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Scouting Report: Atlanta Falcons

Posted Oct 17, 2013

Taking a closer look at the Buccaneers' opponent in Week Six, as Tampa Bay prepares for an intra-division matchup with the Atlanta Falcons and their top-notch quarterback, Matt Ryan

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Falcons' rushing attack has gained just 78.4 yards per game, but the Atlanta backs have been productive in the passing game
  • Free agent pickup DE Osi Umenyiora leads the team with 4.0 sacks but the Falcons linebackers have been hit by the injury bug
  • WR Mike Williams was limited Wednesday but two cornerbacks returned to practice after a long absence
On Sunday, the 0-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 1-4 Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.  It will be the 40th meeting between the two teams in the regular season, and the first of two intra-divisional matchups this fall (more on the Bucs-Eagles series history here).  The Buccaneers will be looking for their second straight win in the Georgia Dome, having concluded the 2012 regular season with a 22-17 victory in Atlanta.

To record their first win of the season, the Buccaneers will have to slow down an Atlanta offense that has remained among the league's most productive despite a rash of significant injuries.  Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they visit the Atlanta Falcons.

HEAD COACH: When Mike Smith arrived in Atlanta in 2008 after five seasons as the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, the Falcons had gone four decades without once posting a winning record in consecutive seasons.  Since Smith's hiring as the head coach, the Falcons have been one of the NFL's most consistently successful teams, posting a winning record in five straight seasons, taking home two division titles and missing the playoffs only once.  Last year, the Falcons advanced to the NFC title game before falling to the San Francisco 49ers in a game that wasn't decided until the final seconds.  Smith, who has twice been voted as the NFL's Coach of the Year by his peers through The Sporting News, is credited with a keen eye for personnel and for establishing a very even keel at the Falcons' headquarters.

-- Head Coach Mike Smith has led the Falcons to four playoff appearances in five years
OFFENSE:Despite injuries to RB Steven Jackson, FB Bradie Ewing and WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White – all starters at the beginning of the year – the Falcons have rung up 391.4 yards per game this season, eighth-best in the NFL.  Quarterbacks may frequently get too much of the credit for a team's success, but in the Falcons' case it's hard to look past sixth-year man Matt Ryan as the man holding the pieces together for the offense.  Even with a reshuffled cast of skill-position players and an offensive line that has struggled to be consistent, Ryan has thrown for nearly 315 yards per game and put up a 100.9 passer rating, sixth-best in the NFL.  Atlanta is 33-2 all-time when Ryan posts a single-game passer rating of 100 or better.  Ryan is a pure pocket passer (he's run the ball just once this season) with a very quick release and a strong arm.  While he doesn't scramble often, he does move well to avoid pressure and, as his "Matty Ice" nickname attests, is not easily flustered.

With Jones done for the season and White a significant question mark this weekend due to ankle and hamstring injuries, Ryan will probably find TE Tony Gonzalez to be more of a security blanket than ever.  The incredibly savvy Gonzalez has 33 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns through just five games, as he shows no signs of slowing down in his 17th season.  Since coming to Atlanta in 2009, Gonzalez has actually had fairly modest numbers against the Buccaneers, averaging 4.5 receptions for 44 yards in eight games and scoring just one touchdown.  As for his wideouts, Ryan will turn to Harry Douglas, the experienced #3 receiver now in the starting lineup.  Douglas had a touchdown in the last Bucs-Falcons game and had five catches for 68 yards against New England two outings ago.

-- RB Jacquizz Rodgers leads the Falcons with 52 carries
No Atlanta running back has hit the 200-yard mark yet this season and the Falcons are 26th in the league in rushing yards, but the team is still getting adequate production out of the position.  That's because Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling, filling in for the injured Jackson since early in Week Two, have added a combined 243 receiving yards to their 288 rushing yards.  Rodgers, small and quick, was supposed to be the change of pace to Jackson, the former Ram, but he now leads the team with 52 carries.  Snelling is a bigger back at 234 pounds and has always been a good red zone threat, and he was excelling as a pass-catching threat before suffering a concussion early in the Week Five loss to the New York Jets.  Snelling has been practicing this week and is expected to play against the Buccaneers; Jackson is probably still at least a week away from his return.

Despite some injuries up front, the Falcons have protected Ryan well, allowing the third fewest sacks per pass play in the NFL.  Atlanta's offense has also turned the ball over only six times in five games, though the team is only tied for 22nd in turnover differential as the defense has come up with just four takeaways.  Atlanta has also been very good in converting third downs to sustain drives, with a success rate of 43.3%

DEFENSE:The Falcons' defense has struggled, especially against the pass (29th in the NFL with 274.8 yards allowed per game), but it's fair to suggest that some of that is due to injuries that have sidelined, to varying degrees, starting DE Kroy Biermann, outside linebacker Sean Witherspoon, CB Asante Samuel and several others.  Former Giant Osi Umenyiora has done a fine job replacing departed pass-rusher John Abraham, leading the team with four sacks and adding an interception, a forced fumble, two tackles for loss and two passes defensed.

The experienced safety duo of William Moore and Thomas DeCoud is still intact, and Moore leads the team by a healthy margin with 47 tackles to go with his one interception.  Since the start of the 2010 season, Moore has 12 interceptions, which is tied for fourth in the NFL among all safeties.  The Falcons kept Samuel but otherwise reworked their cornerback position with youthful additions this offseason, including early draft picks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.  Trufant has stepped right in as the starting right cornerback and is the team leader with five pass deflections, while Alford has notched one of the team's three interceptions.  Still, the Falcons' secondary has been susceptible on third down, allowing conversions on a whopping 50.0% of opportunities, worst in the NFL.

-- DE Usi Umenyiora has a team-high 4.0 sacks and two forced fumbles

The linebacking crew was expected to be the heart of the Falcons' defense, with Weatherspoon an established standout and Akeem Dent a rising star.  However, a variety of injuries have forced the team to rely on such undrafted rookies as Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow.  Seven different players have started at least one game at linebacker for the Falcons already, but the run defense has still been fairly stout, ranking sixth in the NFL with 97.4 yards allowed per game.  Some of that is likely due to teams electing to throw against a defense giving up 275 yards per game, as the Falcons are allowing 4.2 yards per carry, ranking 21st in the NFL.  Dent, who has 33 tackles and 1.5 sacks this season, did not practice on Wednesday but returned to the field on Thursday and thus may be available to help the Falcons try to slow down Bucs RB Doug Martin.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Falcons have a reliable pair of kickers in punter Matt Bosher and placekicker Matt Bryant, the former Buccaneer, and of course advantageous indoor conditions in which to kick for half of the schedule.  Bosher ranks sixth in the NFL gross punting average (47.4) and eighth in net punting (42.0). Over the last four years, Bryant has made 89.7% of his field goal tries (96 of 107), including eight of nine this season.

-- WR Harry Douglas is the Falcons' primary punt returner

Two of the players who have taken on larger roles in the offense – Douglas and Rodgers – have also been responsible for the return game so far.  Douglas has handled punts, averaging just 5.7 yards on 10 attempts, with a long of 15.  Rodgers is the kickoff return man but has run back just three kicks thanks to the preponderance of touchbacks in the NFL.  The Falcons have defended the punt well, allowing just 4.2 yards per punt, but they are 23rd in stopping kickoff returns, allowing 25.0 yards per try.