30-of-41 for 395 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. It was his ninth career game with three or more touchdowns, moving him into sole possession of most such games in franchise history. He also tied the record for most 300+ yard career games with 12 after notching those 395 yards through the air. His first interception came on a long ball, when Winston was trying to force a long throw to DeSean Jackson in the first half while the Bucs were trailing. His second came on a fluke deflection, where the ball hit an Atlanta defender’s helmet in the end zone and popped up in the air for another defender to come down with it. While that one wasn’t as much on him, it was the most costly. He was trying to hit wide receiver Chris Godwin in the end zone and instead the Bucs came away empty.
Intangibly, it seemed Winston was able to make better decisions though throughout the game, despite those two interceptions. The biggest example that comes to mind was on the last drive. With the Bucs down four, they needed a touchdowns as the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter. The Bucs got the ball with 1:04 to go and it was up to Winston to get them down there. On the first play of the drive, Atlanta did a great job locking up any downfield options. Instead of forcing a throw, Winston threw it away. It was smart and stopped the clock, allowing the Bucs to reset after taking just five seconds off the clock. The next play was an 18-yard completion to DeSean Jackson as the Bucs moved down the field to set up the fire drill play that almost worked in the end.
-Opponent red zone efficiency was… not great for the Bucs. As in the Falcons were 3-for-3 inside the red zone and in the first half were pretty much scoring at will. Safety Justin Evans had talked about making the offense go the long way earlier in the week, and for 2-3 of the Falcons’ possessions that was true. The Falcons only scored on a long play once, meaning every other time the Bucs forced them to span the field. The Bucs still got hurt through the air, though. If Winston had a day, so did Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who was 31-for-41 with 354 yards and three touchdowns of his own. His longest passes went to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who would exit the game early, and Julio Jones because, well, he’s Julio Jones. Jones had 143 yards on 10 receptions during the game, but was held out of the end zone again. He has yet to score a touchdown this season and cornerback Brent Grimes was a big reason it stayed that way against the Bucs.
Still, the Bucs are giving up 355.6 passing yards per game (though the offense is passing for an average of 379.2 yards per game). Opponents have a 93.75 red zone conversion percentage and every time the other team is in a goal-to-go situation this season, they have scored. The problem has been identified, now it’s just a matter of remedying it and with health improving on the defensive line, it hopefully will be. The Bucs are becoming more aggressive defensively as well. Though they only registered one sack of Ryan, Tampa Bay recorded seven tackles for loss against Atlanta and shut down their running game, with the Falcons registering just 70 total net rushing yards. Those are blocks to build on that will hopefully help solve the Bucs’ red zone woes.
-Turnovers proved to be the difference between the two teams in the end, and not because the Falcons capitalized on those the Bucs gave away. Neither of the two interceptions Winston had yielded any points for the Falcons. Instead, in an offensive shootout as was the game on Sunday, the number of possessions a team gets and what they do with them are crucial. It was the fact that the Bucs came up empty on two more possessions than they maybe would have, especially on the second one that was picked off in the end zone.