Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Scouting Report: Atlanta Falcons

Taking a closer look at the Buccaneers' opponent in Week Three, as they must deal with the NFL’s most prolific passing attack as well as a dangerous return man in Devin Hester

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • The Falcons' passing attack has several key weapons back in place and has started the season red-hot
  • Atlanta's defense has struggled to stop the run, though there are some new players up front
  • The two Matts, punter Bosher and kicker Bryant, give the Falcons a reliable kicking game

    On Thursday, the 0-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 1-1 Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.  It will be the 42nd meeting between the two teams in the regular season, and the first of their two intra-divisional matchups this fall (more on the Bucs-Falcons series history here).  The Buccaneers are hoping to get an NFC South win on the road to make up for their season-opening loss to Carolina at home.

To get their first intra-divisional win of 2014, the Buccaneers will need to pressure Falcons QB Matt Ryan into a couple mistakes, as it will be difficult to completely shut down Ryan and his wide array of pass-catching weapons.  The Buccaneers may have an opportunity to put up significant numbers on offense a again a Falcon team that has struggled to stop the run so far in 2014.  Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Thursday when they take the Georgia Dome turf.

HEAD COACH: When Mike Smith arrived in Atlanta in 2008 after five seasons as the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, the Falcons had gone four decades without once posting a winning record in consecutive seasons.  Since Smith's hiring as the head coach, the Falcons have been one of the NFL's most consistently successful teams, posting a winning record in his first five seasons before last year's fall to 4-12.

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Mike Smith guided the Falcons to a winning record in five of his first six seasons at the helm

The Falcons have also taken home two division titles under Smith's direction, made the playoffs in four of six seasons and advanced to the NFC Championship Game in 2012.  The Falcons narrowly missed out on their second Super Bowl trip in that 2012 campaign, falling to the San Francisco 49ers in a game that wasn't decided until the final seconds.  Smith, who has twice been voted as the NFL's Coach of the Year by his peers through The Sporting News, is credited with a keen eye for personnel and for establishing a very even keel at the Falcons' headquarters.  Overall, the Falcons are 61-37 in the regular season under Smith, and he reached 50 wins in just 71 games, the third fastest an NFL head coach has done that since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

OFFENSE: Injuries to – among others – wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, tackle Sam Baker, guard Mike Johnson and fullback Bradie Ewing, limited the Falcons attack to some extent in 2013, but that group has come out firing on all cylinders in 2014.  Through two games, the Matt Ryan-led Falcon attack ranks second in overall offense, first in passing offense, seventh in yards per rush and ninth in first downs per game.  Hall of Fame-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez has finally retired, but Jones and White are back to full strength and former Chicago Bear Devin Hester is adding a new wrinkle to the attack.

Ryan has employed all of those weapons, as five different players have at least five catches through the first two games.  While averaging nearly 340 passing yards per game, the seventh-year quarterback has looked most often to Jones (14-204-1) and White (10-114-1) but he's also kept last year's breakout Harry Douglas involved (10-107) and has found some interesting uses for Hester (6-101).  The Falcons signed Hester as an unrestricted free agent during the offseason, and while it may have seemed that move was primarily aimed at improving the return game, Hester has been a surprise hit in the offense after catching just 13 passes in his last three NFL seasons combined.

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RB Steven Jackson turned in a career low in rushing yards last year but remains a big and powerful runner between the tackles

The Falcons looked to improve Ryan's protection in 2014 after he absorbed a career-high 44 sacks in 2013, investing the sixth-overall pick in the draft on Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews.  Matthews was initially slotted in at right tackle opposite Sam Baker, but when Baker suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason, the talented rookie took over on the blind side.  The Falcons also signed former Kansas City Chief Jon Asamoah to play right guard, and so far the results have been fairly good up front.  Ryan has been sacked three times through two games and the Falcons are averaging 5.0 yards per rush.

Former St. Louis star Steven Jackson didn't have a particularly strong season in 2013 in his first year as a Falcon, rushing for a career-low 543 yards while missing four games due to injury.  Though he owns a career average of 4.2 yards per carry, the big and powerful back got only 3.5 per tote last year and the Falcons finished with the second-worst rushing attack in the NFL.  They've improved to 21st so far in 2014, with 110.0 yards per game, and while the offense still remains pass-heavy (for good reason), the Falcons are succeeding when they do keep it on the ground.  Jackson is getting help from smaller, quicker back Jacquizz Rodgers (11 carries, 5.2 avg.) and the team will likely soon find uses for rookie Devonta Freeman and fifth-year back Antone Smith.  Smith ran for 88 yards and a touchdown on just two carries the last time the Buccaneers visited the Georgia Dome.

The key to it all, of course, remains Matt Ryan, who is completing passes at a 63.2% clip and working on an early passer rating of 88.3.  That rating has suffered a bit from his three interceptions, which puts him on an early pace for a career-worst 24, but he remains a poised and dangerous passer who will definitely test the Buccaneers' banged-up defense.  If the Bucs manage to get a lead on Thursday, they will have to try to preserve it against the quarterback with the most fourth-quarter comeback wins in the NFL since 2008.  Ryan has always been particularly tough in home games (97.7 career passer rating in the Georgia Dome) and his 43 yards on six carries this year demonstrate his underrated mobility.

Atlanta's offense has turned the ball over four times in two games so far this year, and its 39.1% third-down conversion rate stands a little below the halfway point in the league rankings.  On the other hand, Atlanta has been deadly in the red zone so far, converting all four of their trips inside the 20 into touchdowns to lead the league in that category.

DEFENSE: Just like last year, the Falcons' decent work on third downs on offense has been balanced by real struggles in that area on the other side of the ball.  The New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals combined to convert 51.9% of their third-down tries in Weeks One and Two.  While it's worth noting that the Saints and Bengals possess two of the better offenses in the NFL, Atlanta's defense is still tied for 29th in that category.  Perhaps the biggest contributing factor to that issue is a pass rush that has yet to generate a quarterback sack in 2014.

The Falcons' defense will eventually record some sacks, of course, and they might end up with a decent pass rush.  Like the Buccaneers, they were active in free agency, and their first two weeks of action don't necessarily prove or disprove the success of those moves.  After struggling to stop the run in 2013, the Falcons imported a couple big bodies in new starting DTs Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson and spent a second-round pick on Ra'Shede Hageman.  If those three and Corey Peters, returned from a 2013 injury, can plug up the middle, the Falcons could get pressure on the outside from Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Babineaux, Jonathan Massaquoi and Osi Umenyiora.

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Second-year CB Desmond Trufant quietly had an excellent rookie season for the Falcons in 2013

Under new Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have been employing a 4-2-5 defense on a majority of snaps, meaning they have only two linebackers on the field while using five defensive backs.  Those two linebackers are 2013 undrafted free agents Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, both of whom were impressive enough to win starting jobs last season.  So far, the approach hasn't worked, as the Falcons rank last in yards allowed per game and per play.

There is plenty of promise, however, in that Falcon secondary, which has been an up-and-down area for the team even during its run of winning seasons.  The key was the 2013 first and second-round draft picks spent on Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, both now starters along with Robert McClain (again, the Falcons list five starting DBs).  Trufant in particular is a star in the making; Pro Football Focus thought enough of him to name him their 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year, and their analysis claims he has allowed only four receptions through the first two games.  It is McClain, however, who has the Falcons' only interception through the first two games.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The kick-and-return game can undoubtedly be an edge for the Falcons.

First, they feature a very dependable pair of kickers in punter Matt Bosher and placekicker Matt Bryant.  Bryant, a former Buccaneer, has already had one extremely important outing this year, as he kicked a 51-yard field goal as time expired against New Orleans in Week One, then won the game with a 52-yarder in overtime.  He's just the fourth player in NFL history to accomplish that 50-50 feat.  Bryant has made 123 of 139 field goal tries in his five-plus years in Atlanta, the fourth-best mark in the league during that span.  Among all active kickers with at least 300 attempts, he is at the top of the success-rate list, with a mark of 85.0%.

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WR Devin Hester has 18 combined kickoff and punt returns in his career, the most by any player in NFL history

Like Tampa Bay's Michael Koenen, Bosher handles both the punts and the kickoffs, and he's a weapon in both regards.  He ranked sixth in the league last year with a net punting average of 41.1 yards and third with a kickoff touchback rate of 68.5%.  The Falcons also have some excellent kick-coverage players, including long-time special teams standout Eric Weems, and that has allowed them to rank seventh in the NFL in average kickoff drive start for their opponents (the Buccaneers lead the league in that category).

The new X-factor for the Falcons' special teams is Hester, who may be the greatest kick return man in NFL history.  He is the league's all-time leader in combined punt and kickoff return touchdowns, with 18, and one of those came last year with the Bears.  Two games is not enough time to judge Hester's impact on the Falcons' return game, but he is putting up a strong 27.8-yard average on kickoff runbacks.  Hester has had only two chances on punt returns and has gained a total of eight yards.

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