TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have three games remaining in the season against NFC South teams battling for a playoff spot. How they perform could go a long way in determining the future of head coach Dirk Koetter.
Tampa Bay had high expectations entering the season. But injuries at key positions - including quarterback Jameis Winston missing three games with a shoulder injury - and a defense that can't close out games -- has left the Bucs with a 4-9 record entering Monday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bucs' next three opponents - the Falcons, at Carolina and the home finale against New Orleans - will go a long way in determining the NFC South race. The Bucs are winless in the division this season and that has to change if the team is to avoid big changes in the offseason.
A lot is riding on Winston, who has played better since his return from the shoulder injury.
Winston tied the game or gave the Bucs the lead in the fourth quarter of four games this season and they won one of them. Without a pass rush, it's impossible to close out games in the NFL. The pressure to score more, especially on the road, has been a burden.
But overall, Koetter sees growth.
"It's a team game, so as our team has not done as well as we hoped to do this year, there is a lot on the quarterback when things aren't going well," Koetter said. "I think Jameis just continues to grow and get experience as I said last week. Look at the three quarterbacks we have left to face in our own division - the last two MVPs and a Super Bowl winner. Then (we faced) Matthew Stafford last week (and saw) his growth. He has been in the league eight years already and I think he is a similar guy to Jameis - first pick in the draft. It just takes some time.
"I think Jameis is doing some things very well and he is also making some mistakes, as we all are, that we need to improve on."
The last time the Bucs played the Falcons, receiver Julio Jones went crazy. He had 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns despite defensive coordinator Mike Smith using 14 different coverage combinations.
"Well we don't want to run the things we ran last time, that's for sure," Smith said. "We didn't do a good job in our preparation or our execution. He is an outstanding player and you've got to put enough resources out there where you can try to slow him down, but at the same time you can't do so much that you are going to put the rest of the defense in jeopardy. Each game has its own little nuances that you go through, but I can assure you this: we looked very hard at what we did last time and we probably won't be doing that."
The next week after that game, against Minnesota, Jones was held to only two receptions. Smith says the Bucs will try to learn some things by watching that film.
"Yeah, I took a very good look at that," Smith said. "They did a nice job. They really did. They had a good plan (and) they had some guys that matched up size-wise with him. They did a really good job in terms of taking him away in the passing game. There is no doubt about it. Coach (Mike) Zimmer and his staff did a super job and they executed it very well."
One of the options the Bucs didn't try was matching Jones up in man coverage all over the field with cornerback Brent Grimes, whose 20 interceptions the past five seasons tie Richard Sherman for the most in the NFL during that span.
"I don't want to talk about how we are going to do it, but we are planning on playing a lot better than we did the last time," Smith concluded. "That's for sure."
The Bucs' defense has allowed 30 points per game on the road, but around 17 points at home. Of course, this time they will also have to contend with running back Devonta Freeman, who missed the first game between these teams.
"We are going to have a little different situation this week because the running back (Devonta) Freeman did not play in our first game," Koetter said. "He is going to be back this week. It looks like (Tevin) Coleman may be there. He may not be. It's going to be a little bit different. The guard (Andy Levitre) is potentially going to be out, as well. He's got an issue going on with his arm. But, it helps with the familiarity. You've just got to make sure you understand where you had your shortcomings in the previous game and try to clear them up.
"They are going to do something different. You can't prepare (for everything). Matt (Ryan) can do a lot of things and there will be different things that we haven't seen for a while that he will pull out in that game. We are going to have to be able to defend some unscouted looks."