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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.