The last time I wrote this article for Falcons and Buccaneers, I implored the Falcons to get their passing attack back on track. That only sort of happened against Tampa Bay, and the passing game dove off a cliff from there. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, did not put forth the high-flying attack I was expecting, and the end result was a sort of low-scoring, tightly-knotted game.
I'm expecting we'll see that again. Here's our paths to victory for the week.
The Buccaneers' run defense is tough, but the passing game has been chronically unable to put points on the board in recent weeks, and they're getting Devonta Freeman back. It's time to run like mad.
Freeman's effectiveness is at least partially determined by how well the line is blocking for him, and against a stout defense and with a nearly two-week layoff, he may not have his best game. I can expect that if the Falcons are able to move the ball even semi-effectively on the ground, grinding their way down the field and choosing their shots. The passing game has been used to set up the run far too often this year, and it needs to be the other way around so that Matt Ryan isn't throwing 45-50 passes.
As far as the passing game goes, the Buccaneers' still-shaky secondary provides a perfect opportunity for the Falcons to test out the deep ball to Julio Jones, as Roddy White has so nicely requested. Otherwise, the team is without Leonard Hankerson again and needs to get Roddy, Jacob Tamme, and Justin Hardy involved, at the very least, without exposing Ryan to fierce pressure by emptying the backfield. It's probably not going to be pretty or swift, because it hasn't been in a long time, but methodical drives without mistakes to cap them give this team a shot to win.
Defensively, the Falcons actually did a pretty nice job of holding the Buccaneers in check last time around, minus late game drives from Jameis Winston. They kept Doug Martin to a merely decent day, as well, though they'll be lucky to do so twice in a row even with their talent up front. The key to stopping the Buccaneers remains shutting down the passing game, and that means getting Desmond Trufant to clamp down on his man (which is easy), asking Alford or Collins to effectively cover either Evans or Jackson (a little harder), and take the Buccaneers' tight ends off the field (a lot harder for this defense). They can afford a little more from Martin if they can force a turnover or two from Winston, but given the lack of pressure all season long, I think there's going to be a heavy burden on the secondary.
This isn't going to be easy, because the Falcons have shown no ability to make things easy in the last month-and-a-half. It is doable, however.
The things that make the Buccaneers vulnerable—a weak secondary, an offensive line that can't keep Jameis Winston's pocket clean for very long, a receiving corps that thins out quickly after Mike Evans and a banged-up Vincent Jackson—are things the Falcons are not particularly well-equipped to deal with, especially the first two I just mentioned.
For Tampa Bay's offense, the blueprint is pretty easy. You push Doug Martin into the teeth of the defense for 10-15 carries to keep the defense from clamping down too aggressively on Winston, and you hope you'll get some productive carries in there. On the passing side, you take your deep shots to Evans and Jackson, and involve Cameron Brate and Austin Seferian-Jenkins over the middle of the field. The Falcons have persistently struggled when asked to cover decent tight ends, they struggled against a then-anonymous Brate the last time these two teams met, and Evans and Jackson remain dangerous. Given that Jameis Winston has enjoyed plenty of time in the pocket this season and the Falcons have a punchless pass rush to begin with, the only real danger is that one of those opportunistic men in the secondary will come down with an interception on a carelessly thrown ball. Tampa Bay was only so-so offensively last time, but they made big passes when it counted, and there's no reason they can't do so again.
Defensively, things are only easy if Freeman is rusty and the Falcons are passing at their current clip. Freeman had a solid game last time, but this time the Falcons may get the speedy Tevin Coleman a little more involved, and the run blocking remains superb. Tampa Bay will need to clamp down hard and try to force the Falcons' backs to bounce outside, keeping the play in front of them and other such cliches. Against the passing game, the recipe is simple: Pressure Matt Ryan, flush him out of the pocket, and put him in a position where he's forced to choose between forcing a throw or throwing it away. Throw everything you have at Julio Jones, especially with Leonard Hankerson now gone for the year, and see who else can beat you. With the exception of Jacob Tamme, the answer to that is probably no one, at least consistently.
In essence, the Buccaneers just need to impose their will on the Falcons with their linemen on both sides of the ball. If they can do that, chances are it's a nice home win for them, and their first season sweep of the Falcons in a good many years.