Projected starters for the Falcons as listed on team depth chart.
On Sunday, the 2-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 6-1 Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. It will be the 43rd meeting between the two teams, with the Bucs hoping to tie the series back up at 22 wins apiece. The Falcons have been on the road the past two weeks, losing at New Orleans and winning at Tennessee, but now they return to a home in which they've already won their first three games. Atlanta trails the still-undefeated Carolina Panthers by a half-game at the top of the NFC South standings.
To pull closer to the Falcons and Panthers in those standings, the Buccaneers will need to limit the damage caused by the league's most prolific offensive duo (Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman) and get their running game going against the league's second-ranked rush defense. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they make their annual visit to the Georgia Dome.
Dan Quinn is one of eight first-year head coaches in the NFL in 2015 (counting midseason replacement Dan Campbell in Miami), and he is off to a rousing start.
Quinn, now in his first head job in two decades of coaching at the college and pro levels, has guided the Falcons to a 6-1 start, which included wins in his first five games on the Atlanta sideline. That made Quinn the first rookie head coach to get off to a 5-0 start in franchise history, and the first one in league history to go 5-0 after trailing in the fourth quarter of four of those games.
Given that the Falcons of recent vintage have excelled on offense but struggled on defense, Quinn was a natural choice after he had helped the Seattle Seahawks to two straight Super Bowls as the team's defensive coordinator. Quinn took over that job when the previous coordinator, Gus Bradley, left to become the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach in 2013. The Seahawks actually brought Quinn back in 2013 after he had spent two years coordinating the defense at the University of Florida. Prior to that, his NFL ledger included two years in Seattle (2009-10), two with the New York Jets (2007-08), two with the Miami Dolphins (2005-06) and four with the San Francisco 49ers (2001-04), most of it coaching defensive linemen. Quinn's college stops included William & Mary, the Virginia Military Institute and Hofstra.
Photos of Bobby Rainey during his performance in the 2013 home victory over the Falcons.
With the Seahawks, Quinn coordinated a defense in 2013 that allowed the fewest points and yards in the NFL and secured the most takeaways on the way to victory in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Seattle defense repeated as league leaders in points and yards last year, though the team as a whole came a few seconds shy of repeating as champs. Quinn's impact has already been felt in Atlanta, where the Falcons, last year's 32nd-ranked defense, are up to 13th in both points and yards allowed.
In Seattle, Quinn was known as a creative and aggressive coordinator who gives the opposing team multiple looks. He had a very talented group of players in Seattle but was also credited with getting more production out of some of those players, such as Red Bryant and Michael Bennett, then they had provided in the past. He's been given the "players' coach" tag because he is hands-on and demanding but also calm and approachable.
The Falcons' offense features the most explosive wide receiver-running back duo in the NFL in 2015. In fact, Julio Jones ranks second in the NFL with 730 receiving yards while Devonta Freeman is the league's leading rusher with 931 yards. Freeman and Jones rank first and third in total yards from scrimmage and have accounted for almost 60% of Atlanta's offensive yardage this season. They've also scored a combined 16 touchdowns (of Atlanta's 24 TDs total), which is more than two per game and more than any other pair of teammates in the NFL.
Jones is merely building on his marvelous career, which included a 1,594-yard season a year ago, and is on the short list for the best wideout in all of football. Freeman, in his second season, has been a revelation for the Falcons, resurrecting a rushing attack that had been dormant for years and making Atlanta's fifth-ranked offense much more difficult to defend. A former teammate of Jameis Winston at Florida State, Freeman has been a very effective weapon in the passing game, too, with 34 catches for 310 yards. His 931 total yards from scrimmage is already nearly double what he put up last season in 16 games. Over the previous four seasons combined, Atlanta ranked 31st out of 32 teams in total rushing yards, besting only Arizona; this year, the Falcons rank fifth in that category. They join those same Cardinals, coincidentally, in being the only teams in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in both rushing and passing yards per game.
Freeman is clearly an emerging star but the Falcons' effective ground game also speaks well for an Atlanta offensive line that was largely rebuilt in 2015. Though 2014 first-round draft pick Jake Matthews is starting at left tackle, there are newcomers starting at three of the other four positions. Atlanta got left guard Andy Levitre in a trade with Tennessee just before the start of the regular season after adding center Mike Person as an unrestricted free agent in March from St. Louis. Right guard Chris Chester was snapped up in June after he was let go by Washington. Third-year player Ryan Schraeder completes that front five at right tackle, and according to Football Outsiders the Falcons have employed the second-best run-blocking O-Line in the league this year, behind New England.
It has also helped that the injury bug, which seemed to make a permanent home in the Falcons' O-Line room the last couple years, has apparently left town. Person missed the Falcons' Week Six game, but otherwise that five has been intact all year. Matthews and Schrader are the seventh and eighth-highest graded tackles on Pro Football Focus and only Levitre doesn't rank in the top 13 in the league at his position. That line has consistently helped Freeman get to the second level of opposing defenses, as Atlanta ranks first in the NFL with 29 carries of 10 or more yards.
It's a measure of how well things have gone for Atlanta on offense that we're this far into this report and only now bringing up the name Matt Ryan. Of course, that's also a function of Ryan's amazing consistency, game after game, season after season. This year, Ryan is completing 64.4% of his passes, throwing for 286 yards per game and 7.5 yards per pass attempt with a 2.2% interception rate…and all of those numbers are slightly down from last year, when the Falcons finished 6-10. Ryan is well on his way to his fifth straight 4,000-yard season and he's got the NFL's longest active streak of throwing for at least 250 yards in each game, at 14. His completion percentage since the start of 2012 is an amazing 67.0%, second-best in the entire league by a very slim margin to Philip Rivers. To make matters worse for the incoming Buccaneers, Ryan has been particularly good against division opponents. Since 2011, he has a passer rating of 97.6 in his combined games against the Bucs, Panthers and Saints, with a 43-15 TD-INT ratio in 25 outings.
With Ryan's efficient passing and the offensive line's excellent run-blocking, Atlanta has been able to sustain drives better than any other NFL team this year. They lead the league with 14 scoring drives that lasted five minutes or longer. They are good at setting up short third downs because they pass well on first down – a success rate (plays that gain four yards or more) of 60.4% that ranks third in the league – and then they convert those third downs. Atlanta is nearly automatic on third-and-one, at 76.9%.
If anything, Atlanta has underachieved on the scoreboard given its offensive success, in part because they've turned the ball over in the red zone four times, the most in the NFL. When they don't turn it over, they lead the league inside the 20 by running successful plays on 58.8% of their snaps. They've also lost more opportunities on dropped passes, surprisingly; Atlanta pass-catchers rank last in the league in that category, dropping 10.4% of catchable passes, according to Statspass.
As mentioned above, Quinn and his staff, which includes former Buccaneer Head Coach Raheem Morris as the Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Passing Coordinator, has already begun the defensive turnaround in Atlanta. It helped the new coach that he got to start with a pair of very good young cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
Trufant, the 22nd-overall pick in the 2013 draft, quietly emerged as an elite-level cornerback in his second season and has picked up right where he left off in 2015. He is the fifth-ranked cornerback in the league on Pro Football Focus and the word has definitely gotten out; PFF says that opposing teams have only thrown his way 22 times in 425 snaps so far this season, the second-lowest total among qualifying players after Richard Sherman. He is credited with allowing just 10 receptions for 148 yards so far this season.
That means more work for Alford, of course, and the Falcons' other high draft pick of 2013 has responded with two interceptions and a team-high seven passes defensed. S William Moore backs up those cornerbacks with hard hits (36 tackles to rank second on the team plus one forced fumble) and takeaways (two interceptions). Robenson Therezie, an undrafted rookie out of Auburn, has recently taken over at the other starting safety position and made an impact, particularly with his fourth-quarter game-sealing interception last week against the Titans. Overall, Atlanta has been good at taking the ball away and even putting it into the end zone, ranking seventh in the league with 12 interceptions and second with three pick-sixes.
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Still, Atlanta's pass defense ranks just 25th in the NFL, perhaps because the one area that has not shown significant improvement for the Falcons this year is the pass rush. After tying for the second-lowest sack total in the NFL last year with 22, the Falcons used their first-round pick on pass-rusher Vic Beasley, who is tied for the team lead this year with two sacks. Atlanta still ranks 32nd in the NFL in sacks per pass play, with only Beasley and former Buccaneer Adrian Clayborn having more than one QB takedown so far.
Some of that could also be due to the fact that the Falcons' defensive approach seems to be heavily aimed at stopping the run early. And it's working. Atlanta's defense, which allowed 119.4 rushing yards per game last year to rank 21st, has shaved more than 40 yards per game off that figure in 2015 and now ranks second in the league. Opponents are averaging 3.7 yards per rush, seventh-lowest in the NFL. The Falcons' stop-the-run-first philosophy is best represented on first downs; opposing teams have only gained four or more yards on first-down runs on 28.2% of their tries, the best figure for any defense in the NFL.
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Leading the charge is linebacker Paul Worrilow, the new Falcon tackling machine following in the footsteps of Jessie Tuggle and Keith Brooking. Worrilow leads the team with 48 tackles. In less than two-and-a-half seasons, Worrilow has already racked up 316 tackles, the fourth most in the league since the start of 2013. The Falcons essentially reloaded their linebacking corps around Worrilow, signing Justin Durant from the Cowboys, Brooks Reed from the Texans and O'Brien Schofield from the Seahawks. Durant has taken over for the departed Sean Weatherspoon and is third on the team with 35 tackles, while Schofield has provided some help penetrating the backfield, with one sack and three tackles for loss. Reed has been somewhat held back by injuries but reserve LB Nate Stupar has one of the Falcons' three pick-sixes.
Atlanta's defense hasn't always gotten off the field as quickly as it would like, with an opposing third-down conversion rate of 39.1% that ranks 19th in the NFL. Strangely, the Falcons have been one of the best teams at stopping short third-down tries (47.4% on attempts of three or fewer yards to rank third) but one of the worst on medium-range tries (56.5% from four to six yards to rank 29th). That has contributed to 14 10-play drives against Atlanta, tied for the 27th most in the NFL.
The flip side of that earlier note on the Falcons' great work against the run on first down is that it might be leaving them more susceptible to first-down passing, as they rank 27th in the NFL in opponent success rate in that regard. That is, opposing teams are gaining four or more yards on first-down passes 59.0% of the time against Atlanta. Still, it has been working altogether as a whole; opposing teams are averaging 8.33 yards to go on second down versus the Falcon, the third-highest total in the NFL.
The Falcons continue to get good production from their two-Matt kicking combo. That's kicker Matt Bryant, a former Buccaneer who has been in Atlanta since 2009, and punter Matt Bosher, a sixth-round draft pick out of Miami in 2011.
Bryant has made 157 of his 175 field goal tries since joining the Falcons, a success rate of 89.7% that ranks second to Seattle's Steven Hauschka in that span, among kickers with at least 150 tries. He has been good from downtown, making 40 of 49 field goal attempts of 40 or more yards in his Falcon tenure, and seven of those were game-winning kicks. This year, Bryant has made nine of 12 attempts, plus all 20 of his extra point attempts from the new longer distance.
Bosher handles both the punts and the kickoffs and has been effective in both tasks. His 49.8-yard gross on punts is the best mark in the league, though he drops to the middle of the pack (14th) in net at 41.0. Opposing punt returners are averaging 10.4 yards per runback against the Falcons' cover team, putting Atlanta 23rd in the league in that category. The coverage units could be a minor issue for Atlanta, as the team also ranks 28th in the league in opposing kickoff return average, at 28.3, despite not giving up any single return longer than 41. However, Bosher minimizes that issue by getting touchbacks on 75.7% of his kickoffs, eighth-best in the NFL. Even with his big leg, Bosher has shown good situation control on punts, hitting just one touchback while dropping seven kicks inside the 20.
Ninth-year wide receiver Eric Weems is handling all the kick return work, and indeed that and kick coverage is what Weems has built his career around. His 10.4-yard average on punt returns this year exactly matches his career mark on 88 returns, while his 22.9-yard kickoff return rate is just a bit below his career average of 24.1 on 102 attempts. Weems is also second on the team with four kick-coverage tackles.