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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2024 Opponent Preview: Atlanta Falcons, Weeks 5 & 8

The Falcons have a new head coach and two new quarterbacks, plus what could be a top-10 defense in 2024 if it can find a way to generate a more consistent pass rush


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are entering the final week of their 2024 offseason program, with a three-day minicamp capping the efforts. As players and coaches prepare to head into one last break before the start of training camp, we're taking a look at each team the Buccaneers are going to face when the regular season arrives. 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 Bucs will be up against this fall. Today's focus is on an Atlanta team with a new head coach, an expensive new quarterback and hopes of challenging Tampa Bay's run of three straight NFC South titles.

2023 Results

The 2023 season would prove to be the final one in the tenure of Head Coach Arthur Smith, as his squad would finish 7-10 for the third time in his three years at the helm. However, it started out well enough, with the Falcons claiming wins over the Panthers and Packers, both at home, to get off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 2017. Quarterback Desmond Ridder, a third-round pick in 2022, got the opening-day start after a promising finish to his rookie campaign.

The Falcons lost the next two on the road to Detroit and Jacksonville, scoring just 13 points in the process. They got back on the plus side with a narrow win over Houston but dropped back to .400 with a 25-16 loss to Washington. Through those first six games, Ridder had thrown six touchdown passes and six interceptions. Still, after a win over the Buccaneers in Tampa in Week Seven, the Falcons had possession of first place in the NFC South, by a half-game over Tampa Bay and a full game over New Orleans.

While the Buccaneers fell into a midseason swoon that at one point dropped them to 4-7, the Falcons couldn't take advantage to pull away in the division, losing three straight tight games to the Titans, Vikings and Cardinals. The loss to Minnesota at home was particularly painful, as quarterback Josh Dobbs, just acquired in a trade five days earlier after a season-ending injury to Kirk Cousins, threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Brandon Powell with 22 seconds left in regulation in a 31-28 decision. Taylor Heinicke started that game for the Falcons and did throw a 60-yard touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith but also tossed a critical interception in the fourth quarter.

After a bye week to regroup, the Falcons got back on track with defensive-minded wins over the Saints and Jets. That set up a critical Week 14 rematch with the Buccaneers in Atlanta, with the Falcons holding a one-game lead in the division over both Tampa Bay and New Orleans. The home team finished with a yardage edge of 434 to 290 and only committed one turnover but the Bucs took home a 29-25 win after Baker Mayfield hit Cade Otton on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left.

The Falcons faded from that point, winning just one of their last five games and finishing third in the division. Ridder lost his starting job for two weeks before returning for the regular season finale. Atlanta's last two losses were of the lopsided variety, 37-17 in Chicago and 48-17 in New Orleans.

Ridder ended up with 2,836 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 13 starts. Atlanta did have a top-10 rushing attack, averaging 127 yards per game, led by rookie first-rounder Bijan Robinson, who recorded 976 yards on the ground pus another 487 on 58 catches. Tyler Allgeier added another 683 yards on the ground. Wideout Drake London, another recent top-10 draft pick, paced the team with 69 catches for 905 yards in his second NFL season. Tight end Kyle Pitts, in his third Falcons season after being drafted fourth overall, added 53 catches for 667 yards and three scores.

Atlanta's defense ranked a respectable 11th in the NFL in yards allowed per game (321.1). The pass defense ranked eighth despite the Falcons' interception and sack ranks coming in at 27th and 19th, respectively. Safety Jessie Bates proved to be one of the best free agent acquisitions in the league in 2023, as he racked up six interceptions and three forced fumbles and led the team with 132 tackles. The Falcons' defense failed to produce a 10-sack player for the seventh season in a row, but Calais Campbell (6.5), Bud Dupree (6.5) and Arnold Ebiketie (6.0) all topped a half-dozen. Grady Jarrett, the Falcons' Pro Bowl defensive tackle, missed half the season due to an Achilles tendon tear.

2024 Arrivals

The Falcons reshaped their quarterback room with two of the most dramatic moves a team can make at that position. First, they kicked off free agency by prying Kirk Cousins away from the Dolphins with a four-year, $180 million deal, the largest one handed out by any team during the 2024 offseason. Atlanta then surprised the rest of the league by using the eighth overall pick in the draft to select Washington's Michael Penix, presumably their quarterback of the future.

Atlanta then set about adding options for Cousins in what will presumably be a more pass-heavy offense following the departure of Head Coach Arthur Smith. Darnell Mooney, signed from the Bears shortly after Cousin's arrival, got a three-year deal and could be the team's number-two receiver after London, with an ability to play outside or in the slot. Former Cardinals wideout Rondale Moore, acquired in exchange for Ridder, also adds speed to the Falcons' attack. That crew also welcomed free agent Ray-Ray McCloud, who could also be the top option in the return game, and sixth-round draft pick Casey Washington out of Illinois.

The Falcons also signed not one but two former 49ers tight ends in Charlie Woerner and Ross Dwelley, though neither has been a high-volume pass-catcher so far in their careers. Woerner is considered a top-notch blocker both in the ground and air games.

The Falcons didn't do much on defense in free agency after a big shopping spree on that side of the ball in 2023. However, they did add multiple pieces to the defensive front n the draft, starting with high second-round pick Ruke Orhorhoro, a defensive tackle out of Clemson. That was followed by Washington edge rusher Bralen Trice in the third round, Oregon defensive lineman Brandon Dorlus in the fourth round and Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand in the fifth round.

The Falcons did make a couple small moves to add depth to the secondary, signing cornerbacks Antonio Hamilton and Kevin King. Hamilton played in 16 games with two starts over the past three seasons in Arizona. King hasn't played in a game since the 2021 season in Green Bay. He sat out the 2022 campaign in order to improve his health, then suffered a torn ACL while working out in the spring of 2023. Prior to that, he made 42 starts in five seasons with the Packers.

2024 Departures

The Falcons' 2023 roster was raided an unusual amount of times by the Steelers, likely because Arthur Smith is now their offensive coordinator. Pittsburgh helped itself in free agency to running back/return man Cordarrelle Patterson, tight end MyCole Pruit and wide receivers Van Jefferson and Scotty Miller. Atlanta also cut tight end Jonnu Smith after his 50-catch season, and he promptly signed on with the Dolphins.

As noted above, Ridder's time with the Falcons came to an end after only two seasons, as he was flipped to the Cardinals for Moore. Center Matt Hennessy, who started 22 games for Atlanta from 2020-22 but missed last season with a knee injury, signed with the Eagles. Other free agent defections included edge rusher Bud Dupree to the Chargers, cornerback Jeff Okudah to the Texans, cornerback Tre Flowers to Jacksonville and wide receiver Mack Hollins to Buffalo.

The most notable Falcons free agent who has not signed with any team yet is defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who tied for the team lead in sacks last year.

Other Noteworthy Developments

The Falcons don't just have a new quarterback running the offense, they have a new man running the whole show. The team parted ways with Smith after three seasons and turned to Raheem Morris, getting his second head coaching gig after holding that position from 2009-11. Morris also previously spent five years on the Falcons' staff, coaching everything from defensive backs to wide receivers before spending part of 2020 as the team's interim head coach. He most recently spent the last three seasons as the Rams' defensive coordinator, coaxing a strong season out of a very young and inexperienced group in 2023.

Special Teams Coordinator Marquice Lewis, was retained after the head coach switch but Morris brought in former Rams colleague Zac Robinson to coordinate the offense. Robinson spent two seasons as the Rams' pass game coordinator and is expected to install an offense heavy on Sean McVay concepts. Jimmy Lake also followed Morris to Atlanta from Los Angeles, where he was McVay's assistant head coach last year. Lake, who previously worked with Morris on the Buccaneers' staff in the 2000s, is the new defensive coordinator, a job he also held in Washington in 2018-19.

The Falcons did re-sign some of their potential free agent defectors, including defensive lineman Kentavius Street, who started all five games he played for Atlanta last year. The Falcons acquired him in a trade with the Eagles after Grady Jarrett suffered a season-ending knee injury. The team also brought back wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, a special teams ace and swing tackle Storm Norton, who started three games last year. Restricted free agent Nate Landman got a new deal after a breakout season in 2023 saw him collect 14 starts and 110 tackles.

Pressing Questions

Will there be any upheaval at the quarterback position in 2024?

Kirk Cousins has gone to four Pro Bowls, including three in six seasons with the Vikings, and has averaged a robust 263.1 passing yards per game in his career, with a passer rating of 98.2. Michael Penix had two ultra-productive seasons at the University of Washington, throwing for a total of 9,544 yards and 67 touchdowns. That the Falcons would be interested in having either or both on their roster is understandable, particularly after failing to hit on several swings at quarterback following the departure of long-time standout Matt Ryan.

Would did surprise many NFL observers was the Falcons' decision to use the eighth overall pick on Penix just over two months after handing out a massive contract with $100 million in practical guarantees to Cousins. Draft analysts expected Atlanta to use that premium pick on a pass rusher or a cornerback, or even another weapon for Cousins. The Falcons later explained that they didn't expect to be drafting in the top 10 again anytime soon and thus needed to take this opportunity to address the future of the quarterback position.

Given his freshly-minted contract and his career bona fides, Cousins is surely the starter in 2024 and could hold onto that job for a while. After the draft, Falcons General Manager Terry Fontenot said that if Penix ended up riding the bench for four years it would be a "great problem to have" because it would mean the team was doing very well at that position. The Falcons could be hoping for an Aaron Rodgers-Jordan Love type of successful transition plan down the road.

If that's how it plays out, the Falcons will be pleased and draft analysts might look at Atlanta's 2024 offseason differently. But, of course, there are other potential outcomes and some of them could unfold less smoothly. If Cousins is slower in coming all the way back from last year's Achilles tendon injury than expected, or if he struggles for any other reason, will there be a clamor for Penix to get a shot? Aside from a significant injury, is there any circumstance that would the Falcons turn to their rookie way ahead of schedule?

Can the Falcons' defense finally generate a more disruptive pass rush?

The last Atlanta player to hit double digits in sacks in a season was Vic Beasley with 15.5 in 2016, and that was the only season of Beasley's career in which he hit that mark. Over the last five seasons, the Falcons defense has generated a total of 138 sacks, last in the NFL in that span and 23 behind the next lowest team.

Atlanta's defense finished 19th in sacks per pass play in 2023, which was actually a reasonable improvement after they had ranked dead last in both 2021 and 2022. Bud Dupree and Calais Campbell each had 6.5 sacks, but neither is back in 2024. Arnold Ebiketie, the 38th overall pick in 2022, more than doubled his rookie total to get 6.0 in 2023. Still, Atlanta's attempts to build a consistently effective pass rush have still not been fully realized. Will that change in 2024 and take a Falcons defense that was pretty good last year to another level?

Atlanta's need for more juice off the edge was one of the reasons the Penix pick at number eight came as a surprise. The first seven picks of the draft had all been quarterbacks, receivers and offensive tackles, so the Falcons had the pick of any defensive player on their board. Their options included UCLA EDGE Laiatu Latu, eventually the first defender taken at pick 15; Alabama's Dallas Turner, who went 17th; and Florida State's Jared Verse, who went 19th.

The Falcons surely have no regrets about the Penix decision and would make the same pick if they had the chance to do it all over again. They could end up with a quarterback and the edge help they need if third-rounder Bralen Trice proves to be a high-level NFL pass rusher. Still, it remains uncertain if the Falcons will finally be able to solve their biggest issue on defense in 2024.

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