Falcons Defense Has Grady Jarrett Back for Bucs Rematch

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The 5-10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers meet the 6-9 Atlanta Falcons in both teams' final game of 2018 on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. There are no playoff spots on the line, but the Buccaneers-Falcons rivalry is sufficiently intense to make sure both teams remain fully motivated for the season finale. The Falcons could still finish second in the division with a win or a loss by Carolina, while the Buccaneers could move into third with a win and a Panthers loss (the Falcons would stay ahead of Tampa Bay on a tiebreaker).

The Buccaneers and Falcons have some basic similarities in that they both rank in the top five in passing yardage and in the bottom quarter of the league in points allowed. Quarterback Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP, has been as effective as ever; in fact, his 108.5 passer rating – built on a superb 33-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio – is his second-best ever after his MVP campaign. Ryan throws frequently to Julio Jones, the NFL's leading receiver, but has also completed 59 or more passes to tight end Austin Hooper and wideouts Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu. Atlanta's defense has dealt with a variety of injuries but still has 14 interceptions and four different players with at least five sacks.

GAME-WRECKERS

Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.

Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape. We assembled a game-wreckers list for the Falcons for the first meeting in Week Six, and there is no reason to stray from the two chosen on offense back then. However, the Falcons' defense has gone through a lot of changes this season, much of it injury-driven, and that prompted two new choices on that side of the ball for this rematch three months later.

1. WR Julio Jones. Jones's average receiving yards per game against the Buccaneers in his career is just a hair below 120, and the fewest yards he has ever produced in a game against Tampa Bay was 54. That did happen to occur last year when the Falcons visited Raymond James Stadium in Week 15. Of course, in the earlier meeting between the two teams in Atlanta, Jones had caught 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. The Bucs wouldn't mind a similar pattern this year, because Jones went off for 144 yards on 10 catches in Week Six in Atlanta. Jones leads the NFL with 102.6 receiving yards per game, and though his average has been down over the last month, perhaps due to nagging injuries, he has also scored four of his seven touchdowns in the last three games.

2. QB Matt Ryan. In his MVP campaign, Ryan led the league in touchdown percentage (7.1%) and yards per attempt (9.3) while posting a sparkling 37-8 TD-INT ratio. Ryan's numbers are down a bit from that year (5.9% TD percentage and 8.1 yards per attempt) but still represent the second-best season figures in his uniformly great career. And, as noted above, his touchdown-interception ratio is once again very good. Ryan is a precise passer who has completed more than 65% of his throws in his career and he is almost always at his best when playing the Buccaneers. Ryan's career marks against Tampa Bay include a 66.3% completion rate, 253.8 yards per game and 33 touchdowns in 21 outings.

3. DT Grady Jarrett. Jarrett was sidelined by an ankle injury the last time the Bucs and Falcons played, which was a factor in Jameis Winston having time to throw four touchdown passes while being sacked just twice and hit only four times. Jarrett plays with boundless energy and wreaks havoc in the middle of the Falcons' line. Though he's missed two games he's tied for the team lead with six sacks, three of which have come in the last four weeks. Jarrett also leads the team with 15 quarterback his and has forced three fumbles.

4. S Damontae Kazee. A fifth-round pick in 2017 who played only sparingly on defense as a rookie, Kazee has had a breakout season in his second campaign. At a position that has been hit hard by injuries – most notably one that put Keanu Neal on injured reserve, Kazee has been the steady contributor, and a big source of takeaways. His six interceptions not only pace the Falcons but are also tied for third most in the NFL, just one behind the lead. Kazee has also been strong in run support, with 54 of his 75 tackles coming on running plays.

View photos from the Buccaneers' practice on Dec. 27 at AdventHealth Training Center.

STRENGTHS

Ryan and Jones have led the Falcons to the fifth spot in the league's passing-offense rankings, and the Falcons have the league's second-lowest rate of throwing interceptions. Here are some other areas in which the Falcons have excelled this season:

·     While Atlanta's red zone defense has not been particularly good, allowing touchdowns on 70.0% of their opponents' incursions, the Falcons have done one thing very well in that part of the field: Atlanta's three takeaways in goal-to-go situations are tied for the most in the NFL.

·     Not surprisingly given their personnel, the Falcons have done a very good job of throwing the ball downfield. On passes thrown more than 20 yards in the air, Ryan and the Falcons have a passer rating of 112.1, third best in the NFL. That includes six touchdown passes and only one interception.

·     Ageless kicker Matt Bryant – with a little help from injury fill-in Giorgio Tavecchio – has given the Falcons an extremely dependable field goal option. Bryant has made 18 of his 19 attempts, with his only miss coming on a 53-yard attempt, giving Atlanta a 95.8% success rate that ranks third in the NFL.

·     The Falcons' offense gains four or more yards on 52.4% of its plays. That ranks third in the NFL and has helped the team succeed on a high percentage of its third-down tries (45.3%, fifth in the league).

WEAKNESSES

Injuries were already taking a big toll on the Falcons' defense when the Bucs visited Atlanta in Week Six. Atlanta ranked near the bottom of the league's rankings in many defensive categories at that point, and much of that remains true. The Falcons' defense ranks 27th overall, 27th against the run and 25th against the pass. In addition:

·     Atlanta's defense has had trouble starting games slowly. The Falcons have allowed 67 points on opening possessions this year, the most in the NFL by a 13-point margin. In contrast, the league average is 36.9 points and league-leading Buffalo has allowed only 14.

·     Atlanta's rushing attack has averaged 4.6 yards per carry despite the early loss of lead back Devonta Freeman. That's actually good enough for 13th-best in the NFL. However, the Falcons have had a lot of rushing plays that didn't make it back to the line of scrimmage. Of their 321 carries, 51 have been stopped for a loss of yardage. That rate of 16.4% of negative rushing plays is the worst in the NFL.

·     The Falcons' defense has not produced a large number of negative plays – ballcarriers tackled for losses plus quarterback sacks. Atlanta has forced 65 negative plays, third fewest in the NFL. The league average is 81.7 such plays per team.

·     Atlanta has a plus-one turnover ratio, which is actually pretty good for a team three games under .500. However, the offense has fumbled 24 times and lost 11 of them, which is tied for the sixth-most lost fumbles in the NFL this year.

NEW FACES IN 2018

The Falcons have found a late-round gem for the middle level of their defense and were able to pick up a proven pass-rusher at midseason. While the offense has seen fewer changes, injuries in the backfield have opened the door for a young running back to get a shot at the end of the season.

1. LB/DE Bruce Irvin. Atlanta has added this pass-rushing piece since the last time they met the Buccaneers. Irvin was released by Oakland in early November and immediately snapped up by the Falcons. Irvin is currently starting at defensive end and has contributed 3.5 sacks and six QB hits in seven games and two starts.

2. RB Brian Hill. Atlanta originally drafted Hill in the fifth round in 2017 but waived him at midseason and he was quickly signed by the Bengals. When Cincinnati cut him at the end of the preseason this year, the Falcons brought him back. Hill wasn't active for the Week Six game against Atlanta and he only began to see game action three weeks ago, but he burst onto the scene with a 115-yard game last Sunday against Carolina.

3. LB Foyesade Oluokun. A sixth-round draft pick out of Yale, Oluokon got involved in the Falcons' defense early when Deion Jones was injured and has remained a starter even after Jones's return. Oluokun led the Falcons in tackles in the Week Six game against Tampa Bay and overall is second on the team with 82 stops.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. RB Tevin Coleman. Coleman has started 13 games this year and is far and away the team's leading rusher with 756 yards. However, Coleman sustained a groin injury against the Panthers last Sunday and was on the sideline when the Falcons started practice on Wednesday.

2. LB Deion Jones. Jones returned from injured reserve a month ago and in the four games since has racked up 40 tackles, a sack, an interception and two passes defensed. However, he was limited in practice to start the week.

3. G Wes Schweitzer. Schweitzer has started at left guard since Andy Levitre suffered a season triceps injury in Week Two. The Falcons could have to go to Plan C this Sunday if they're without Schweitzer, who sat out Wednesday's practice with a back injury.

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