When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ventured up to Atlanta in Week 12, they encountered a Falcons team that had suddenly caught fire after struggling to a 1-7 start. The Falcons were looking to finish out a three-week intra-division week after surprisingly winning at New Orleans and Carolina by a combined score of 55-12. Atlanta's defense led the way with 11 sacks in those two games after getting just seven in its first eight outings.
Now the Falcons are coming to Tampa for the rematch and the Buccaneers have to figure out how to cool them off once again. They did just that in Week 12 with a 35-22 victory in which the Bucs had little trouble solving the Atlanta defense and Matt Ryan was held without a touchdown pass while getting sacked six times. After that game the Falcons lost to the Saints the following week to drop to 3-9. It could have been the beginning of a slow march to the end of a rough season, with those consecutive wins in Weeks 10-11 looking like a fluky blip, but instead Atlanta has maintained its fight and is now riding another three-game winning streak as they set to face the Buccaneers again.
Since that last meeting, the pendulum has swung in the Falcons' favor in terms of player health, particularly on offense. Chris Godwin had 184 yards and two touchdowns in that contest but suffered a hamstring injury in Week 14 that makes him a major question mark for the finale. Mike Evans and Scotty Miller are already on injured reserve with hamstring injuries of their own, which means the Bucs are likely down two Pro Bowlers and a speedy rookie who was starting to make big plays before he got hurt. Meanwhile, the Falcons had to play that Week 12 game without rising-star tight end Austin Hooper and their best all-around running back Devonta Freeman. Those two are back now and the Falcons' offense has been humming during its three-game winning streak with 1,269 yards and 93 points.
Hooper and Freeman make things much more challenging for the Bucs' surging defense, but Julio Jones remains the top priority, as he demonstrated with his 10 catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns last Sunday against Jacksonville. Nine years into their shared time in Atlanta's offense, Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan remain, simply, one of the deadliest connections in the NFL. Jones, Godwin and Evans are all 2019 Pro Bowlers, but only Jones is certain to be playing on Sunday.
The Bucs will go or their first season sweep of the Falcons since 2015 but both teams are fighting hard to finish out their respective seasons on a high note. Tampa Bay and Atlanta hit the season's midway point with a combined 3-13 record but the two teams are a combined 10-4 since. The winner of the game will claim second place in the NFC South but the Bucs are the only one who can reach .500 with a win. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when they head up to Georgia this weekend:
The Buccaneers and Falcons met just five weeks ago and for that game's scouting report we highlighted Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Grady Jarrett among Atlanta's difference-makers, for obvious reasons. If anything Ryan and Jones are in more of a groove now than they were in November and clearly remain the two biggest issues for the Buccaneers' defense. Jarrett, too, remains a destructive ball of energy who will be pose a big challenge for Tampa Bay's interior offensive line. Since the last meeting, Jones and Garrett have received Pro Bowl invitations. But the Falcons have other potential difference-makers of note on both sides of the ball, including the two we noted above who recently returned to action on offense and a former first-round pick who has hit his stride as a pass-rusher in the season's second half. Here are four specific Falcons, in addition to Ryan, Jones and Jarrett, who could cause the Buccaneers trouble in the season finale:
1. TE Austin Hooper. Hooper might have joined his teammates in the Pro Bowl if he hadn't suffered that early-November knee injury, though it would have been no easy feat to unseat San Francisco's George Kittle and Philadelphia's Zach Ertz as all-stars. At the time of his injury in Week 10, Hooper was first in the NFC and second in the NFL among tight ends (to Kansas City's Travis Kelce) with 608 receiving yards, tied for first with 56 receptions and tied for first with six touchdown receptions. He's returned to play in the last three games and had seven catches for 82 yards in the Falcons' blowout of Jacksonville last Sunday. Hooper made his first Pro Bowl last season but has been an even bigger part of the Atlanta offense (when healthy), no surprise given the arrival of Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator in 2019. Koetter's offenses have often featured big contributions from the tight end position. Hooper ran a 4.68 40-yard dash at his Stanford Pro Day back in 2016 and he came into the league as a very good route-runner. He also builds up speed as he works the seams and has great hands. He can make catches in traffic and should be a big concern for the Buccaneers in the red zone.
2. OLB Vic Beasley. Beasley, the eighth-overall pick in the 2015 draft and just the second pass-rushing linebacker taken off the board that year, has had an interesting career. His rookie season seemed to be a bit of a disappointment when he started every game but finished with just four sacks, but then he exploded for an NFL-high 15.5 sacks the next season and was a first-team All-Pro. Beasley then retreated to just five sacks each of the past two seasons and hit the midway point of this campaign with just 1.5 more. However, the speedy edge rusher has had a strong second half to the season, with 6.5 sacks and he's had at least one QB takedown in each week of the Falcons' current three-game winning streak. He's seeing more playing time, too, as in the last two games he's had his two highest usage rates of the entire season. Beasley might also be understandably motivated to continue his strong finish to the season, as he was on the trading block at midseason and is likely playing for his next contract, possibly not in Atlanta. He's also made it clear that reaching double-digits in sacks is a big goal for him, and he needs two more to get there. The Falcons made a number of changes on defense during their bye week, to good effect, and one of them was to move Beasley around more on the front. Prior to that, he had been primarily rushing off the left side but he's had better results from a bigger variety of starting points. Beasley's biggest asset is his 4.53 speed and he can get around the corner and bend to keep his path to the quarterback tight.
3. C Alex Mack. Mack may or may not see his streak of four straight Pro Bowl berths extended in late January. As of now he's not on the NFC roster but he was announced as an alternate so could end up in the game for his fourth time in as many seasons as a Falcon. Atlanta gave the former Cleveland Browns star a big contract in free agency in 2016 and they certainly haven't regretted it, as he remains one of the best pivots in the game. He hasn't missed a game or a starter in his four Atlanta seasons and this season has only been off the field for a small handful of offensive snaps. A former first-round pick by the Browns, the 6-4, 311-pound center is very sound in his technique and rarely makes a mistake. He's strong and can be a force in the running game by moving interior linemen around. Opposing linemen want to avoid letting Mack get his hands on their chest but he's very good in that hand battle, as well. The Buccaneers' defense is very strong on the interior line with Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and Will Gholston, which is the main reason they have the NFL's stingiest pass defense. Vea against Mack, in particular, will be a battle to watch on Sunday. The Falcons only gained 57 yards on 19 carries when the two teams met in Week 12 but Atlanta was playing without top running back Devonta Freeman at the time.
4. LB De'Vondre Campbell. Mack and Hooper were two of five Falcons who were tabbed as Pro Bowl alternates last week, a list that also included linebacker Deion Jones, who has already been to one NFL all-star game after the 2017 season. But it is the Falcons' other starting linebacker who has really filled up the stat line this season. Campbell leads the team and is tied for ninth in the NFL with 126 tackles and he's also the only Falcon to make a mark in every major statistical defensive category: 2.0 sacks, five tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, two interceptions, five passes defensed, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Campbell is one of only four players in the NFL this season to top 100 tackles and also have multiple sacks, multiple interceptions and multiple forced fumbles. At 6-4 and 232 pounds, Campbell is built like a pass-rushing outside linebacker but he's proved capable of covering ground all over the field as an off-the-ball linebacker. He's fast and good at chasing down opposing ball-carriers and his long arms help him wrap up his targets. The former Minnesota Gopher lasted until the fourth round of the 2016 draft because he seemed to be raw and lacking instincts for the position but he has been a starter since his rookie season and is clearly improving every year.
View some of the top photos from the Buccaneers' Week 17 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
As has been the case for the entire of Matt Ryan's 12-year tenure in Atlanta, the Falcons can put up big numbers through the air. This year, they rank third in the league in passing yards and fifth in overall offense despite a rushing attack that has produced fewer than 85 yards a game. Atlanta's defense has been better against the run (15th) than the pass (23rd) and has shown marked improvement after a rough first half of the season. Since coming back from their Week Nine bye, the Falcons rank eighth in the league in sacks (20) and tied for sixth in interceptions (eight). Here are some more specific areas in which the Falcons have done well in 2019:
· The Buccaneers' offense remains one of the best in the league at running two-minute drills in 2019 but it will have a tough time against Atlanta's defense, which has been stingy in that situation. Atlanta has faced 17 drives that started within the final two minutes of either half and has only allowed two field goals on those possessions. Two others have been snipped by turnovers. Overall, the six points the Falcons have allowed on drives started after the two-minute warning are tied for the second lowest in the NFL.
· The Falcons have good third-down conversion numbers (42.3%) and are first in the NFL in passing first downs so it's not a big surprise that they are also one of the best offenses in the league at sustaining long drives. Atlanta has had 31 drives that lasted 10 or more plays this season, the fourth-most in the NFL. Fourteen of those have produced touchdowns and another nine have ended in successful field goals.
· With Julio Jones and, before his injury, Calvin Ridley working the sidelines, Atlanta has had a good success rate on deep balls down both edges of the field. Atlanta's thrown 46 deep balls to the left and completed half of them, the third-highest completion rate on such passes in the league. It's almost as good down the right side, as 48.7% of their 37 passes in that direction have found the mark, sixth-best in the league.
· Atlanta's run defense has been right around the middle of the pack, allowing 109.3 yards per game. However, the Falcons have done a good job of not letting opponents get easy second downs by shutting down the run on first down. Opposing teams have only gained 3.8 yards per first-down carry against Atlanta, the fifth-lowest average in the league. Of the 215 first-down runs the Falcons have faced, 96 have gained two or fewer yards.
The Falcons' rushing attack has averaged just 3.84 yards per carry, ranking 25th in the league and Atlanta's red zone offense is 20th in the NFL with a 56.4% touchdown rate. Despite an improved second half, the Falcons remain low in the league rankings in such categories as sacks per pass play (29th), passing yards allowed per game (23rd) and per play (25th) and third-down percentage allowed (tied for 22nd). Also, though Atlanta's -7 turnover ratio is better than the Bucs' -11, it still ranks 26th in the NFL. In addition:
· Atlanta's red zone defense ranks 20th in the league, as noted above, but the problems really start once opposing offense get inside its 30-yard line. In that portion of the field, the Falcons' foes have averaged 4.27 yards per play, which is the second-highest mark allowed by any defense this year. Opponents have largely opted to pass in that area, throwing on 61.3% of snaps inside the 30 (fifth-highest against any defense) and gaining 4.78 yards per attempt (fourth-highest against any team).
· The Falcons' offense has put up good numbers, particularly of late, but it has had to fight through a large number of negative plays to succeed this season. Opposing defenses have forced a loss of yards on 34 running plays and 11 passing play this season, and when those are added to the 44 sacks absorbed by Atlanta quarterbacks it leads to a total of 89 negative plays. That's tied for the fifth-most by any NFL offense this season.
· Atlanta has used four different punters and two different place-kickers in 2019, so it's hardly surprising that their numbers in the kicking game have been below average overall. Atlanta's field goal percentage of 77.1% ranks 21st overall, although current kicker Younghoe Koo has had an 85.7% success rate. The Falcons' net punting average of 38.2 is the third-worst in the NFL. And Atlanta's kickoffs have had an average length of 58.4 yards, which is last in the league.
· As with the Buccaneers, the Falcons' defense has faced some difficult situations thanks to a high number of turnovers by the offense. Atlanta has had to contend with 20 opponent drives following giveaways, and seven of them have resulted in touchdowns. Another eight have resulted in field goals. The resulting 71 points on drives following turnovers is tied for the sixth-highest total in the league.
NEW FACES IN 2019
The Falcons didn't dive too deep into the free agency market this past offseason but they did find a new return man while addressing the offensive line early in the draft. Atlanta has also had to change its long-standing kicking duo midstream.
1. K Younghoe Koo and P Ryan Allen. Atlanta's Matt-centric kicking game was one of the league's most stable for most of this decade, with Matt Bosher handling the punting duties in almost every game since 2011 and Matt Bryant doing the placekicking since 2009. However, Bryant's outstanding career may be over after some early-season struggles led to his release after seven games and Bosher has been on and off the injured reserve list. Right now, the jobs belong to Allen and Koo, the former compiling a 42.4-yad gross and 37.7-yard net average and the latter making 18 of his 21 field goals.
2. G Chris Lindstrom, T Kaleb McGary. Atlanta double-dipped on the offensive line in the first round of the 2019 draft, first taking Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom with the 14th pick and then trading back into the bottom half of the round to nab Washington's McGary at the 31st spot. Lindstrom won the starting right guard job to open the season but suffered a foot injury that put him on injured reserve in his first game. However, he returned from IR in Week 14 and has started the three games since. McGary stepped right in at right tackle and has opened all 15 games.
3. RB Kenjon Barner. Barner joined his fourth NFL team in March as an unrestricted free agent, and while he has logged only 10 touches on offense he's been the Falcons' primary return man. He's averaging 8.0 yards per try on 33 punt returns and 24.3 yards per runback on kickoffs, and he has a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown.
1. CB Desmond Trufant. The Falcons' top corner missed five midseason games due to a toe injury but he made an immediate impact upon his return with an interception in the next two games he played in, including one against the Buccaneers. However, after games back in the mix, Trufant suffered a broken forearm against Carolina on December 8 and was placed on injured reserve two days later.
2. G James Carpenter. Atlanta brought in a pair of free agent guards, Carpenter and Jamon Brown, during the offseason to replace former starters Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer. Carpenter started 11 of the first 13 games at left guard but then sustained a concussion in the Thanksgiving game and has since landed on injured reserve. Schweitzer, who remained on the team in a reserve role, has stepped back into the starting lineup.
3. WR Calvin Ridley. In his second year, Ridley emerged as a strong complement to Jones and was heating up in the season's second half. In Weeks 11-14 he compiled 27 catches for 395 yards and three touchdowns, and that included 85 yards and a score against the Buccaneers in Week 12. However, Ridley also landed on injured reserve earlier this month with a lower abdominal injury.