TAMPA, Fla. -- As Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston continues to fight for his future with the franchise beyond 2018, he enters this week what is arguably the toughest two-game stretch of the season.
The Baltimore Ravens (7-6) and Dallas Cowboys (8-5) are the Bucs' next opponents and they are also the league's top two defenses in terms of points allowed. The Bucs play at Baltimore on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (Fox).
These two opponents, though very different in terms of scheme and the manner with which they attack, will tell a lot about Winston and the direction he is headed. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter's playcalling also will be in the spotlight; his offense was held to only 14 points last week by the New Orleans Saints, including a scoreless second half in which his lack of adjustments have come under scrutiny.
Here's a closer look at the Ravens:
Against the Saints, Winston was hit 10 times and sacked four times. "You can't have your quarterback getting hit that many times," Koetter said.
It might be a lot worse this week. The Ravens blitzed seven on the first play of scrimmage against 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons in Week 13, leaving four defensive backs in man coverage with no help deep. Talk about aggressive play.
The Ravens hit Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes 15 times and sacked him three times last week. The Ravens pressured Mahomes on 33 of his 57 dropbacks, the most dropbacks under duress by any quarterback in the past 10 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Ravens have blitzed 197 times this season -- 37.3 percent of dropbacks -- more than any other team in the league.
Baltimore crowds the line of scrimmage and mixes up its coverages often, forcing quarterbacks to guess who is rushing the passer and who is dropping into coverage. Mahomes said he felt "like they used a different coverage every single play." The Ravens also made it difficult for the Chiefs quarterback to rely on bootlegs and rollouts, which are plays the Bucs incorporate with Winston.
The Ravens' defensive pressure should mean there will be less emphasis on longer-developing plays for Winston, and more emphasis on shorter, quicker passes, like the screen game with Adam Humphries, and hitting Mike Evans and Cameron Brate underneath. This will help slow down the pass rush. It also will help in case there are hiccups with blocking responsibilities going against a 3-4 team, and if Winston sees some things he's unsure of downfield, he then can continue to work on being "more decisive" with the football -- a point of emphasis the past few weeks.
The Bucs also can minimize the Ravens' multiple looks by taking away their ability to substitute, doing what the Falcons did two weeks ago by going more up-tempo. It can be tougher on the road to dictate the tempo, though.
The Ravens are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 58.8 percent of their passes -- the lowest mark in the NFL. They're also allowing the fewest yards per attempt at 6.21, and they're stingy on third down.
Some good news for Winston and Brate is that Baltimore has given up 878 receiving yards to opposing tight ends this season (seventh most in the league) and six touchdowns to tight ends (10th most in the league).
Though the Ravens have more pass breakups (51) than any other team in the league, their six interceptions rank as the third-fewest in the league. That should give Winston, whose biggest problem has been turnovers, a little more confidence to take chances without fear he’ll put the defense in a bad spot.
For an aggressive team, the Ravens have only seven forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries on the season.