Two and a half months ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers helped the Atlanta Falcons get off to an 0-2 start with a 48-25 win over their division rivals in Tampa in Week Two. Since then, however, the Falcons have gone 5-4 and have managed to stay on the edge of the NFC playoff race. There have been a couple of ugly losses along the way and the Falcons of Week 13 are constructed a little differently than they were in September, but there's no reason for the Buccaneers to expect a season sweep to come easily on Sunday.
First and foremost is the continued presence of quarterback Matt Ryan, who has beaten the Buccaneers 16 times in a career that may get him into the Hall of Fame. Ryan threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns in that week two contest at Raymond James Stadium, though he was picked off three times, two of them returned for touchdowns by Mike Edwards. This season, Ryan is averaging 237.9 passing yards per game, his lowest mark since 2010, and he has 16 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions.
Ryan's passer rating of 89.5 this season is also lower than it has been since before his 2016 MVP season, but he has also suffered from the absence of some of his most trusted weapons in 2021. Wide receiver Julio Jones, the leading pass-catcher in Falcons history, was traded to Tennessee in the offseason and his replacement as the team's number-one receiver, Calvin Ridley, stepped away from the team in late October to focus on his mental wellbeing. First-year Head Coach Arthur Smith did not have an updated on Ridley's status on Monday.
Without Jones and Ridley, Ryan has most often targeted rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, amazingly versatile running back Cordarrelle Patterson and wide receiver Russell Gage. Read more on Pitts and Patterson below. Gage has had seven or more targets and five or more receptions in three of the Falcons last four games. He also caught five passes against the Buccaneers in Week Two.
Overall, Atlanta's offense, which got Patterson back last week after he missed one game with an ankle injury, has passed the ball better than it has run it, which is nothing new for the Falcons. Overall, Atlanta ranks 26th in yards per game (310.5), 27th in points per game (18.1), and 19th in passing yards per game (225.5). Even with the stunning emergence of Patterson as a very productive running back, the Falcons are third to last in the NFL in both rushing yards per game (85.0) and yards per carry (3.61). Jake Matthews, the sixth-overall pick in the 2014 draft, has settled in as a strong franchise left tackle but the Falcons' line as a whole, which features four other first and third-round draft picks from the past three years, has struggled to get push. Atlanta is ranked 27th in run blocking by Football Outsiders, although the line has done much better in pass protection, ranking 12th.
Atlanta's defense under new coordinator Dean Pees is ranked 22nd in yards allowed (361.8) but has given up the second-most points per game (27.5). As has been an issue for that defense since well before the arrivals of Smith and Pees, it has struggled mightily to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, ranking last in the NFL with a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 3.93%. With 1.5 sacks in the last two games, Dante Fowler has taken over the team's lead in that category with 3.5. No other Falcons defender has more than 2.0 sacks so far.
The strength of the Falcons' defense is in the middle of the field with linebackers Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun, though Jones missed Atlanta's last game with a shoulder injury. Jones and Oluokun are both versatile defenders who make plays all over the field and in the backfield, combining for four sacks and five passes defensed. Atlanta also has an established star on its front line in defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, a relentless ball of energy, and in the secondary in emerging cornerback A.J. Terrell.
The Buccaneers will have to go on the road to try to get a second consecutive season sweep of the Falcons. However, Atlanta has actually been better away from home than at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Falcons are 4-2 on the road so far this season but only 1-4 on their home field. In fact, the Falcons just returned from getting a 21-14 win at Jacksonville in Week 12 but their last home game was a 25-0 blanking at the hands of the (admittedly red-hot) New England Patriots. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they finish up their season series with Atlanta on Sunday:
Ryan has been the franchise's primary difference-maker since 2008, winning his aforementioned MVP award in 2016 and racking up 363 touchdown passes to go with nearly 60,000 passing yards. He has a 43-19 all-time touchdown-interception ratio against the Buccaneers. We've highlighted Jarrett and Jones in this section multiple times in the past and both remain among the league's best at their respective positions. Younghoe Koo has been one of the NFL's most accurate kickers the past two seasons, making 37 of 39 field goal tries last year and 15 of 17 so far this year. Koo has also not missed an extra point this year in 20 attempts. Besides those core Atlanta players, here are four other difference-makers who will challenge the Buccaneers on Sunday:
1. RB Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson is one of the most incredible stories in the entire NFL this year, full stop. A first-round pick by the Vikings back in 2013, he has long been a difference-maker in the NFL, but almost exclusively as a kickoff returner. In fact, Patterson is simply one of the best return men in league history, with eight career touchdowns and an average of 29.4 yards per attempt; it is thus a testament to how important Patterson has become to the Falcons' offense that he has recently been taken off the return beat to help keep him healthy and fresh. Even after missing a game, Patterson has already set single-season career highs in rushing yards (411), receiving yards (500) and total touchdowns (nine). He returned to the lineup last week in Jacksonville to record just the second 100-yard rushing game of his career and score two touchdowns. Patterson entered the league as a wide receiver and thus creates an interesting sight when he lines up his 6-2, 220-pound frame in the backfield as a running back. Of course, the Falcons don't just use him in the backfield; he has lined up all over the formation this year and has delivered 4.4 yards per carry and 12.2 yards per catch. The Falcons like to get the ball into his hands quickly in the passing game to let him use his kick-return skills in the open field. Patterson's average depth of target is 3.8 yards, which is 65th out of 73 qualifying players, but he has gained 91 yards over expected on his catches. Ryan has targeted Patterson on 33.1% of the routes he has run this season, which is the second-highest rate behind Christian McCaffrey among all players with at least 25 receptions.
2. CB A.J. Terrell. The 16th-overall pick in the 2020 draft, Terrell struggled somewhat early in his rookie year but progressed steadily as the season went on and has now emerged as one of the NFL's better young defensive backs in his second season. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Terrell was the nearest defender on 92 passes last year and allowed 60 receptions for 832 yards. Opposing passers had a rating of 111.3 on those throws. Through the first 11 weeks of this season, however, Terrell had only allowed 12 catches on 29 targets, for 87 yards and an opposing passer rating of 60.6. When Tampa Bay and Atlanta met in Week Two, the Buccaneers recorded 276 passing yards and star wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin combined for nine catches and 137 yards. However, according to Pro Football Focus, there was not a single pass completed in that game with Terrell in primary coverage. Despite his low number of targets, Terrell does have one interception and eight passes defensed. The former Clemson star is very good in press coverage and has the quick feet and loose hips to turn and match his opponents' routes. The 6-1, 195-pound Terrell is long and rangy and he competes very well with the league's bigger receivers. Terrell takes almost all of his snaps at left cornerback, consistently working the field in front of the league's right-handed quarterbacks.
3. TE Kyle Pitts. The Falcons made Pitts, a former Florida star, the fourth-overall pick in this year's draft, marking the highest selection ever used on a tight end. He has not disappointed, jumping immediately in the ranks of the NFL's most productive tight ends. With 661 receiving yards so far, Pitts ranks third in the NFL behind only established tight end stars Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews and his 14.69 yards per catch is second among all tight ends with at least 20 receptions. Pitts is essentially an oversized (6-6, 246 pounds) receiver – one who happens to have 4.44 speed, rare athleticism and sure hands – and the Falcons often line him up as one. He has only take 28% of his snaps inline with the offensive line so far this season, lining up wide 30% of the time and in the slot 42% of the time. That usage out wide is the highest percentage of any tight end in the league. Because he is so fast and can get downfield quickly against mismatched defenders, Pitts has been the top deep threat among all NFL tight ends this season. Through Week 11, he led all tight ends in targets on passes thrown 10 or more yards down the field, with 33. Those targets resulted in 21 receptions for 461 yards. Pitts is also not a bad blocker when he is asked to attach to the line; he simply has more value to the Falcons as a route-runner.
4. LB Foyesade Oluokun. It's Deion Jones who has the second-round pedigree and the Pro Bowl on his resume, but it's Oluokun, a sixth-round pick out of Yale in 2018, who is Atlanta's leading tackler this season. In fact, his 119 stops rank third among all NFL players and that's only the beginning of his stat line; he has also recorded two sacks, three tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits, one interception, two passes defensed and a forced fumble. Oluokun has been Atlanta's leading run-stopper, with 72 tackles on running plays. Possessed of an analytical mind, Oluokun is adept at picking up on opponents' tendencies and communicating them to his teammates. New Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees elected to transfer the defensive play-calling duties from Jones to Oluokun this season and the results have been impressive. Oluokun first became a full-time starter last year after the departure of De'Vondre Campbell and he wasted no time showing he could make plays all over the field, recording a 117-tackle, three-sack, two-interception campaign, all of which was highlighted by an end zone pick of Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. His upward trajectory has continued in 2021 as he has been moved to the MIKE position and has flourished in the middle of the field. The 6-2, 218-pound Oluokun, who didn't even get an invitation to the NFL's Scouting Combine or the Senior Bowl, is a fast and fluid runner and a sure tackler who also excels in coverage.
Matt Ryan can still sling it in the NFL's 19th-ranked passing attack and he has one of the NFL's most unique skill-position players in the rookie Kyle Pitts. As noted earlier, the Falcons' offensive line has provided Ryan with pretty good protection, as Atlanta ranks 10th with a 5.36% sacks per pass play rate. And with red zone weapons like Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson, the Falcons rank sixth in touchdown percentage (78.6%) when they get into a goal-to-go situation. The Falcons defense is 14th against the pass (236.9 yards allowed per game) and also ranks 16th in yards allowed per rush at 4.28. Here are some more specific ways in which the Falcons have excelled in 2021:
· Ryan is in his 14th season but there is no question about his arm strength in 2021. In fact, throwing the ball downfield is what the Falcons have done best this season. On passes that travel more than 20 yards downfield in the air, Atlanta ranks first in the NFL with a passer rating of 119.4. Atlanta is averaging 17.0 yards per attempt on such throws and has turned them into two touchdowns and no interceptions.
· The Buccaneers have the NFL's third-best third-down conversion rate (46.7%) but they will need to be careful on Sunday not to get behind the sticks because Atlanta opponents have had a very hard time converting long third downs. Atlanta's defense has faced 38 third downs with 10 or more yards needed and allowed only four of them to be converted. That conversion rate of 10.5% is the second-best mark for any defense in the NFL, behind only Buffalo's 6.1%.
· Atlanta's offensive line has not short-circuited a lot of drives with penalties this year. In fact, the Falcons have only been guilty of eight offensive holding calls so far, the lowest total in the NFL. Only three of those have resulted in stalled drives, which is the second-lowest total in the league.
· With A.J. Terrell patrolling the right side of the field, Atlanta opponents have had a hard time getting the ball downfield on that side. Atlanta's defense has seen teams try deep passes down the right side 24 times so far this season but has only allowed seven of them to be completed. Their average gain allowed of 7.13 yards and completion percentage allowed of 29.17% on those passes rank second and fourth in the NFL, respectively.
With Matt Ryan, Josh Rosen and Feleipe Franks combining for 14 interceptions, the Atlanta offense has the NFL's third-worst pick rate at 3.57%. Atlanta has also had significant trouble running the ball as noted above – last week in Jacksonville being a notable exception – and is just 28th in first downs produced per game (18.8). On defense, Atlanta has struggled on third downs (except for long ones, as discussed in the Strengths section), allowing a 47.1% conversion rate and has the league's least effective pass rush. In addition:
· Atlanta's overall scoring woes are partly a result of the offense's inability to generate big plays. The NFL's per-team average for plays of 20-plus yards is six on the ground and 36 through the air, but the Falcons only have one of the former and 27 of the latter. That adds up to 28 big plays, the lowest total for any team in the NFL. Understandably, the Falcons are also last in the league at scoring from outside the red zone, with only two touchdowns and four field goals from that part of the field.
· "Successful plays" in the NFL are defined as getting at least four yards on first down, getting at least half of the yardage needed for a new first down on second down, and getting a first down on third or fourth down. By those measures, the Falcons' defense has allowed the second-highest percentage of successful plays, at 54.4% of the total. Atlanta is 26th in success rate allowed on first and second down and 30th on third and fourth down combined.
· Atlanta's struggling ground game has had most of its problems on first downs. The Falcons have run the ball on 166 of their 293 first-down plays so far and has gotten four or more yards on only 61 of them. That rate of 36.7% ranks 30th in the NFL, ahead of just Miami and Houston.
· If Atlanta's offensive line has done a very good job of avoiding holding calls it has not been nearly as successful in the false start department. The Falcons' 17 false starts are the fourth-highest total in the league. The Falcons also rank 27th with 10 defensive pass interference penalties and 24th with four illegal formation calls.
NEW FACES IN 2021
The Falcons rebuilt their offensive backfield in 2021, signing unrestricted free agents Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson in the spring and adding Wayne Gallman just before the start of the season after he was released by the Giants. As noted above, Patterson has had by far the biggest impact of those three, but Davis and Gallman have combined to add 591 yards from scrimmage. Atlanta's first-round pick, tight end Kyle Pitts, was also discussed earlier and has seen extensive playing time. Quarterback Josh Rosen became the primary backup to Matt Ryan after A.J. McCarron landed on injured reserve. Other important 2021 additions include:
1. S Duron Harmon/S Erik Harris. Atlanta has three new veteran starters in its secondary, including the safety duo of Harmon and Harris. Harmon comes over from Detroit where he started all 16 games and had two interceptions in 2020 after spending his first eight seasons as a part-time starter in New England. Harris played four seasons for the Raiders, the majority of it as a starter, and had five interceptions in that span.
2. CB Fabian Moreau. The third new starter in that defensive backfield is Moreau, a fifth-year cornerback who played his first four seasons in Washington after being drafted out of UCLA in the third round. Moreau only started 18 games over those four years with the Football Team but he has opened every game this season and has recorded 31 tackles and a team-high nine passes defensed.
3. G Jalen Mayfield. The Falcons didn't necessarily expect Mayfield, a third-round pick out of Michigan, to step immediately into the starting lineup, but a broken hand suffered by veteran Josh Andrews in a practice shortly before the start of the regular season gave the rookie his chance. Mayfield has started all 11 games at left guard so far.
1. TE Hayden Hurst. The Falcons had a talented tight end duo for the first half of the season in Hurst and rookie Kyle Pitts, but they have been without Hurst for the last two games and he will remain unavailable for at least one more game after being placed on injured reserve on November 18. Hurst sustained an ankle injury against Dallas in Week 10; prior to that he had played in nine games with five starts and hauled in 20 passes for 158 yards and one touchdown.
2. OLB Steven Means. Means, a former Buccaneers draft pick, started the first nine games of the season for the Falcons but suffered a knee injury on a fumble return against the Saints in Week Nine. He was placed on injured reserve on November 13 and has missed three games, which means he is eligible to return to the active roster this week. However, he won't necessarily be activated before Sunday's game.
3. CB Isaiah Oliver. After moving from the outside into the slot in 2021, Oliver was off to a fine start for the Falcons this season, with 11 tackles, three passes defensed, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hit through four games. However, he sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week Four against Washington. Avery Williams and Darren Hall have taken the snaps at nickel corner since Oliver went to injured reserve.