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Resurgent Falcons Turning Up the Heat on Defense

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just finished a meeting with the NFC South's first-place team, but now they have a date with unequivocally the hottest team in their division.

Week 12 brings the Buccaneers' first of two meetings with the rival Atlanta Falcons, this one in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The two teams will meet again at Raymond James Stadium to close out the regular season in Week 17. Both the Buccaneers and Falcons are 3-7, but Atlanta is riding a two-game winning streak since coming out of its Week Nine bye.

Not only has Atlanta won two in a row, but it has done so in impressive fashion, with dominant road wins over New Orleans and Carolina. The Falcons' defense, which had allowed the most points in the league through nine weeks, surrendered a total of four field goals and 12 points in those two division victories, supporting an offense that, as usual, can throw the ball as well as anyone with the combination of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.

Notably, Atlanta's defense has turned up the pressure since the team's break, playing a more aggressive style and reaping the benefits with 11 sacks in those two wins. The Buccaneers will need to give quarterback Jameis Winston good protection against that onslaught in order to avoid the negative plays that have counteracted a very productive passing attack. Winston is riding a team-record streak of five straight 300-yard passing games, and he's the NFL's second-leading passer in terms of yards, but he's also been picked off 13 times in that span.

Sunday's game could be another high-scoring affair, considering that it pits two of the league's top four passing attacks as well as two defenses ranked in the bottom seven in terms of points allowed. Atlanta has obviously improved in that area in recent weeks, but a shootout would be in keeping with the recent history of the rivalry. The six Bucs-Falcons games played over the past three seasons have seen an average of more than 47 combined points scored. Both of last year's meetings were high-scoring close finishes, with the Falcons winning 34-29 in Atlanta and then walking off in the rematch with a last-second 34-32 win in Tampa.

Tampa Bay's last season sweep in the series with Atlanta came in 2015. They'll try to set up a repeat by winning the first 2019 matchup on Sunday in Atlanta, but to do so they'll have to reserve the Falcons impressive recent trend on defense. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when they head up to Georgia this weekend:

FALCONS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

Atlanta's offense still runs through Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but the team has found a couple more big-time contributors in 2019 in tight end Austin Hooper and wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Unfortunately for Atlanta, Hooper, who has 608 yards and six touchdowns, is currently shelved by a knee injury but Ridley is coming off a very strong game against the Panthers. As mentioned above, Atlanta's defense has exploded for 11 sacks in the past two weeks after getting just seven through its first eight games. Cornerback Desmond Trufant, who snared his team-high third interception last weekend, continues to lead the Atlanta secondary, though that unit is giving up 261.7 yards per game and 7.56 yards per pass play to rank in the bottom seven in both categories. Here are four specific Falcons who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:

1. WR Julio Jones. Jones definitely made a difference in last year's Bucs-Falcons rivalry, catching 10 passes for 144 yards in Atlanta and another nine for 138 yards and a touchdown in Tampa. That raised his all-time per-game average against the Bucs just a hair, to an incredible 121.5. Surprisingly, the Falcons lost the game in which Jones scored. In his career, Jones has played in 64 Falcons wins and scored 39 touchdowns in those contests; he's scored only 16 times in the 57 games he's played in that ended in defeat. In contrast, there is almost no difference in his per-game yardage averages, with a mark of 95.5 in wins and 96.5 in losses. The challenge for the Buccaneers' defense against Jones is much like it was last week against the Saints' Michael Thomas: They both run excellent routes and have great connections with their long-time quarterback partners. Jones obviously possesses an elite combination of size and speed but he also has extraordinary body control, allowing him to make great catches on the field's boundaries and in traffic.

2. DT Grady Jarrett. Jarrett is the engine that drives Atlanta's defense and has over his career developed into the best player on that squad. He is extremely competitive and has an endless supply of energy, allowing him to wreak havoc from the first minute of the game to the last. Jarrett is instinctive and quick and spends a lot of time in the opposing backfield, and he can also barrel right through an opposing blocker. Falcons foes have a tough time running the ball in Jarrett's direction, but he's also very active in pursuit when teams run away from him. He has a team-high 5.5 sacks in 2019, 3.5 of which have come in Atlanta's last three games. Jarrett's five-year sack total of 19.5 isn't particularly eye-opening but that belies how much of an impact he has had as a pass rusher. Though he's had "only" 15.5 sacks in the last three seasons he also has a total of 52 quarterback hits in that same span.

3. QB Matt Ryan. Like his partner in passing dominance, Jones, Ryan has a very strong performance history against the Buccaneers, including a career passer rating of 97.6 in 22 outings. He has completed 66.5% of his passes in those contests and thrown 35 touchdown passes against 16 interceptions. Of course Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP, has fared well against many opponents, with a 65.6% career completion percentage and nearly 50,000 passing yards. Ryan's interception rate in 2019 is double what it was in his MVP season, but six of his nine picks came in the first three games of the season and that has not been much of a problem since. Though the Falcons only recently rebounded from a 1-7 start, they have been just as dangerous as ever in the passing game, with Ryan averaging just under 300 yards per game.

4. LB Deion Jones. Jones is a playmaking defender in the mold of former Buccaneer Kwon Alexander – not the biggest linebacker in the league but fast and instinctive and always playing very hard. Jones is second on the Atlanta defense with 73 tackles so far this year, including seven tackles for loss, and none of those TFLs have been on sacks. His 27 solo stops on running plays is the most by any Falcon defender so far. Jones doesn't have an interception yet this year and has broken up just one pass but the numbers from his first three campaigns indicate a linebacker who can definitely make an impact in the passing game, as well. Those numbers include eight interceptions and 27 passes defensed. The Buccaneers got a career-high 10 catches from Cam Brate last Sunday against the Saints but Tampa Bay tight ends may have more trouble finding open space in the middle of the field with Jones on patrol.

View some of the best photos from the Buccaneers' Week 11 matchup against the New Orleans Saints.

STRENGTHS

Atlanta's passing attack has generated the third-most passing yards per game (300.3) in 2019, and is 10th in overall offense. The Falcons are also third-best at picking up first downs (23.6 per game) and 10th in sacks allowed per pass play (6.10%). On defense, the Falcons still rank in the bottom third of the league in most categories despite their recent resurgence, but their rush defense has allowed only 3.91 yards per carry, eighth-best in the NFL. Here are some more specific areas in which the Falcons have done well through their first 10 games of the season:

·    Atlanta's high ranking in first downs produced is noted above and the Falcons specifically has the most passing first downs this year, with 159. Consistently moving the chains has allowed Atlanta's offense to average 8.7 plays per scoring drive, which is second-best in the NFL so far. The Falcons' scoring drives also average three minutes and 55 seconds, which is seventh-highest in the league. Atlanta's averages of 6.2 plays and 2:53 time of possession on all drives also both rank in the league's top 10.

·    Atlanta's strong run defense has been particularly good in two categories: stopping first-down runs and creating negative plays. The Falcons are allowing only 3.9 yards per carry on first downs, seventh-best in the league and nearly a half-yard better than the NFL average per team. Atlanta has also stopped 30 of their opponents' 275 runs for negative yards, and that rate of 11.3% stands ninth in the NFL.

·    When Ryan has chosen to throw the ball deep, he's done his best work throwing down the right side of the field. The Falcons have completed 54.17% of their attempts to the deep right part of the field, which is second-best in the NFL, and those attempts have yielded an average gain of 15.04 yards. In contrast, Atlanta is 25th in average gain on deep throws down the middle and 17th on deep balls down the left side.

·    Atlanta's defense has done well when facing two-minute drills at the end of either half. They've faced 12 such drives and allowed only two field goals, with one of those drives ended by an interception. Those six points allowed on two-minute drives are tied for seventh-fewest in the NFL.

WEAKNESSES

Even after recording 11 sacks during their two-game winning streak, Atlanta hasn't generated a lot of pressure on opposing passers, ranking 29th in sacks per pass play (5.20%). Opposing offenses have also done well on their third-down tries, converting 46.0% of their tries to push Atlanta to 29th in the league rankings. The Falcons' offense has thrown the ball well but not found a complementary rushing attack, ranking 30th in yards per game (74.5) and 27th in yards per carry (3.58). In addition:

·    Like the Buccaneers, the Falcons have hurt themselves with turnovers in 2019, though not so much in recent weeks. Atlanta's turnover differential of -8 ranks 27th in the NFL, two spots ahead of Tampa Bay (-10). With a relatively low takeaway total of 16, Atlanta's defense has also not helped its offense put points on the board very often. The Falcons have scored 25 points off takeaways this year, which is tied for the fifth-lowest total in the NFL.

·    It's been a season of upheaval for the Falcons' kicking game, which has employed four different punters and two different kickers. Injuries have been the issue at punter, with long-time Falcon Matt Bosher landing on injured reserve and one of his replacements, Matt Wile, also being waived with an injury settlement. Kasey Redfern also got a brief cameo after Wile was hurt, but the team has most recently turned to Ryan Allen. The Falcons also moved on from veteran kicker Matt Bryant during the bye week and brought in Younghoe Koo. Through it all, the Falcons are tied for 24th in field goal percentage (72.7%) and are ranked 30th with a net punting average of 37.5 yards per attempt.

·    While the Falcons' defense has been good at producing negative-yardage runs, as noted above, so have Atlanta's opponents been able to do the same thing to them. Atlanta has attempted 208 runs – the third-lowest amount in the NFL, as it turns out – and 24 of them have been stuffed behind the line of scrimmage. That's 11.9% of all Atlanta rushing attempts going for negative yardage, the fifth-highest percentage in the NFL.

·    Atlanta's defense ranks 24th in the league in red zone defense, allowing 59.46% of the drives that penetrate their 20-yard line to continue on to the end zone. One thing that opposing offenses have been able to do better than average in that part of the field is run the ball. Atlanta has allowed 157 red zone rushing yards this year, the third-highest total in the league. They've also given up 3.14 yards per carry in that territory, fourth-highest in the league.

NEW FACES IN 2019

The Falcons didn't dive too deep into the free agency market this past offseason but they did bring in two new starting guards to replace Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer. Atlanta also added a new kick returner, which paid off quite well this past week, and as noted they've employed a number of different punters and kickers in 2019.

1. Gs Jamon Brown and James Carpenter. The former came from the Giants and the latter from the Jets, and both New York imports are now in the starting lineup. Brown spent most of his first four seasons with the Rams, starting 38 games, and Carpenter had 97 career starters with the Jets and Seahawks before arriving in Atlanta.

2. T Kaleb McGary. Atlanta's offensive line actually has three new starters in 2019 because the Falcons used a pair of first-round picks on that unit. The 14th-overall selection was spent on Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom, but Lindstrom landed on injured reserve to start the season. The Falcons also traded up 14 spots to get Washington's McGary at number 31, and he has started all 10 games at right tackle.

3. RB Kenjon Barner. Barner joined his fourth NFL team in March as an unrestricted free agent, and while he has logged only five touches on offense he's been the Falcons' primary return ma. Barner has 18 of the team's 20 punt returners and is averaging 11.3 yards per runback after breaking free for a 78-yard touchdown last week at Carolina. Barner also has half of the Falcons' kickoff returns, with an average of 25.0 yards per shot.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. S Keanu Neal. Atlanta has 14 players on its injured reserve list, most recently losing RB Ito Smith to that group. One of the toughest losses for the Falcons has been that of Keanu Neal, who went down with an Achilles tendon injury in Week Three. Neal is a hard-hitting safety who made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and was one of the Falcons' top defensive players.

2. WR Mohamed Sanu. Though the Falcons have won two in a row, their rough start to the season had them as sellers at the trade deadline and they were able to net a 2020 second-round pick from the Patriots for their veteran receiver. Sanu had 33 catches for 313 yards and one touchdown in seven games for the Falcons before the trade.

3. RB Devonta Freeman. The Falcons' leading rusher and Jameis Winston's former Florida State teammate sustained a foot injury against the Saints in Week 10. The initial prognosis was that he was likely to miss two weeks, and if that holds he would be unavailable against the Buccaneers on Sunday.

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