As training camp approaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with it the unofficial start to the season, we are taking a closer look at the opponents on the team's 2022 schedule. Next up is the Atlanta Falcons, who the Bucs face at home in Week Five on October 9, before the NFC South rival comes to town for the Week 18 rematch on January 7 or 8 (time TBA). The latter contest will conclude the Buccaneers' 2022 regular season schedule.
Under the direction of Head Coach Arthur Smith and General Manager Terry Fontenot, the Falcons entered a new era last year. With salary cap restrictions heading into the season, the Falcons were not able to make some necessary upgrades. Atlanta finished with a 7-10 record, third in the NFC South division, concluding the year with one of the worst point differentials (minus 146) in the NFL. Atlanta had to adapt as the season surged with a plethora of challenging circumstances, including the club's star wideout, Calvin Ridley, taking time away from the game to prioritize his mental health. Ridley did not return, raising questions regarding his future. Without him, the offense struggled to find the end zone or generate explosive plays during the second half of the season, only scoring over 25 points in one of their final nine games.
On offense, Cordarelle Patterson became the Swiss Army knife, a do-it-all phenom in their offense. He can hit top speed nearly instantaneously and is dangerous with the ball in his hands. Patterson became the focal point of Atlanta's offense after years of being primarily known for his prowess as a punt returner. In 2021, he proved to be a nightmare mismatch for linebackers in coverage and defensive backs in space. Regardless of his title as a running back, Patterson has the pass-catching efficiency that defenses must account for. He torches nickel defenses with his size and speed, as defensive coordinators combat 11 personnel with smaller and quicker DBs. He led the team in rushing with 613 yards on the ground and six rushing touchdowns.
Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts began to emerge, living up to lofty expectations (first tight end taken as high as fourth overall in NFL history). Despite a slow start to the season, Pitts progressed to eclipse the 1,000-yard marker – becoming only the second rookie tight end to reach the mark, garnering a Pro Bowl nod. Russell Gage became a go-to target for Matt Ryan but now dons a Bucs jersey. Overall, on offense, the offensive line struggled down the stretch, consistently getting beat at the point of attack as Jalen Mayfield, Matt Hennessy and Kaleb McGary all contributed to the unit's woes in the trenches.
The line play resulted in an underwhelming rushing attack that ranked 31st in rushing yards with 1,451. In addition, the Falcons concluded the year 27th in rushing touchdowns (11) and last in the league in runs eclipsing 20 and 40 yards.
The Falcons may have one of the best young cornerbacks in A.J. Terrell. He forced both the lowest catch rate and the lowest passer rating when targeted in the league in 2021. Atlanta's pass rush graded out as the worst in the league, finishing with just 18 sacks collectively. They rarely collapsed the pocket and missed tackles contributed to a stagnant run defense. The Falcons' run defense ranked in the bottom seven in the league in both rushing yards allowed (2,242) and rushing touchdowns (19). Besides Terrell, a noteworthy contributor was Foyesade Oluokun, who led the league in tackles (192) and cemented his leadership role on the defense. As the middle linebacker, he is the quarterback of the defense, making keys and getting players in the correct position to counteract the opponent. However, Oluokun left for Jacksonville in free agency during the offseason. Overall, the squad did force 14 fumbles, a bright spot to build off of for 2022.
The Falcons signed Marcus Mariota to a two-year deal, hoping to rejuvenate his career. Mariota, a former No. 2 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Titans, crossed paths with Arthur Smith in Nashville. The team enters a bright future if Smith can do for Mariota's career what he did for Ryan Tannehill (2019-2020). Calvin Ridley faces a year-long suspension and Mariota's task becomes more challenging without the bonafide No.1, but Pitts and Patterson will help lighten the load as viable targets. The Falcons traded a 2023 fifth-round pick for wide receiver Bryan Edwards, who will provide depth. They signed veteran center Jonotthan Harrison, placing an emphasis on strengthening the interior. The Falcons bolstered the tight end room by signing Anthony Firkser to a one-year deal. He has familiarity with Smith and provides experience behind Pitts on the depth chart for the Falcons to incorporate in two tight end sets. Firkser can block as an extension of the offensive line and run routes to elevate the passing game.
The Falcons lost Oluokun and brought in a former first round pick (Titans) in linebacker Rashaan Evans. He started the last three years in Tennessee and is familiar with Dean Pees' system. He will join the defensive rotation featuring veterans Deion Jones and Mykal Walker. Fontenot added an edge rusher by way of signing Lorenzo Carter to a one-year deal. This is a low-risk, beneficial maneuver that will allow him to outperform his contract. For the Giants last season, Carter amassed a career-high five sacks, amounting to more than any Falcons player mustered in 2021. He will add a much-needed boost to the defensive line depth. The club also re-signed Patterson, safety Erik Harris, kicker Younghoe Koo, guard Colby Gossett, defensive tackle Anthony Rush and cornerback Isaiah Oliver, along with external acquisitions cornerback Casey Hayward Jr., running back Damien Williams, cornerback Teez Tabor and offensive tackle Elijah Wilkinson,
During the draft, the Falcons added to their receiving corps with Drake London (No. 8 overall), the top graded receiver by many analysts among a talent-filled class, to bolster the Falcons' passing game. Fontenot addressed the pass rush on Day Two with Arnold Ebiketie (No. 38 overall) and edge DeAngelo Malone (No. 82 overall). Ebiketie adds rare athleticism on defense with lethal first-step quickness off the line of scrimmage. They also landed an athletic middleman to parole the second level of the defense in Troy Anderson (No. 58 overall). Atlanta did not force a quarterback in the first round and snagged Desmond Ridder in the third round (No. 74 overall).
After 14 seasons with the Falcons, Matt Ryan was traded to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a 2022 third-round pick. He joined the quarterback carousel of movement during the offseason, ushering in chance across the leagues as teams redirected. During the offseason frenzy, the Falcons lost Oluokun (Jaguars), Gage (Buccaneers), long snapper Josh Harris (Chargers), tight end Hayden Hurst (Bengals) and safety Duron Harmon (Raiders).
What Else is New?
With the conclusion of Matt Ryan's longstanding career in Atlanta, Marcus Mariota is the clear No.1. However, the competition of Desmond Ridder will help breed success. Ridder has been praised for his scheme pickup and could become the starter at some point in the near future, but for the time being Mariota's experience outweighs the rookie's acclimation. The former 2014 Heisman Trophy Winner is a speed threat at quarterback who can pick up yards on both designed runs and when the pocket breaks down. He can make throws off his back foot on the move and opens up the playbook with his athleticism in contrast to a pocket passer like Ryan.
Who will start at center?
Returning starter Matt Hennessy and second-year pro Drew Dalman are competing for the interior role. Hennessy started all 17 games last season, but the Falcons drafted Dalman in 2021 to be the successor in the middle. After a lackluster audition, Hennessy kept his starting gig. If he progresses, Dalman could be the anchor. In addition, the signing of Harrison should not go unnoticed either. He has 42 game starts in the NFL under his belt and would add a veteran presence. All options are being considered and evaluated.
How will the receiving corps shake out?
Arthur Smith prioritized bulking up at receiver and his wish was granted with Drake London and Bryan Edwards. With a desired emphasis placed on yards-after-contact from intermediate routes, similar to what the Chiefs employ and what system Smith ran in Tennessee, London will be the center piece. This year's crew will look much different than the previous year's, placing importance on building camaraderie and trust during the offseason. A new foundation and culture are being built during the offseason.