The bye week was a much-needed reprieve from the Falcons' 1-4 start to the season, but it's over, and it's time to look toward Sunday's matchup against division rival Tampa Bay. And, look, it's easy to be pessimistic about Sunday's game. The Falcons certainly were in a position to beat every single team they've played this season, and whether it came down to injuries, or weird play-calling, or good old-fashioned execution, they blew it in all four losses.
That's why it's not smart to look past the Buccaneers. Yes, they are winless. Yes, they seem to have some precarious locker room situations, from the drama leading up to and resulting from cutting former starting quarterback Josh Freeman, to recurring, and new, MRSA infections in players. Yes, they rank near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories. However, anything can happen on any given Sunday, and the Falcons cannot afford to drop this game.
Like Atlanta, Tampa Bay has lost some close games. They lost to the Jets after a boneheaded personal foul penalty by Bucs linebacker Lavonte David let the Jets keep a drive going to get into field goal range. Nick Folk kicked a 48-yarder to win 18-17 with just two seconds remaining in the game.
The Bucs played the Saints close, losing 16-14, after a missed Rian Lindell field goal gave the Saints just over a minute of regulation to get into position to kick a field goal of their own to win the game.
Now, to be fair, both of those close losses, plus the not-even-remotely close 23-3 loss to the Patriots, came with embattled quarterback Josh Freeman under center. Freeman was subsequently benched, replaced with rookie Napoleon Dynamite Mike Glennon. Freeman will be making his first start as a Minnesota Viking this Sunday.
In Glennon's first start, he lost another close one, a 13-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals that, again, was sealed toward the end of the game. The Cardinals trailed the Bucs 10-0 at halftime, but the Cardinals came back with a Jay Feely 42-yard field goal, and a Carson Palmer touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald, and then sealed the win on another Jay Feely field goal with 1:29 remaining in the game.
Last week, the loss wasn't nearly as close, as Tampa Bay's defense allowed the Eagles' Nick Foles to throw three touchdown passes for a 31-20 Philadelphia win.
So, like the Falcons, the Bucs have lost some close games that, had a couple of plays bounced a different way, they could have won. They're not as bad as their 0-5 record would suggest.
Tampa Bay's defense isn't bad at all. They're ranked 15th in the league for yards allowed, with an average of 350.8 per game. Their pass defense is allowing 247.8 yards per game, plus just eight passing touchdowns on the season. The Bucs' run defense is 20th in the league, allowing rushing yards per game, and just one rushing touchdown. They've managed 14 sacks on the season, and six interceptions plus six forced fumbles. The Bucs defense is also allowing just 20.8 points per game, which puts them in the top ten in the league.
The problem has been that the Bucs offense is averaging just 12.8 points per game, which is better than only the Jacksonville Jaguars so far this season. With Mike Glennon under center, that number improves slightly. In his two starts, the Bucs are averaging 15 points per game. The Bucs are also last in the league for passing yards per game, 31st in the league for passing touchdowns, 20th in the league for rushing yards per game, and tied for 29th in the league for rushing touchdowns, with just one so far this season.
While Glennon showed improvement from his first start to his second, he's still very green. The Falcons, as surprising as it may seem, have the sixth-ranked run defense in the league right now, allowing just 97.4 yards per game and two rushing touchdowns. It's better to stack the box and contain Tampa Bay's potentially explosive running back Doug Martin, and make Glennon take his chances against the Falcons' pass defense.
On offense, the Falcons will definitely miss Julio Jones, and they may be lacking Steven Jackson and Roddy White. At the very least, even if those two were able to play, they would almost certainly be operating at significantly less than full strength. It will be interesting to see how the Bucs use Darrelle Revis--the smart move would be to assign him to man coverage on Tony Gonzalez, who is instantly the Falcons' number one receiver with Jones out and Roddy like a shadow of his usual self due to injuries, but the Bucs have tended to use Revis in more zone coverage this season, which isn't his strength.
At the end of the day, Tampa Bay is a team that has struggled in close games, that has had a recent, and dramatic, quarterback change, and has had some off-the-field distractions. They have a decent defense, but their offense has struggled to put points on the board. Don't expect an easy win, but it's reasonable to expect that the Falcons will pull off the victory at home on Sunday.
What are you expecting from the Falcons on Sunday?