Coming off a pretty ugly loss two weeks earlier against the Lions, the Falcons really needed the bye week to get healthy and to get their minds straight for the second half of the season. Luckily, they were tasked with facing a Bucs team that has looked pretty terrible this year. A Bucs team they had handily beat in Atlanta in week 3.
But road wins are hard to come by, and the Falcons did manage to pull one out in the end - though it was definitely ugly getting there. Here are some key thoughts about the rare 2014 win on Sunday:
1. The offensive line had a good game
With 4 OL starters on injured reserve (Baker, Hawley, Konz, Holmes), you'd be justified if you thought that this OL was going to be a walking disaster for the remainder of the season. While it's still too early to call it a good OL, the early returns are positive.
On the day, Steven Jackson was able to gain 81 yards on 16 carries (5.1 average). Matt Ryan had good time in the pocket all game, and was sacked only once. It all added up to 27 points on the board by the end of the game, and a nice overall showing by the offense - even if it did sputter at times.
In particular, James Stone has done a good job since taking over as starter. He had a rough assignment for his first start - going against Suh and Fairley and he drew another tough one today having to face one of the best DTs in the league in Gerald McCoy. He's done very well, especially considering the competition he's had to face. The Falcons may have found a valuable player for the future in Stone.
Likewise, Ryan Schraeder has looked solid at right tackle since taking over the starting role against the Lions. Though the assignment this week was not nearly as tough as facing Ezekial Ansah, it's still nice to see some stability at a position most people thought would end up being a big weakness again.
Once the Falcons get some guys back next year, the overall depth of the offensive line should be very, very good.
2. Some of the same issues are still there
Do you like Antone Smith in space? Do you find it frustrating when he's run between the tackles instead of used on the edges? Then you were likely disappointed in how he was used in this game.
Do you like watching the Falcons have success in the no-huddle/hurry-up? Are you baffled when they suddenly decide to abandon it when it's working better than anything else they've done? Yeah - same thing here.
Are you amazed when they try to use a WR screen on third downs with no success? Are you perplexed when they give up a first down on 3rd and REALLY long? Then today's game probably didn't give you much encouragement.
Sadly, these issues with personnel usage and play-calling still reared their ugly heads today. The reality is that they are unlikely to change if they didn't change over the bye week. The coaches of this team don't appear to see the same things many fans see, or they don't know how to change. Whatever it is, we should all get used to seeing these frustrating tendencies for the remainder of the season.
3. Amazingly, the Falcons are only 1 game back of the NFC South lead
With the Saints dropping an OT game to the 49ers, the Falcons are now just 1 game back of the NFC South lead - and stand at 3-0 within the division. With the Panthers hurting on the offensive line and underachieving on defense, the Bucs being the Bucs, and the Saints being incredibly inconsistent, the Falcons could feasibly win this dumpster-fire division with a losing record. It's not unreasonable to think the Falcons could finish 7-9 and win the South - which is just ridiculous.
Do I think that will happen? Probably not. Today's victory over the Bucs didn't convince me that this team has turned things around enough to run off a string of wins, though it was nice to see them finally get another W. But for now, they're just one game back - and that can serve as motivation enough to fight again next week.