Skip to main content

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2023 Opponent Preview: Atlanta Falcons, Week 7 and 14

The Falcons restocked their defense in free agency and added yet another dangerous weapon to their offense, which will be directed by second-year QB Desmond Ridder


As the NFL enters its fallow period between the end the teams' offseason programs and the start of training camp, we are taking a closer look at each of the opponents the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face during the 2023 regular season. From how those teams fared last year to what they've done with the roster since to some as-yet-unanswered questions, we want to get a better feel for what the Buccaneers will be up against this fall. Today we look at an NFC South rivalry that loaded up on defenders in free agency and added yet another top-10 pick to their skill-position arsenal.

2022 Results

The Falcons finished 7-10 for the second time in their two seasons under Head Coach Arthur Smith, but while that technically put them in last place in the NFC South due to tiebreakers, they were also only a game out of first place at the end. Atlanta was 4-4 after eight weeks, which actually gave them a one-game lead in the division at that point, but six losses in their next seven outings took them out of the playoff hunt. The Falcons closed the season with two wins, including a 30-17 home victory over the Buccaneers in Week 18, a game in which the visitors turned almost completely to reserves with no playoff seeding at stake.

Atlanta split with both the Buccaneers and Panthers but got swept by the Saints by a total margin of four points. That included a disappointing season opener in Atlanta in which New Orleans scored nine points in the final four minutes, including a 51-yard field goal by Wil Lutz to make it 27-26. In fact, eight of the Falcons' 10 losses were decided by eight points or less, including four by three or less.

The Falcons started the season with free agency import Marcus Mariota under center but eventually turned to third-round rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder, who started the last four games and went 2-2. Ridder only threw two touchdown passes in those four contests but he was not intercepted and he completed 63.5% of his passes, with a passer rating of 86.4. Ridder's top target was fellow rookie Drake London, the USC wideout selected eighth overall in the 2022 draft. London caught 72 passes for 866 yards and four touchdowns, all team highs. Tight end Kyle Pitts, the fourth-overall pick in 2021, followed up his 1,000-yard rookie campaign with just 28 catches for 356 yards, missing seven games due to a torn MCL in his right knee.

Ridder and London weren't the only rookies to make an impact for the Falcons. Fifth-round pick Tyler Allgeier, a running back out of BYU, ran for 1,035 yards and 4.9 yards per carry, leading an Atlanta rushing attack that ranked third in the NFL. Smith directed an offense that leaned heavily on the running game regardless of game situations, keeping it on the ground on 55.3% of the plays. Only Chicago, with quarterback Justin Fields running the ball 160 times, had a higher percentage of rushing plays.

Atlanta's defense struggled for much of the season, finishing 27th in yards allowed and 23rd in points allowed. The primary issue, as has been the case for several years running, was a lack of pressure up front, as the Falcons recorded just 21 seconds, one more than last place Chicago. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, the heart of the Atlanta defense, led the team with six sacks but was the only defender to collect five or more. The Falcons also picked off just 10 passes and created only 17 total takeaways, tied for the fifth fewest in the NFL.

Former Titans linebacker Rashaan Evans, in his first and only season in Atlanta, led the team with 159 tackles. Third-year cornerback A.J. Terrell, a second-team Associated Press All-Pro in 2021, broke up a team-high nine passes but did not record an interception. Outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, another free agency pickup, contributed 4.0 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and an interception.

2023 Arrivals

The Falcons splurged in free agency (plus one trade), essentially importing a new starting defense. Up front, the team imported former Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata, former Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell and a pair of pass-rushing linebackers in the Saints' Kaden Elliss and the Titans' Bud Dupree. All four are considered likely starters on a rebuilt front around long-time star Grady Jarrett.

The secondary got a makeover, too. The Falcons brought in two former Lions cornerbacks in Mike Hughes and Jeff Okudah, the latter coming over in a mid-April trade for a fifth-round pick. Okudah, the third-overall selection in the 2020 draft, could start opposite Terrell, with Hughes playing in the slot. Perhaps Atlanta's biggest get in free agency was former Bengals safety Jessie Bates, who landed a four-year, $64 million contract and will slot in next to 2021 second-round pick Richie Grant. Bates had 14 interceptions over five seasons in Cincinnati and was a second-team All-Pro in 2020.

On offense, the Falcons brought in a new veteran quarterback to back up Ridder, signing former Washington Commander Taylor Heinicke to a two-year deal. Atlanta also landed a potential starter in Raiders possession receiver Mack Hollins, who had 57 catches in 2022. Another wide receiver, former Buccaneer Scotty Miller, stayed in the division on a one-year deal and could give Ridder a new deep threat. Atlanta also traded for former Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith at the start of free agency.

In the draft, the Falcons continued a recent trend by using a top-10 back on an offensive skill position player. After selecting tight end Kyle Pitts fourth overall in 2020 and wideout Drake London eighth overall in 2022, the team used the eighth selection in this year's draft to land Texas running back Bijan Robinson, widely considered the best prospect at his position since Saquon Barkley. Robinson joins a loaded backfield that also includes Allgeier, the versatile Cordarrelle Patterson and Caleb Huntley.

Second-round pick Matthew Bergeron played tackle at Syracuse but could move right into the starting lineup at left guard. Third-round edge rusher Zach Harrison of Ohio State gives the rebuilt defensive front another potential contributor and Utah cornerback Clark Phillips, a fourth-rounder who was considered a potential Day Two pick, could push Hughes for playing time in the slot.

2023 Departures

Atlanta did not see a large number of meaningful defections in the offseason, though they did trade wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who was suspended for a full season at the time, to Jacksonville at the 2022 deadline.

Mariota left after one year and 13 starts to back up Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. Cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who started 38 games over five seasons in Atlanta, including five last year, signed with the 49ers. Wide receivers Damiere Byrd and Olamide Zaccheaus departed for Carolina and Philadelphia, respectively, but those two combined for just 53 catches in 2022. Reserve offensive lineman Germain Ifedi went to Detroit after being released in mid-May and backup tight end Anthony Firkser, who had nine catches last year, moved on to New England. Elijah Wilkinson, who started nine games at left guard for Atlanta in 2022, signed with the Cardinals.

Other Noteworthy Developments

Considering their commitment to the ground game at the center of the offensive, it was not surprising that the Falcons also committed to keeping their offensive line intact, giving new deals to right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary, a pair of former 2019 first-round picks. Lindstrom was dominant as a run blocker in 2022 and made the Pro Bowl, and the Falcons gave him a lucrative five-year extension before he entered the fifth year of his rookie deal. Atlanta did not pick up the fifth-year option on McGary's original contract as he had a bit of an up-and-down first three seasons, but they gave him a new three-year deal after a strong 2022 showing.

In addition to rebuilding their starting defense, the Falcons also brought in a new coordinator to run that crew, a move that became necessary when the 73-year-old Dean Pees chose to retire. His replacement is former Saints staffer Ryan Nielsen, who was the co-defensive coordinator with Kris Richard last season. Nielsen spent six seasons as the Saints defensive line coaching, adding the co-coordinator title last year and assistant head coach duties in 2021. Nielsen could help revive the Falcons' moribund pass rush; the Saints had the second-most sacks in the NFL during his tenure.

Pressing Questions

Will the Falcons' all-free agency approach to completely rebuilding a defense work?

While Atlanta's starting offense has largely been built through the draft, the 2023 defense could see as many as seven new starters, all of them added through free agency and trades this offseason. It has been an exciting offseason for Falcons fans and there's a reason to like each one of the team's new defensive acquisitions. The question is, how well and how quickly will it all come together? How many of those seven new veterans need to hit for this overhaul to work?

Calais Campbell has enjoyed an extremely successful career but he'll be 37 years old when the season starts and he has averaged 4.4 sacks over the last four seasons. David Onyemata has long been a very underrated player in New Orleans but he is 33 with the exact same sack average over the last four years. Bud Dupree is 30 and has 7.0 total sacks over the last two seasons. Kaden Elliss had one career sack in three years before his seven-sack breakout in 2022.

Jessie Bates is assuredly a star-level safety still in his prime but Jeff Okudah and Mike Hughes played key roles in the NFL's worst pass defense last year. The Falcons also signed cornerback Tre Flowers for depth, but he was waived by Seattle midway through the 2021 season and didn't start in Cincinnati last year.

The Falcons appear to have upgraded at several levels of their defense, which is something they needed to do. They are almost surely going to be better on that side of the ball in 2023, especially when it comes to rushing the passer. But massive free agency hauls don't always produce the expected results. It will be up to new coordinator Ryan Nielsen to try to put all the pieces together.

How good does Desmond Ridder need to be for the Falcons to challenge for a division title?

As noted above, the Falcons were essentially the most heavy run team in the NFL last year, and after they used the eighth overall pick on Bijan Robinson and handed out several lucrative new O-Line deals, it seems certain they will stick to that plan in 2023. That certainly will take some of the pressure off of their second-year quarterback who, again, has four career starts. The Falcons won two of those four games, though, and didn't need Ridder to put up prolific numbers to do so. In a 26-19 win over the Cardinals, Ridder completed 73% of his passes but only threw for 169 yards and no touchdowns. In his first career start, the Falcons were narrowly clipped by the Saints, 21-18, but Ridder only threw for 97 yards, with no touchdowns.

That said, the Falcons finished 7-9 last year, while the four teams in the conference championship games trotted out the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts and a surprisingly effective Brock Purdy. Trevor Lawrence, Josh Allen and Dak Prescott all got their teams to the round of eight. The last 14 NFC South division winners were all quarterbacked by either Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Cam Newton or Matt Ryan. Generally speaking, the teams that challenge for championships in the NFL feature elite quarterback play.

Of course, Ridder could develop into a plus for the Falcons in 2022. He certainly has the talent around him to make the most of his skills, and defenses will have to respect Atlanta's rushing attack, probably even more so in 2023 after the arrival of Robinson. Time will tell if Ridder is the long-term future for the Falcons at quarterback, and if that future includes any division titles.

Latest Headlines