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Bucs-Falcons: Can Jameis Winston keep up?

TAMPA — When Jameis Winston was building his team of counterfeit Bucs — a roster of 25 players who would try to keep him sharp in workouts he organized during his three-game suspension — he needed a player to replicate the speed of receiver DeSean Jackson.

So he turned to Marvin Bracy.

The 5-foot-9 former Florida State receiver quit football before the Seminoles won the national championship to pursue a career in professional track. Bracy finished third in the U.S. Olympic trials in the 100 meters in July 2016.

"Those guys, I owe everything to them, because their hard work is going to pay off,'' Winston said. "You're all going to see it.''

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But considering the direction the NFL is going and the torrid pace of the Bucs offense, like his decision to recruit Bracy, Winston knows he might have a tough time just trying to keep up.

Before he can begin to match quarterback Matt Ryan or the Falcons' high-flying offense Sunday, Winston would do well just to equal the video game numbers produced by teammate Ryan Fitzpatrick.

During Winston's suspension, the 35-year-old Fitzpatrick set an NFL record by passing for at least 400 yards in three consecutive games with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. His 70.2 completion percentage in those games no longer looks like an anomaly.

Seven passers, including the Bears' Mitch Trubisky, who bombed the Bucs with six TD passes, are completing 70 percent or better this season.

"It's all the same things that I saw in the Big 12,'' said Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who was the playcaller for one of the nation's most prolific offenses with Oklahoma State from 2002-04. "That's really what that league is about. Going fast, spreading the field, utilizing space. That's what you're starting to see more of.''

There is some reason to doubt that Winston can approximate the kind of gaudy passing numbers being posted in the NFL each week. He's thrown for 400 yards in an NFL game once. It came in his second season during a 37-32 loss to the Rams in which he attempted 58 passes. Winston has thrown at least four touchdowns in a game only twice in his career, including a 5 TD performance in a win at Philadelphia his rookie year.

Then again, Winston has never been surrounded by a better group of pass catchers or a more stout offensive line.

Thanks to Fitzpatrick, receivers Mike Evans (106.5 ypg. average) and DeSean Jackson (106) ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in the NFL in average receiving yards per game. The improvement of second-year players such as receiver Chris Godwin and tight end O.J. Howard has upped the ante. Receivers Adam Humphries and tight end Cameron Brate are almost afterthoughts.

"Yeah, every year I just reflect on how good this team has gotten and give credit to (general manager) Jason Licht and to the hard work that these guys who came here with me have been putting in,'' Winston said. "So I'm just blessed to quarterback a team with a good offensive line, dynamic guys on the outside and great guys in the backfield.''

He's also fortunate to be facing a Falcons defense nearly as wretched as the Bucs.

Atlanta has lost linebacker Deion Jones and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen to season-ending injuries.  The Falcons have given up at least 37 points and 7.9 yards per passing attempt — Drew Brees' career average —in their three-game losing streak.

It's not just the Falcons defense that's being victimized.  Offenses across the league are exploiting this year's rule redefinitions of "defenseless" ballcarriers and roughing the passer, and operating with players who grew up playing in spread attacks.

As as result, the NFL is on pace for a per-team record of 1.76 touchdown passes per game — a half-touchdown more than 2008.

"I think the skill set of what you're taught in college is so different than what it was 15 or 20 years ago because it's so reliant on spread and passing and space," Fitzpatrick said. "So in that regard, I'm not going to say our schemes are way different, but in terms of the skill set of guys coming into the league? It's different because of that.''

As for Winston, Monken would point to the end of 2017 and the preseason as evidence that Winston has improved throwing the deep ball and his completion percentage. He connected on a career-high 63.8 percent of his passes last year and 73.1 percent in the preseason. Although playing in garbage time in the second half at Chicago Sept. 30, Winston went 16-of-20 passing, or 80 percent.

"If you go all the way back to the games we played towards the end of the year and the throws that he made, specifically the last throw, the game-winner against New Orleans, a couple against Carolina, you started to see more confidence throwing the ball down the field, making those type of throws and that's carried over from what I've seen in the preseason and then the last couple days,'' Monken said.

It's sort of ironic, Monken said, that the preseason began with Bucs coaches being asked questions about whether they had confidence that Fitzpatrick could keep them afloat until Winston returned. Now that Winston is back under center?

"Well now it's four weeks later, and it's, 'How do you feel about Jameis?' " Monken said.

When asked how Winston would do, Fitzpatrick smiled and didn't respond for several seconds before saying, "I think the skill we have on offense is awesome. He'll be just fine out there.''

Maybe Winston knew what he was doing by throwing to a world-class sprinter during his suspension. The NFL has become a track meet, and you either keep pace or get left in the dust.

Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud

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