After playing back-to-back road games for the second time this season, Atlanta returns home for a key divisional game. Tampa Bay should present a much stiffer challenge than they did following last season's mugging on national television. Jameis Winston is starting to look more comfortable, while Doug Martin looks reinvigorated by making defenders miss in the open field on a weekly basis.
Unfortunately for Lovie Smith, their defensive line and secondary remains heavily flawed. They hit a new low last week by allowing Kirk Cousins to come back from a twenty-four point deficit. Atlanta used Tampa Bay as their remedy to shake off losses last season. They will be looking to get out of their offensive rut following three mediocre performances. Here are the main components to watch for on Sunday.
Matt Ryan bouncing back from a forgettable three-game stretch
No Falcon is under more pressure than him at the moment. Kyle Shanahan has rightfully taken some criticism for the recent stagnant performances, but Ryan has made his fair share of poor throws. Throwing four interceptions and missing multiple routine touchdown passes in the past three games has generated major concern. Ryan did take an honest approach about the offense's struggles during a recent interview. Many people have criticized his footwork, which he addressed as an area that needs improvement.
Although this has become a redundant theme for this weekly feature, it has to be noted that Atlanta will be facing a below-average secondary once again. Unlike Tennessee and Washington, Tampa Bay doesn't possess an imposing pass rush, either. Ryan desperately needs a strong performance, as the defense can't be depended on to win games. The possibility of Justin Hardy making his long-awaited debut could provide a much-needed spark.
With Leonard Hankerson possibly sidelined, the fourth-round rookie should play a pivotal role. Due to Nick Williams' limitations and Roddy White's decline, any new addition to the wide receiver corps is welcoming. In seven games, Atlanta has already dropped 21 passes this season. The sure-handed Hardy should be a welcoming addition to cause damage inside the slot. It will be essential for Ryan to play turnover-free football, maintain proper footwork, and look to throw downfield against a leaky Tampa Bay secondary. Julio Jones has fully practiced this week, which has to be an encouraging sign for the offense to put this rut behind them.
Jalen Collins in the spotlight
Dan Quinn has confirmed that Collins will continue to receive full snaps in the team's nickel defense. Robert Alford will move inside to cover slot receivers, which could be a major adjustment for him. Kendall Wright beat him quite handily on multiple occasions last week. This decision appears to be a major risk, considering how raw Collins looked in preseason. His poor footwork left him chasing wide receivers against Tennessee (preseason) and Baltimore. Significant improvement had to be witnessed during practice to make this mid-season move. Philip Adams wasn't necessarily an asset, but labeling him as a liability would be harsh.
The possibility of Collins covering Mike Evans without any help isn't promising. Tennessee failed to test him on 32 pass attempts last week. With Vincent Jackson likely out for this game, Evans will likely run most of his routes away from Desmond Trufant. Sacrificing Donteea Dye or Russell Shepard to Trufant would be an efficient strategy to have success throwing downfield, while Collins and Alford will have their chances against Evans. The rookie cornerback's size makes him an ideal candidate on paper to cover a massive receiver like Evans.
This could be a difference-making matchup for Tampa Bay. Quinn has been stubborn in the past about giving his cornerbacks safety help. That was evident with Robert Alford covering Odell Beckham Jr. on an island at times when the Falcons and Giants played. Not giving Collins any support could prove to be very costly for not only this game, but also for his confidence. Similar to Ra'Shede Hageman, Collins is better suited for a slow development process, rather than being thrown to the wolves immediately. Only playing special teams for the first six games of the season followed by 37 reps at right cornerback doesn't seem like a wise strategy for a raw player.
Continued improvement from the pass rush
The pressure increased considerably in the second half against Tennessee, and Jonathan Babineaux continues to play at a high level. Quinn isn't known for using blitzes very often, but he dialed up more when it was needed.
Despite being ranked at the near bottom of sacks and hurries, Atlanta is actually second in quarterback hits via Pro Football Focus Premium Stats. They hit Mettenberger eight times off a variety of four-man rushes and blitzes. While they should have done slightly more damage to a below-average offensive line, this was a step in the right direction. Vic Beasley has been scrutinized for not using his speed rush enough and taking plays off. Favorable matchups against Donovan Smith and Gosder Cherilus could trigger a breakout game for him, however. He will need to emerge for a pass rush lacking edge rushers.
Teams should take notice of how Minnesota was so effective against Detroit by blitzing on nearly half of Matthew Stafford's pass attempts. The coaching staff should look to add more blitz designs, especially against a rookie quarterback like Winston.
Justin Hardy's debut
According to four-time Pro Bowler and aspiring journalist Roddy White, Hardy will be making his debut on Sunday. Fans have been clamoring to see the rookie unleashed following Atlanta's loss to New Orleans. With a better grasp of the playbook, he should be effective immediately. Learning the playbook has been a major adjustment for his acclimation to the NFL. That is usually the case for many rookie wide receivers that aren't blessed with breakaway speed or massive size.
Hardy is a relentless worker that excels at running precise routes and catching passes in traffic. Those are two elements that makes him an upgrade over Harry Douglas on paper. He will likely be facing free-agent flop Alterraun Verner, who has been demoted in favor of Tim Jennings. Eric Weems infamously beat Verner on a go-route during last season's Thursday night drubbing. With Devin Hester coming back in approximately one month, the time is now for Hardy to make his mark.
The return of Dirk Koetter should provide plenty of buzz. After three seasons as offensive coordinator in Atlanta, the oft-criticized play-caller has similar pieces to work with in Tampa Bay. A below average offensive line and stud wide receiver are two comparisons that can be made between the 2014 Falcons and 2015 Bucs. It will be fascinating to see how Koetter adjusts without Jackson, given the unproven wide receiver depth. A run-first game plan wouldn't be all that surprising.
Joe Hawley will be starting at center, as the former fan favorite has taken over the starting reigns in Tampa bay since week two. Hawley's inability to hold up against massive defensive tackles became apparent during his career in Atlanta. Paul Soliai will need to take advantage of those deficiencies.
Adrian Clayborn will be playing against his old team as well. After watching him excel as a defensive tackle, Tampa Bay fans have to wonder about their coaching staff not utilizing him properly. They wasted him on the edge, where the former first-round pick was too big and not explosive enough to get past tackles on a weekly basis. Clayborn will have to cope with a rejuvenated Logan Mankins, however.