Projected starters for the Falcons as listed on team depth chart.
On Sunday, the 5-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 6-5 Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. It will be the 45th meeting between the two teams, with the Bucs hoping to sweep the season series and take the lead in the all-time head-to-head matchup. The Falcons, who have lost five of six after a 5-0 start to the season, are one spot ahead of the Buccaneers in the NFC playoff hunt, making the stakes for this latest installment in the series particularly high.
To come out of Sunday's affair with their playoff hopes still in good shape, the Buccaneers will need to force Atlanta's offense into continuing a recent trend of turning the ball over too often. As for Tampa Bay's offense, it could have difficulty finding explosive plays against a secondary that has allowed the fewest long completions (20 or more yards) in the entire NFL. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when their long-time rivals from Georgia come to visit.
Dan Quinn is one of eight first-year head coaches in the NFL in 2015 (counting midseason replacement Dan Campbell in Miami), and he has his team in playoff contention right out of the gate, despite the Falcons' recent struggles.
Quinn, now in his first head job in two decades of coaching at the college and pro levels, was the first Falcons rookie head coach ever to get off to a 5-0 start in franchise history. The Falcons made a habit of winning close games in the first half of the season, making Quinn the first rookie head coach 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.
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.
When the Buccaneers went to Atlanta five weeks ago, they were prepared to take on the NFL's leaders in both rushing and receiving yards. Heading into December, Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones is still atop the leaderboard in both receptions (94) and yards (1,245) and is on pace for 137 and 1,810, which would rank second and third in NFL history, respectively. Jones had 12 catches for 162 yards against the Bucs in Week Eight and has more than 90 yards in eight of 11 outings this year. He is far and away the top target for quarterback Matt Ryan (141 targets for Jones, no more than 62 for any other player) and the Falcons' fifth-ranked passing attack.
On the other hand, a concussion that robbed Devonta Freeman of most of the last two games (not to mention recent explosive outings by Adrian Peterson and Doug Martin) has kept him from staying at the top of the league's rushing chart. He still ranks eighth in the league with 764 yards and, before his injury in Week 11, had averaged better than four yards per carry in six straight games. Tevin Coleman has filled in well for Freeman, including an 18-carry, 110-yard effort against Minnesota last Sunday, though he did lose a key fumble in the Falcons' loss. Atlanta's rushing attack has slipped from fifth to 15th in the league over the last five weeks though it remains explosive, ranking eighth in the league in carries of 10 or more yards. Whether it's Freeman or Coleman leading the way, the Falcons have picked up four or more yards on first-down carries on 43.9% of their attempts, ninth-best in the NFL.
Atlanta largely rebuilt its offensive line in 2015, and the results have been quite good. 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 sixth-best run-blocking O-Line in the league this year, behind New England. Those five blockers have combined to make 54 of a possible 55 starts – that in itself is a huge departure from recent history that saw Atlanta fight through a rash of O-Line injuries in 2013-14 – and Football Outsiders also rates them as the ninth-best pass-blocking line in the NFL.
Ryan has been sacked 20 times behind that line and Atlanta ranks eighth in sacks allowed per pass play. Despite the team's recent run of defeats, the Falcons' offense continues to sustain drives well. They were first in the NFL in scoring drives of five minutes or longer when the Bucs faced them five weeks ago, and they still rank second in that category, as well as in 10-play drives. That's because they convert third downs extremely well, at a 45.5% rate that ranks second in the NFL. While many of the Buccaneers' opponents this year have been significantly better at either long or short third downs, the Falcons excel from all distances, ranking in the top 11 in short, medium and long tries.
Meanwhile, Ryan is on pace for 4,672 passing yards and 23 touchdowns, which is similar to what he produces every year, and his passer rating of 88.6 is just a bit down from his career mark of 90.9. Still, the Falcons are on a long losing skid and Ryan has – predictably, for a quarterback – taken some of the heat. The issue, as is often the case, is turnovers. Ryan had just four interceptions during the Falcons' 5-1 start but he's tossed eight more in the last five games, including five in the last two weeks. He leads the NFL, unfortunately, with four interceptions thrown in the opposing red zone and the Falcons have seven total giveaways inside the 20. The league average is two. As a whole, Atlanta has committed 21 turnovers, tied for the third-highest total in the league.
Those giveaways near the goal line are an obvious part of the explanation for the difference between Atlanta's #5 ranking in yards gained and #14 in points scored. When the Falcons don't turn it over, they remain quite good near the goal line, ranking 12th in red zone touchdown percentage (60.0%) despite the turnovers and they are second in the NFL in percentage of successful plays (53.0%) inside the 20.
Atlanta's defense has been a bit more consistent this year, and in fact has improved against the pass since the last time the Bucs got a close-up look. The Falcons came into the Week Eight contest ranked second in rush defense and 25th in pass defense but is now sixth in the former and 15th in the latter. Even with their recent slide, it's worth noting that the Falcons are one of just three teams in the NFC, along with Arizona and Seattle, that ranks in the top half of the league in both yards and scoring on offense and both yards and scoring on defense.
In fact, only one of Atlanta's last eight opponents has scored more than 24 points, that coming in a 31-21 loss at New Orleans in Week Six. Quinn's efforts to turn around a Falcons' defense that ranked last in yards allowed and 27th in points allowed in 2014 have undoubtedly been helped by the presence of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, one of the league's best young cornerback duos.
Trufant, the 22nd-overall pick in the 2013 draft, rather quietly emerged as one of the NFL's elite cornerbacks last year, but the word is definitely out in 2015. According to Pro Football Focus, players Trufant has covered this season have only been targeted by their quarterbacks 38 times, the lowest figure for any NFL cornerback who has played at least 75% of his team's snaps. He is credited with allowing just 21 receptions for 262 yards all season. Across the field, Alford continues to have a nose for the football; he has two picks this year, one returned 59 yards for a touchdown, and seven in his brief career. Only one player who entered the league in 2013 (New England's Logan Ryan) has more picks so far than Alford.
Safety William Moore also has two INTs this season and he has combined with those corners to keep opponents from biting off big chunks in single plays. The Falcons have allowed just 29 receptions of 20 or more yards this year, and only two TD passes of that length, both the lowest totals in the league. Moore, in the meantime, continues to create turnovers, as his 27 combined interceptions and forced fumbles ranks fifth among all safeties since 2009.
Despite the team's high number of giveaways, the Falcons are only -3 in turnover differential because the defense has created 18 turnovers of its own, tied for 10th in the league. Those takeaways have resulted in 53 points, the 12th-highest total in the NFL.
As much as Atlanta's defense has improved in 2015, it has still not yet found the answer to a pass rush that has been lacking for several years. The team spent a first-round pick on edge rusher Vic Beasley and he has contributed two sacks, but unfortunately that is tied for the team lead. Ends Adrian Clayborn and Kroy Biermann also have two QB takedowns, as does LB O'Brien Schofield, but Atlanta's defense ranks 31st in sacks recorded per pass play. That said, in blitz passing situations, according to Statspass, Atlanta's defense has allowed the second-lowest opponent passer rating in the league, at 67.2. The Bucs may need to be prepared to handle extra pass-rushers.
While the Falcons' pass defense has gradually improved, the rush defense has shown some cracks during the recent losing streak. When the Buccaneers went to the Georgia Dome in November, the Falcons had the league's second-best run defense and hadn't allowed an opposing team to hit triple digits in six of its first seven games. The Bucs picked up 117 yards on the ground, starting a four-game stretch in which Atlanta has allowed an average of 128.8 rushing yards per outing. Just as before, however, the Falcons are allowing just 3.7 yards per carry, which ranks sixth in the NFL. They also still lead the NFL in lowest percentage of opposing rushes that gain four or more yards, at 34.4%
Leading the charge in that department is linebacker Paul Worrilow, the new Falcon tackling machine following in the footsteps of Jessie Tuggle and Keith Brooking. Worrilow leads the team with 72 tackles. In less than two-and-a-half seasons, Worrilow has already racked up 340 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 is second on the team with 50 tackles but he suffered an ankle injury in the game against Minnesota and could be a question mark this week. Phillip Wheeler stepped in when Durant went down and had a very strong game with a team-high 11 tackles.
READ: WEEK 13 POWER RANKINGS
Atlanta's defense hasn't always gotten off the field as quickly as it would like, with an opposing third-down conversion rate of 42.9% that ranks 27th in the NFL. That has been a bigger problem of late; the Falcons were at 39.2% and ranked 19th in the league before the last Atlanta-Tampa Bay matchup. Due to those third-down issues – and the Falcons have had a particular issue on *short *third downs, ranking 31st in the NFL – opposing teams have been able to sustain drives. Atlanta ranks 27th in 10-play drives allowed.
Somewhat balancing the Falcons' seven giveaways in the red zone is that they've also come away four takeaways inside the 20 of their own, double the league average and tied for third in the NFL. Otherwise, opponents have mostly been able to get to the end zone once breaching the 20; Atlanta ranks 27th in the league in red zone touchdown rate on defense.
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 162 of his 185 field goal tries since joining the Falcons, a success rate of 87.6% that ranks sixth in the NFL in that span among kickers who qualify with at least 70 tries. This year, Bryant has made 14 of 18 field goal attempts, though he's missed four of his last 12. Of more pressing importance, the Falcons were forced to sign veteran K Shayne Graham and play him against the Vikings last week after Bryant suffered a quad injury in practice.
Bryant 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. He has not missed a PAT in 26 attempts this season despite the new longer distance for those kicks. Should the Falcons need Graham again, he is an extremely experienced fill-in, with 174 career games and an 85.6% career field goal success rate. Graham was 19 for 22 on field goals last year in New Orleans.
Bosher handles both the punts and the kickoffs and has been effective in both tasks. He was the league leader in gross average before the first Bucs-Falcons game, and while he has now plummeted all the way to second (48.8-yard average), he has improved to seventh in net average, at 42.0. Opposing punt returners are averaging 8.9 yards per runback against the Falcons' cover team, putting Atlanta 19th in the league in that category. The coverage units could be a minor issue for Atlanta, as the team also ranks 31st in the league in opposing kickoff return average, at 28.9, despite not giving up any single return longer than 41. However, Bosher minimizes that issue by getting touchbacks on 74.1% of his kickoffs, fifth-best in the NFL. Even with his big leg, Bosher has shown great situational control on punts, hitting just one touchback while dropping 15 kicks inside the 20.
Eric Weems has handled almost all of the Falcons' return work this year, averaging 11.6 yards per punt return and 26.9 yards per kickoff return, ranking fourth and fifth in the NFL in those categories, respectively. As good as that is, the situation might be about to get even better for the Falcons. Devin Hester, the most accomplished kick returner in league history, is eligible to be activated from short-term injured reserve before the game in Tampa.