Following a fourth consecutive defeat, the Atlanta Falcons are in a must-win situation. A loss to Tampa Bay would likely seal their fate. They would lose the season tiebreaker to go along with two remaining games against Carolina. It's quite remarkable how a 5-0 team has sunk into possibly becoming a non-factor in the playoff hunt. With the exception of the loss in New Orleans, they haven't been vastly outplayed in any game either. Turnovers and pass-protection breakdowns on key plays have put them in a high-pressured situation.
Atlanta has reinforcements with Devonta Freeman and Devin Hester likely returning on Sunday. It has also been reported that Gerald McCoy may possibly not play, which would be a huge blow for Tampa Bay. Nobody knows what to expect from this beleaguered Falcon team. They held a players-only meeting on Monday, which will hopefully translate into a better performance on the field. Here are the main components to watch for on Sunday.
Matt Ryan to try to save a disappointing season
The franchise quarterback is "hell bent" on getting out of his slump. It's clear that significant pressure has started to set in for Ryan. With ten interceptions in his last eight games and six red zone turnovers, the once-steady quarterback faces an unfamiliar task. A rebuilding defense and makeshift offensive line was supposed to keep Atlanta from being a top four NFC team, but it wasn't supposed to be their reliable quarterback, the one who has bailed them out so many times over the years. Yet there is no denying that Ryan's play is currently one of the biggest concerns on the roster.
With Devonta Freeman and Devin Hester healthy, there should be more opportunities to throw downfield. Freeman's ability as a receiver was greatly missed by Tevin Coleman's two drops, which included a missed 40-yard pass on a wheel route. Ryan has been a positive track record against Tampa Bay over the past five seasons. While facing a below average pass rush and shaky secondary, this is a great matchup to pounce on, especially in a must-win situation.
As Cian Fahey of Bleacher Report said, Ryan was 80% on his game against Minnesota. You can make the same case for his performance against Indianapolis. His interceptions have either destroyed opportunities to score touchdowns or allowed easy points to the opposition. Kwon Alexander's interception created a seven-point swing the last time these two teams played, which played a pivotal role behind Tampa Bay's 23-20 win last month. Removing those mistakes and getting other receivers involved to open up opportunities for Julio Jones will be needed to revive a once-potent passing game.
Jalen Collins was drafted for these games
When Collins was drafted in the second round, we continuously heard that his size was an ideal fit for Dan Quinn's scheme. It's no secret that Quinn prefers bigger cornerbacks that can play physical football and jam wide receivers. Another explanation for drafting Collins was the landscape of the NFC South. Carolina has multiple six-foot-five wide receivers in Kelvin Benjamin (next year, anyways) and Devin Funchess. Tampa Bay has the same exact combination in stature with Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. Both receivers proved to be nightmares for Robert Alford last season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Alford allowed eleven receptions on thirteen targets against Evans and Jackson in week ten of the 2014 season. Evans did more damage with six receptions, 112 yards, and one touchdown. At five-foot-ten, Alford couldn't handle their massive stature and routinely found himself in impossible positions to break any passes up. The third-year cornerback has made strides this season, however.
Collins has gone through growing pains over the past few weeks. He hasn't been abused, but poor footwork has left him exposed at times. Donte Moncrief and Stefon Diggs left him trailing on multiple shake routes. Collins will need to be composed against a crafty veteran like Jackson and physical specimen like Evans. This could be the first game, where a quarterback routinely tests him. Jameis Winston won't hesitate to throw downfield unlike Matt Hasselbeck and Teddy Bridgewater. This could be either a statement performance or brutal learning experience for the rookie cornerback.
Containing the juggernaut Doug Martin
After missing 15 tackles last week (according to defensive coordinator Richard Smith), tackling will be on the agenda this week. It wasn't surprising to see Adrian Peterson break numerous tackles. With Minnesota having possession for over 33 minutes and Peterson receiving 29 carries, Atlanta's front seven eventually wore down. It's nearly impossible to fully contain the best running back in the league. They made him work for almost every yard with strong performances from Kroy Biermann and Grady Jarrett. Nobody should be concerned about the run defense after one game. They do face another difficult challenge against the league's most elusive running back.
Martin has looked rejuvenated this season, despite running behind a below average offensive line. There are several runs that feature him juking out a defender or finding a small crease to break open a long run. According to Pro Football Focus, Martin leads running backs with 46 broken tackles. He also averages an absurd 3.45 yards after contact. Atlanta did an excellent job in their last meeting by limiting him to just 71 yards on 23 carries. With Winston gaining more confidence on a weekly basis and Jackson healthy, Atlanta won't be able to stack the box like they did in November. Justin Durant's health will play a major factor as well. They need to get off to a fast start and make Tampa Bay into a one-dimensional offense. Abandoning the run game was fairly common for Dirk Koetter, when Atlanta was facing a two-possession game. The stout run defense needs to reinsert their dominance this Sunday.
Rotating O'Brien Schofield and Brooks Reed
There weren't any reports about Schofield and Reed switching positions before the loss to Minnesota. Schofield lined up as a strong side linebacker, while Reed bizarrely played as the right defensive end. Despite creating a few pressures against Indianapolis, nobody expected to see the former Texan receive 22 reps as a pass-rusher, but he did according to Pro Football Focus. He was largely ineffective against Matt Kalil, however. Schofield was blocked out of Peterson's most significant runs as well. It didn't seem like a smooth transition for either player.
Quinn deserves praise for trying new ideas to invigorate a lethargic pass-rush. This is a limited group with only three true edge rushers. Vic Beasley showed signs of life last week, but still gets pushed around far too often. Moving Schofield to the right side hasn't worked out. Biermann's pass-rushing limitations are well documented, and frankly Reed and Schofield should be moved around rather than being placed at one position. Schofield offers more from a pass-rushing standpoint than Reed, however, and he shouldn't be isolated away from pass-rushing duties like last week. Both players will continue to play major roles for Atlanta's rebuilding defense. How they are utilized will determine their effectiveness going forward
The return of Devin Hester
It hasn't been officially announced that Hester will play on Sunday. In a must-win situation, a significant setback would have to keep the explosive playmaker sidelined. Atlanta's offense desperately needs more explosiveness. Hester won't play more than 20-25 snaps, but that is still more than enough snaps to make a game-changing play. People tend to forget about how much he contributed last season, especially during the first month. The greatest returner of all-time made several plays against New Orleans and Minnesota as a receiver.
Drops have plagued his conversion to wide receiver. At 33 years old, he certainly won't be counted on majorly, but Hester is still a playmaker that needs to be accounted for at all times. Besides Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, you can't say that about anyone else within Atlanta's offense. Kyle Shanahan needs to utilize him to attack Tampa Bay's below average secondary. Ryan has been adamant about trusting him, but we have to wonder whether Shanahan does.