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Scouting Report: Atlanta Falcons

Posted Nov 23, 2017

This week, the Buccaneers face a Falcons defense that has a high sack total from a large group of pass-rushers but has not taken the ball away frequently

On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will head to Atlanta to play in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the first time. The Buccaneers and Falcons will be meeting for the 48th time, with Atlanta seeking to tie the series up for the 12th time (more on the Bucs-Falcons series history). The Buccaneers bring a two-game winning streak into the contest but the Falcons have won three of their last four, including an impressive victory in Seattle this past Monday night.

To get their first division win of the season, the Buccaneers will need to slow down a pass-rush that ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks, and somehow figure out how to contain a diverse set of weapons surrounding the NFL's reigning MVP, Matt Ryan. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they take on the Falcons in their new home.


HEAD COACH

Dan Quinn's last two seasons as the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks ended in Super Bowl appearances. Just two years after taking over as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach, Quinn had his new team back in the season's final game.

Dan Quinn's first season in Atlanta – and his first year as an NFL head coach – got off to a rousing start when the 2015 Falcons won their first five games, several of them in thrilling last-minute fashion. Unfortunately, Atlanta would win just once more in its next eight outings – including two losses to the Buccaneers – thus missing out on what looked like a sure playoff spot in October. Quinn's club did finish strong, handing the Carolina Panthers their only regular-season loss in Week 16.

There was no second-half lull for the 2016 Falcons, as Quinn guided them to an 11-5 record, an NFC South title and a conference championship. Though Super Bowl LI ended badly for Atlanta, it was a thrilling game, won 34-28 by New England via a furious second-half rally, and the first Super Bowl to go to overtime.

Given the Falcons' 6-4 start to the 2017 campaign, Quinn is now 25-17 as a head coach.

Quinn ascended to the Falcons head job after two decades of coaching at the college and pro levels. That season-opening winning streak start made him the first rookie head coach in team history to guide his team to a 5-0 start. Moreover, he was the first rookie head coach in league history to go 5-0 after trailing in the fourth quarter of four of those games.

Given that the Falcons before his arrival had generally excelled on offense but struggled on defense, Quinn was a natural choice after he had helped the Seattle Seahawks to two straight Super Bowls. Quinn took over that job when the previous coordinator, Gus Bradley, left to become the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach in 2013. The Seahawks actually brought Quinn back in 2013 after he had spent two years coordinating the defense at the University of Florida. Prior to that, his NFL ledger included two years in Seattle (2009-10), two with the New York Jets (2007-08), two with the Miami Dolphins (2005-06) and four with the San Francisco 49ers (2001-04), most of it coaching defensive linemen. Quinn's college stops included William & Mary, the Virginia Military Institute and Hofstra.

With the Seahawks, Quinn coordinated a defense in 2013 that allowed the fewest points and yards in the NFL and secured the most takeaways on the way to victory in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Seattle defense repeated as league leaders in points and yards last year, though the team as a whole came a few seconds shy of repeating as champs. Quinn's impact was felt immediately, as the Falcons' defense rose from dead last in the rankings in 2014 to 14th in points allowed per game (21.6) and 16th in yards allowed per game (347.6) in 2015. Those numbers are, in a way, even more impressive given that the Falcons did not fare well in turnover differential (-7 ratio) and had the fewest sacks of opposing quarterbacks in the NFL. This year Atlanta is once again on the wrong side of that turnover ratio (-2) but nevertheless ranks 10th in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed.

In Seattle, Quinn was known as a creative and aggressive coordinator who gives the opposing team multiple looks. He had a very talented group of players in Seattle but was also credited with getting more production out of some of those players, such as Red Bryant and Michael Bennett, then they had provided in the past. He's been given the "players' coach" tag because he is hands-on and demanding but also calm and approachable.


OFFENSE

Atlanta's offense begins with the reigning NFL MVP, Matt Ryan. Ryan's numbers are down a bit from 2016, but that was a career year that included a lofty 117.1 passer rating (the fifth-best full-season rating of all time) and his personal bests in just about every category, including yards, touchdowns, interception percentage and yards per attempt.

Thus, while Ryan's 2017 numbers don't quite compare to last year, they are still excellent: a 95.7 passer rating, a 66.9% completion rate and 257 yards per game. The main difference is that his touchdown percentage has dropped from 7.1 to 4.6 while his interception rate has risen from 1.3 to 2.5, both slightly worse than his career averages.

Ryan has done an excellent job of sustaining drives, beginning with good work on first down. Atlanta ranks third in the league in first-down efficiency, getting at least four yards on 51.1% of such plays, and Ryan has thrown for at least four yards on an excellent 60.7% of his attempts. That has helped the Falcons convert on 44.4% of their third-down tries to rank sixth in the NFL. The result: long drives. Atlanta has the second-most drives that last at least five minutes and the third-most that include at least 10 plays.

Ryan's complement of offensive weapons is mostly unchanged from last year. In the passing game, he can throw to the diverse trio of Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. Jones can stake a claim as the NFL's best receiver, Sanu is big and tough possession receiver and Gabriel is the burner who can play in the slot or go deep down the sideline. Though Jones uncharacteristically has just one touchdown this year he is still easily the team's top target with 54 catches for 786 yards. Unless Jones goes on an incredible tear in the last six games, he's likely to finish with fewer than 100 receiving yards per game for the first time in five years.

Ryan also has two good pass-catching options in his backfield in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, though Freeman's availability for Sunday's game may be in question after he missed the Monday-nighter with a concussion. Those two backs combine for about four catches and 35 yards per game. The biggest jump in production in 2017 for the Falcons' passing game has come from the tight end position. Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo combined for 32 catches and five touchdowns all of last year; this year, that duo already has 42 catches and four scores. Those backs and tight ends are likely Ryan's hot reads when the pressure comes, and he knows how to find them – Atlanta ranks sixth in the NFL with a 104.3 passer rating in blitz situations.

The Falcons' run game has been very productive, averaging 113.7 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry while accounting for eight scores. With Freeman out on Monday in Seattle, Coleman got 43 yards and a touchdown but Atlanta's rushing attack was good for just 89 yards and 3.0 yards per carry overall. For the season, Freeman and Coleman have been an excellent one-two punch, the former picking up 515 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry and five ground scores and the latter adding 442 yards, 4.3 per carry and five overall touchdowns (two on receptions).

Atlanta is actually more likely than most teams to throw on first down – and, as noted, Ryan has made that work – ranking 21st in the NFL in percentage of first downs that are runs. However, the Falcons still rank 11th in rushing plays of 10 or more yards and eight in runs of 20 or more yards. Overall, Atlanta is picking up 5.95 yards per play, which is fifth-best in the league, although that curiously drops to 2.32 in the red zone, which ranks 26th. For the most part, however, Atlanta's red zone numbers, including a 55.9% touchdown efficiency, are better than league average.

One of Atlanta's biggest personnel moves before their Super Bowl season was the signing of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, which really solidified Atlanta's offensive line. That became a strength for the Falcons last year, with Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder playing well on the edges and Andy Levitre excelling at left guard. The only difference in that lineup this year is Wes Schweitzer taking over at right guard. According to Football Outsiders, Atlanta's offensive line has been the league's 12th-best unit in run-blocking and it's ninth-best crew in pass-blocking. Matt Ryan has only been sacked 16 times and the Falcons rank eighth in the NFL in sacks per pass play allowed.

There is really only one glaring flaw in the Falcons' offensive numbers this year, and it's something over which the offense doesn't always have control: field position. Atlanta's offense has started its drives at an average of its own 25.2-yard line, which is dead last in the NFL. That's at least partly the results of an ineffective return game and a relatively low total of takeaways (more on both of those topics below).


DEFENSE

Picking up where we left off, Atlanta's defense has faced a higher degree of difficulty than most teams, as opposing clubs have had an average drive start of their own 33.1-yard line, the third-worst mark in the NFL. Fortunately, the Falcons' defense also shares some strengths with the team's offense. For instance, opposing teams have succeeded in getting four or more yards on first-down passes just 47.7% of the team, putting Atlanta at number seven in that ranking.

On the other hand, the run defense hasn't been nearly as good on first downs, ranking 29th in the league by allowing four or more yards 50.3% of the time. On all downs, the Falcons give up four or more yards on 48.1% of carries, which is the third-worst mark in the league. As a result, Atlanta is giving up 4.5 yards per carry overall and 115.9 rushing yards per game.

Atlanta's top tackler overall and specifically on running plays is second-year linebacker Deion Jones, a former teammate of Kendell Beckwith at LSU. After a very promising rookie year in 2016, the second-round draft pick has 82 tackles, one sack four tackles for loss and six passes defensed so far in 2017. Of those 82 stops, 47 have come on running plays. The Falcons have rebuilt their linebacking corps through the draft in recent years, selecting Vic Beasley in the first round in 2015 and adding Jones and De'Vondre Campbell (a fourth-round pick) last year. Beasley is the edge rusher in that group and he has four sacks this year after leading the NFL with 15.5 last season. Campbell invades the backfield from time to time, too; he has two sacks and four quarterback hits to go with his 63 tackles.

The Falcons' top pass-rusher is now Adrian Clayborn, after an incredible six-sack game against Dallas in Week 10 gave him eight on the season. He also leads the team with 12 QB hits and is enjoying a healthy season after injuries shorted three of his first six years in the league. Beasley accounted for most of the team's pressure last year but the Falcons have a more diverse pass-rush this year with Brooks Reed also getting four sacks and rookie first-rounder Takkarist McKinley contributing three. Overall, Atlanta has 29 sacks, which is tied for fourth-most in the league. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has just 1.5 of those sacks but is a very quick and active player in the middle of the front who puts a lot of pressure on opposing passers and can quickly blow up running plays. He leads the team with 10 tackles for loss.

That pressure up front has helped Atlanta rank seventh in overall pass defense, giving up 200.8 yards per game. It has not, however, translated into a lot of takeaways. The Falcons have just three interceptions on the season - two by top corner Desmond Trufant, who recorded one off Russell Wilson on Monday night – and only 10 total takeaways. That pick total is tied for 30th with Miami; only Oakland, which has yet to intercept a pass, has fewer. The Falcons' 10 takeaways are tied for the fifth-fewest, although the team has done a decent job of capitalizing on them. Atlanta has scored an average of 3.80 points off its turnovers, ranking 12th with a mark almost identical to what the Buccaneers have.

Trufant and second-year safety Keanu Neal are the stars of the secondary. The Falcons made Trufant one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the league during this past offseason, even after the fifth-year player had missed half of the 2016 season due to injury. His return has been a big boost to the defense as he has accounted for half of its takeaways (two interceptions, three fumble recoveries). The Falcons also have a lot of trust in fellow starting cornerback Robert Alford (Trufant and Alford were drafted 1-2 in 2013), who leads the team with 14 passes defensed. Atlanta typically doesn't shadow the opposing team's top receiver with Trufant, rather letting the two corners stay on their sides. Brian Poole, an undrafted free agent last year, emerged as a strong contributor after Trufant's injury and is now the primary nickel back, but he suffered a shoulder injury at the end of Monday night's game.

Neal is a similar player to Jets rookie Jamal Adams, whom the Buccaneers saw two weeks ago. He is a hard-hitter who excels around the line of scrimmage, ranking second on the team in both tackles (74) and running-play tackles (36). He's also good at tying up tight ends around the line, which could help the Falcons counter one of the bigger strengths of the Bucs' offense.

While the Falcons' secondary hasn't caused a lot of turnovers, it has done a very good job of limiting big plays. Atlanta opponents have recorded only 28 plays of 20 or more yards this league, the third-lowest total in the NFL. The Falcons have defended the deep ball well, ranking fifth in the league in opponent passer rating (60.4) on balls that travel more than 20 yards in the air. As such, it is very difficult to score quickly against the Falcons; they have not allowed even one scoring drive that took fewer than three plays this season.


SPECIAL TEAMS

The Falcons have been happily rolling with their pair of Matts in the kicking game for the better part of the decade and are still enjoying the results.

Matt Bryant joined Atlanta in 2009 after leaving the Buccaneers, and in the years since he ranks fourth in the NFL with an 88.1% field goal success rate. He has been a major weapon for the Falcons this year, making 19 of 22 overall but all five from 40-49 yards and five of six from 50 and beyond. Matt Bosher, the punter, handles the kickoffs and has a touchback percentage of 63.5% that ranks right in the middle of the league.

Bosher's gross punting average of 44.1 yards per kick is near the bottom of the league, ranking 27th, but he's a hang-time specialist with a 41.5-yard net that is 12th-best in the NFL. Opposing punt returners have run 13 of his punts back and fair caught 12 of them, with a low return average of 6.2. The longest punt return against Atlanta this year is only 17 yards. Fullback Derrick Coleman has been the Falcons' best cover man, with 12 special teams tackles, 10 of them solo stops. Nobody else on the team has more than two solo kick-coverage tackles.

The return game hasn't done much for Atlanta this year, as noted above. Wide receiver Andre Roberts has handled all of the punt returns and all but one of the kickoff returns so far. Last year he had a 12.3-yard average on punt run-backs as well as two touchdowns, but this year that average is at 8.3, which ranks 15th in the NFL. Atlanta's 20.1-yard kickoff return average as a team is 24th in the NFL.