One of the questions that comes up before every matchup is how the Falcons stack up. Traditionally, this question is posed as "oh no, is Team X going to destroy our quarterback," but we're going to put a little bit of a different spin on the question by stacking each of the Falcons' and Buccaneers' units up against one another. You may, in memory of our dearly cut friend Yawin Smallwood, make a pun out of that.
What follows is an unscientific but completely accurate breakdown of each position and who has the edge going into Thursday night's game.
Matt Ryan is so much better than Josh McCown that even Josh McCown's mother has been known to proclaim it loudly at the dinner table. This is quite awkward.
McCown, of course, had been a career journeyman and backup until he was rescued off the scrap heap by quarterback guru Marc Trestman, who squeezed the best football of his long career out of him last year in Chicago. Thus far in Tampa, McCown has been a dink and dunk artist, completing a robust 68% of his passes for just 362 yards, two touchdowns and three picks while absorbing four sacks and fumbling the ball twice. It's fair to say that Trestman isn't walking through that door.
Ryan just struggled mightily but remains a top-tier NFL quarterback and a player capable of eviscerating a secondary. Again, not even close.
The Falcons don't have an elite back in the bunch, but they have a healthy Steven Jackson, a dynamic Devonta Freeman, an extremely dynamic Antone Smith and the ever-useful Jacquizz Rodgers. That depth chart goes four deep, hombre.
The Buccaneers have an injured and ineffective Doug Martin, occasionally exciting third-stringer Mike James and Bobby Rainey, who has been spectacular as a runner thus far in 2014. Maybe Rainey's really that good and Martin's stellar upon his return, but at the moment it's tough to argue that the Falcons don't have the advantage with so many useful players. I can see a strong case based on Martin, but he needs to stay on the field and prove effective before I go there.
The Falcons have Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester. When everyone's healthy and they're not getting bogged down by an excellent defense, they can run successful four wide sets and wreak havoc. Unfortunately, Roddy White is dinged up at the moment and the team just had a worrying game, but as others have pointed out, the combination of good coverage, tons of blitzing and some poor decisions by Matt Ryan conspired to hold them back. I still expect this corps to be very good going forward.
The Buccaneers have an extremely effective deep threat in the form of Vincent Jackson, and Mike Evans could legitimately be one of the best receivers in the NFL in short order. Beyond that, the depth chart thins out to the likes to Chris Owusu and Robert Herron, moderately useful options. Herron could be more than that someday. At the moment, while Jackson and Evans are legitimately dangerous, the Falcons have the better corps.
The Falcons have Levine Toilolo, who is an underappreciated blocking tight end but a middling receiving option at this point in his career. Bear Pascoe is purely a blocker, really, and the Falcons don't have anyone else on the roster.
The Buccaneers have Brandon Myers, who serves as a useful security blanket for McCown. They have Luke Stocker the blocker. And they have Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, a promising tight end prospect who might be ready to take over the starting role in 2015 and has a real role on this offense when healthy. That depth chart goes deeper and has more talent.
This unit got shown up by the Bengals during Sunday's game, but the interior trio of Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley and Jon Asamoah have held up reasonably well so far. If Jake Matthews returns, he provides stability and talent to the left tackle position, leaving the weak point as right tackle, where either Lamar Holmes or Gabe Carimi starts. It's far from a great line, but it's a solid one.
The Buccaneers have Anthony Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith at left tackle and center, and left guard Logan Mankins gives them a powerful run blocking presence but a middling pass protector. Demar Dotson at right tackle and Patrick Omameh at right guard are both, at best, mediocre players, leaving the entire right side of Tampa's line looking a little bit like Atlanta's 2013 right side. Those painful memories alone are enough to make me give the edge to the Falcons, however narrowly.
The Falcons have a lot of pieces to rotate through, not that they have thus far. Kroy Biermann hasn't looked great thus far, Tyson Jackson hasn't either, Paul Soliai is purely a run-stopper and blocker-occupier and Jonathan Babineaux and Jonathan Massaquoi, among others, are being misused. There's talent here, but not great talent.
The Buccaneers have Gerald McCoy, who is one of the best defensive players in football. If he's out, they have William Gholston, Da'Quan Bowers, Clinton McDonald and Michael Johnson along the defensive front, a unit that can slow down opposing ground games fairly effectively and packs some pass rushing punch from Johnson and (to a much lesser extent) Gholston. The Falcons might be deeper, but that hasn't meant much thus far, and this Bucs unit is better.
This isn't even a contest. The Falcons can throw guys like Biermann, Osi Umenyiora, Mass and Stansly Maponga at outside linebacker, but otherwise the team is mostly rolling with Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu and Prince Shembo in their 4-2-5 looks. Worrilow tackles well and Shembo and Bartu both have some promise, but this is a linebacking corps that just hasn't been effective thus far in 2014. Perhaps that changes as the Falcons rotate in Maponga and Shembo more frequently, and perhaps they get real improvement from Worrilow, Shembo and others as the year rolls on, but right now you can't stack this up against Tampa Bay.
The Bucs have world-devourer Lavonte David, the reliable Jonathan Casillas and, assuming Mason Foster is out, the distinctly average Dane Fletcher. It's not a fantastic unit outside of David, but that guy's so far ahead of anything the Falcons can put on the field that it hardly matters.
Alterraun Verner is a terrific cornerback and Johnthan Banks has the talent to become one. Leonard Johnson is a solid choice at nickel, and then it thins out fast.
Desmond Trufant is already as good as any young cornerback in the NFL, Robert Alford has loads of talent, Robert McClain looks to be back to useful nickel back form and Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas are a bit better than what Tampa Bay can muster down the depth chart. I waffled on this one for quite some time, but I think the Falcons have a bit more talent here.
William Moore is a typically great player who hasn't looked great outside of flashes since 2012. Dwight Lowery is a tackling machine who hasn't been a coverage asset, and Kemal Ishmael and Dezmen Southward are depth in want of a chance to prove themselves.
The Bucs have Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron, with Major Wright kicking around in there somewhere. It's not a deep set of safeties, but Goldson and Barron are both considered to be quality starters, and with good reason.
Matt Bryant is one of the most reliable kickers in the game, Matt Bosher one of the better punters and Devin Hester still a weapon to be feared on special teams, albeit one who hasn't broken a long return just yet. The coverage units have been fine thus far in 2014.
Solomon Patton has done nice work as a returner thus far this season for Tampa, and overall they have a quietly effective set of coverage units, as well. Michael Koenen is still an effective punter, while Patrick Murray has attempted just two field goals, one of which was blocked. Because Murray's untested and not likely to be as good as Bryant, give this one to the Falcons.
Total Edge: Falcons
The Buccaneers are going to be a good football team, likely sooner than later. Right now, they feature major limitations at quarterback and some real questions along the offensive line, which are both limiting factors. While Lovie Smith is a good coach, he's not a good offensive coach, and the team has likely been held back by that.
While the Falcons look like the better team on paper, it's not by a wide margin at many position groups, so you can't reasonably forecast a blowout win here.
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