Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

October 11, 2018 at 3:02 am.

Winston back under center for Bucs this week

The headline for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week is that Jameis Winston is back as the team’s starting quarterback.

Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick had an unbelievable run while Winston was serving a three-game suspension. He set an NFL record by passing for at least 400 yards in three consecutive games to start the season. But when head coach Dirk Koetter learned in July that Winston would be suspended, he took a look at the Bucs’ schedule and in his mind figured Winston would return as the starter at Atlanta this Sunday at 1 p.m. in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Fitzpatrick was prolific in pushing the football downfield with deep passes to Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson.

That’s been the strength of the Bucs this season as their defense is allowing 34.8 points per game, the most in the NFL.

The question is whether Winston can continue to keep the Bucs as the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL, producing 363 yards per game.

“Obviously, they’re both their own player and have their own style but from the beginning, one of the things we liked about Fitz when we evaluated him as a backup was his style of play was similar to Jameis’ in that he could push the ball downfield and make those deeper to intermediate throws,” Bucs quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian said. “I don’t think much will change from (the play-calling) standpoint. Our offense, the types of plays we were running, I don’t anticipate much difference.”

The Bucs are coming off two straight losses, including an embarrassing 48-10 loss at Chicago Sept. 30. Winston started the second half of that game and the garbage time reps were valuable for Winston, who organized workouts with 25 unsigned NFL players and undrafted free agents during his three-game suspension.

“He hasn’t changed,” Bajakian said of Winston. “He’s come back with a great attitude and the same work ethic he’s always had. He’s a competitor and a worker and he’s going to approach the game the same way.”

But Winston could feel some added pressure, not only because the Bucs need a win, but because Tampa Bay’s defense is terrible.

Former Falcons head coach Mike Smith has come under fire as the Bucs defensive coordinator. His defense was last in the NFL a year ago in total yards and had the fewest sacks with 22. This season, in addition to having the worst scoring defense, the Bucs are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 77.1 percent of their passes.

But Smith remains unbowed.

“The sky is not falling,” Smith said. “I can assure you, it felt like it was frickin’ crumbling on top of us when we walked off that field in Chicago. But that’s an anomaly; that’s one of one. And as a defense, we are committed together to right that ship and not play defensive football like we played there.”

As the former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Smith said he is used to the criticism.

“I’ve got tracks on my back through the years,” Smith said. “That’s part of it. You’re in this business, hey, it’s a week-to-week business. And the great thing about it is you get to go out and do it again. It doesn’t hurt my feelings that anybody has their own opinion. That’s just the way this world is. That’s what makes it go around.

“You just go out and do your job. You try to be focused on the task at hand. And the task at hand is real simple in the NFL. It’s to have one more point than the other team. And we’ve been able to do that 50 percent of the time in the first quarter of the season, and I just want to say there’s a lot of football to be played.”

The Bucs have been hurt by injuries, particularly in the secondary. Cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves and safety Chris Conte are on injured reserve. Three rookies – cornerbacks Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and safety Jordan Whitehead – have been counted on as starters while battling injury.

But Smith believes the experience will benefit the Bucs young players in the long run.

“We’re all the biggest critics,” Smith said. “I know sometimes it might feel like you guys (in the media) are the biggest critics. But let me tell you, we’re more critical on ourselves than anything we do as coaches. That’s just the way coaches are made up. This is a production business, as we all know. When you don’t get the production that you like, hey, there’s going to be self-criticism that’s a lot tougher than we get from you folks.

“Going through these growing pains, and being 2-2, it’s helping us down the road.”

SERIES HISTORY: 50th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 25-24. Atlanta swept the series last year. In 2015, the Bucs swept Atlanta for the first time since 2007. Since the NFC South was created in 2002, Atlanta leads the series 17-15.