The Tampa Bay Buccaneers return from their bye week to hit the road again, heading to Atlanta for their second NFC South matchup of the season. Having already won at New Orleans in Week Two, the Buccaneers have a chance to stay perfect in division play and bank another road win, but they will have to snap a two-game losing streak to do it. The foe is the 1-4 Falcons, a team with high expectations that has been ravaged by injuries, particularly on defense.
In some ways, the Falcons have produced results very similar to what the Buccaneers have done. The two teams rank 31st and 32nd in points allowed per game but have very prolific offenses skewed heavily to the passing attack. The Falcons' offense has protected the football very well but has not given quarterback Matt Ryan the same level of protection. Still, Ryan and Julio Jones remain one of the most dangerous combinations in the NFL, and they've been joined this year by a rookie with a nose for the end zone. Here's a look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face against Atlanta on Sunday:
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. This list would have looked different before injured reserve claimed such difference-makers as linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal, and if defensive tackle Grady Jarrett hadn't suffered an ankle injury last week.
1. WR Julio Jones. I think it's safe to say that Jones is on this week's Game-Wrecker tape, especially after he wrecked the Bucs for 253 yards last year when they went to Atlanta. We'll give you his career stats against the Buccaneers, not because we think he's been more of a problem for Tampa Bay than any other opponent, but simply to demonstrate how prolific he has been in the series: 12 games, 83 catches, 1,413 yards (117.8), 10 touchdowns, 17.0 yards per catch. Jones can get deep for the 60-yard play, but he's especially dangerous when he turns what looks like a deep route into a sudden stop and change of direction, becoming nearly impossible to cover in the process.
2. QB Matt Ryan. Though it's an obvious choice, especially in this era of ever-expanding passing numbers, we don't spotlight the quarterback every week. In Ryan's case, however, he's been on a tear against the Buccaneers the past two years. In four games he has completed 95 of 139 passes (68.3%) for 1,207 yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. That's a 114.4 passer rating spread out over 16 quarters, which is quite impressive. The Buccaneers did win one of those four games, the 2016 season opener, but they haven't held Ryan and company below 24 points since 2015.
3. CB Desmond Trufant. Trufant missed the last half of the 2016 with a pectoral injury (coincidentally suffered in a game against the Bucs) but the Falcons thought so much of the 2015 Pro Bowler that they inked him to a lucrative new deal in the offseason that followed. That's an indication of the deep value of a top-notch cornerback, and Trufant definitely belongs in that category. Though he has just nine interceptions in six seasons, including 2018 in which he has yet to snag one, he is capable of shutting down a team's best receiver. That's a tougher challenge against a Buccaneers team with so many weapons in the passing game, but Trufant will surely play a key role if the Falcons can slow that attack down on Sunday.
4. DE Takkarist McKinley. Vic Beasley, the Falcons' first-round pick in 2015, had a league-leading 15.5 sacks in 2016 but nobody else on that defense had more than 4.5. Looking for a pass-rushing complement to their young star, the team used another first-round pick on UCLA's McKinley in 2017. McKinley had a fine debut season, with six sacks (actually one more than Beasley that season) but he appears to be emerging as a force of his own in 2018. McKinley already has 5.0 sacks in five games this year, which is only one of the NFL lead, which is shared by J.J. Watt, T.J. Watt and Geno Atkins.
Despite Atlanta's unexpected 1-4 start, the Falcons' high-powered offense can still move the ball through the air (ninth in passing yards per play), sustain drives (second in third-down percentage) and put points on the board (tied for ninth in scoring per game). Here are some other areas in which the Falcons continue to excel this season:
· The Falcons are not hurting themselves with giveaways on offense. Atlanta has committed a league-low three turnovers through five games (two interceptions, one lost fumble) and has yet to allow a single point off of a giveaway.
· Atlanta's defense is near the bottom of the rankings in terms of both yards and points allowed, but it is generally not getting burned by a string of big plays. The Falcons have allowed 43 plays of 20 or more yards, which is tied for the eighth-lowest total in the NFL. In addition, the average gain of those 43 plays is just 27.2 yards, which is the second-lowest mark in the league.
· Atlanta's offense is hard to stop on third downs in part because such a high percentage of its plays succeed in getting four or more yards. On all plays (rushing and passing), Atlanta gains four or more yards 49.3% of the time, fourth-best in the NFL; on just passing plays, that mark goes up to 54.9%, second in the league. In both cases, the Falcons rank one spot ahead of the Buccaneers.
· Matt Bryant is still going strong. The 43-year-old kicker has made all seven of his field goal tries this year, with a long of 55. The Falcons are one of seven teams who have yet to miss a field goal in 2018.
As noted, injuries have taken a toll on Atlanta's defense, and the results are showing up in the statistics. The Falcons have allowed the second-most points in the league (32.6 per game), the fifth-most yards (398.6 per game) and the second-most first downs (25.8 per game). In addition:
· The Falcons' defense has had serious trouble getting off the field on third downs. Atlanta has allowed a conversion rate of 55.4% on third downs, the worst in the NFL. Only Atlanta and Cincinnati have allowed more than half of their opponents' third-down tries to succeed.
· As good as Atlanta's passing attack has been, its running game has been slow to get in gear, in part because of Devonta Freeman's absence for several weeks. Atlanta's ground game has been stung by too many negative plays – the team has lost yardage on 19 of its 115 runs so far, and that negative-play percentage of 16.7% ranks second-to-last in the NFL.
· As much as the Falcons' depleted defense has struggled overall, the results in the red zone have been particular bad. On 21 incursions inside Atlanta's 20 (a number that is tied for the league high), opponents have scored 17 touchdowns. That 81.0% red zone TD efficiency is third-worst in the NFL.
· As much as the Falcons' placekicking has been a plus, the punting unit hasn't produced nearly as well. Veteran Matt Bosher has a 44.2-yard gross punting average, which if maintained would be his lowest since his 2011 rookie year, and the Falcons' protection and coverage haven't helped. Bosher has had two punts blocked already (the rest of the league has four) and Atlanta's net punting average of 35.8 is third-worst in the NFL.
NEW FACES IN 2018
Atlanta's offense still features the familiar star power of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, but that attack also has one new productive player each in the receiving and running back groups, and those two have combined for eight touchdowns. Atlanta's defense also features a former Buccaneer who has stepped into a starting role after a rash of injuries to the secondary.
1. WR Calvin Ridley. Atlanta chose to add to a strength with their first pick in this year's draft, and it has worked out very well. The dynamic Alabama receiver has fit in well with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, averaging 15.9 yards per catch and scoring a team-high and league-leading six receiving touchdowns. Jones continues to pile up yards as fast as anyone in the league and Sanu remains a very productive complement, but the additional presence of Ridley makes everything tougher for opposing defenses.
2. RB Ito Smith. The Falcons already have a very good two-headed backfield with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, but now they can also mix things up with the small and quick Smith, a fourth-round pick out of Southern Miss. The 5-9, 180-pound Smith is getting about four carries a game and he's already scored two touchdowns, and he's been helpful in the passing game, too, with eight catches on nine targets and an 8.4-yard average.
3. S Keith Tandy. Tandy was a valued member of the Buccaneers' defense and special teams units for six years, but the team finally chose to go younger at the position this year, releasing the veteran safety in the final cuts. Tandy landed in Atlanta to provide the same sort of safety depth and special teams help to the Falcons, and has since found himself in a more prominent role thanks to a rash of injuries. He has played in the last three games and could start against his former team with Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen both on injured reserve.
1. Deion Jones/Keanu Neal/Ricardo Allen. Atlanta's defense has been hit hard by injury and these three key starters are already on injured reserve for at least the first half of the season.
2. DT Grady Jarrett. Another one of the Falcons' best defenders, Jarrett suffered an ankle injury in Atlanta's Week Five game against Pittsburgh and may not be able to suit up against the Buccaneers. Jarrett is the primary creator of havoc in the middle of the Falcons' line.
3. G Andy Levitre. One of the best players on a very good Falcons offensive line, Levitre suffered a torn triceps in Week Two and was placed on injured reserve. That is likely a contributing factor to Matt Ryan absorbing 16 sacks already and the Falcons' running game still looking to find its footing. Wes Schweitzer, who started all 16 games for Atlanta at right guard last season, has taken over for Levitre at left guard.