Thursday night divisional games are starting to become a yearly trend for them. Dan Quinn is still winless in three games against Tampa Bay. Each loss has been by single digits, and two of those losses came from slow starts and abysmal defensive stretches.
The Falcons have a great opportunity to distance themselves from the pack in the NFC South. Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith can't outcoach Quinn and Kyle Shanahan again. This coaching staff has done wonders following that initial discouraging loss. After facing elite quarterbacks and talented pass-rushing fronts for three consecutive weeks, they should exploit a more favorable matchup. Here are five things to watch for tonight.
Covering Mike Evans
The enormous wide receiver is a matchup nightmare for most cornerbacks. His route running is much improved, while the frequent drops of seasons past appear to be behind him. Evans has always been a thorn in Atlanta's side. It hasn't always shown up on the stat sheet. Evans makes up for poor quarterback play by drawing pass interferences. He drew two consecutive penalties against Desmond Trufant last season that went for significant yardage. It helped Tampa Bay pull off the upset last November. Evans torched Robert Alford in 2014 as well. Without Vincent Jackson, the defense should focus their attention entirely on Evans.
Following week one's poor performance, Quinn made multiple defensive modifications. Allowing Trufant to shadow the opposing number one receiver was one of them. The stellar cornerback has shadowed Amari Cooper, Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, and Doug Baldwin so far this season. They should use a similar strategy against Evans. Tampa Bay's supporting cast isn't very imposing. No other wide receiver or tight end is capable of taking over a game. There is no reason for Trufant not to shadow Evans. Winston heavily targets him, which could spring potential turnover opportunities based on Trufant's tendency to deflect passes.
Running the ball against Tampa Bay's underrated front seven
For what should be a favorable matchup, Matt Ryan shouldn't be pressed into throwing the ball between 35 to 40 times in this game. That occurred against Seattle and Green Bay. As good as Ryan is playing, this offense is most effective when the running game is flourishing. They had their moments last week, especially with Terron Ward.
The undrafted free agent shocked everyone by showing improved footwork and agility. Ward played like a capable backup, who could also be a difference maker. With Devonta Freeman and him, the running game should stay afloat without Tevin Coleman.
Shanahan could make running the ball a point of emphasis. The Falcons averaged a lousy 2.4 yards per carry against Tampa Bay in their previous matchup. That hasn't been forgotten, especially for a team that prides themselves on running the ball. Tampa Bay's talented front seven led by Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, and Kwon Alexander will cause problems. The offensive line has played against a plethora of talented fronts. If they are considered a top five unit, then they shouldn't struggle to open up running lanes and get a push up front. They can't be forced into abandoning the run like they did on opening day. A productive running game will allow Ryan to use more play action and target Tampa Bay's below average safeties.
Continued improvement from the front four
In three games against Tampa Bay under Dan Quinn, the defense produced three sacks. That includes a Ricardo Allen blitz and O'Brien Schofield coverage sack. It has been largely underwhelming, considering how Tampa Bay's offensive line is filled with below average talent. Left tackle Donovan Smith struggles on a weekly basis then looks like Donald Penn against the Falcons. The pass rush needs to dictate this matchup, especially given their recent success over the past month.
Dwight Freeney will be sidelined tonight. Although the legendary edge rusher hasn't been as effective over the past few weeks, opposing offensive lines always have to account for him. His absence will likely push Adrian Clayborn to the edge. The former Buccaneer is playing at a high level. Despite being more effective on the interior, Clayborn should be capable of generating pressure on the outside. He gave King Dunlap issues a few weeks ago. Vic Beasley shouldn't be utilized as a spy very often in this matchup. They'll need him rushing the passer as much as possible, especially with Freeney's injury. Beasley was anonymous against Tampa Bay on opening day. They will need him and Clayborn to carry the nickel front, as Courtney Upshaw and Jonathan Babineaux are far better against the run.
Each safety made their fair share of blunders against Green Bay. Keanu Neal missed multiple tackles, along with being roasted by Jordy Nelson for a 58-yard gain. Ricardo Allen allowed a touchdown pass and looked a step behind on some coverage assignments. Robenson Therezie played more than usual, due to Green Bay repeatedly using four and five wide receiver sets. He missed a few tackles and somehow failed to recover a fumble, which would have saved seven points. Despite Tampa Bay not having great talent at wide receiver, Winston won't hesitate to take shots downfield against this secondary.
This is a big spot for the safeties to correct their previous mistakes and capitalize on a likely overthrown pass by Winston. The second-year quarterback has only completed 59 percent of his passes this season. He is known for being erratic, especially when chased outside the pocket. It still can't be overlooked that Winston torched the Falcons on opening day. Therezie was partially responsible for Winston's 45-yard touchdown pass to Evans. Neal missed the first meeting against Tampa Bay. Allen has come under fire in recent weeks. Turnovers are there to be taken against an undisciplined opponent. Neal has forced three fumbles, yet none of them have been recovered by the defense. At some point, his hard work must be rewarded. Not allowing big plays and making their presence felt will be essential for this safety group following a poor display last Sunday.
Austin Hooper's first career start
The 2016 third round draft pick filled in admirably for Jacob Tamme. Hooper contributed with five catches, which included two on third down. It was nothing flashy, but he is making smart plays. From not suffering any concentration lapses to blocking effectively, Hooper is developing into a reliable player. There should be plenty of opportunities for him to have another productive game. Mike Smith's zone defense is prone to allowing big plays against opposing tight ends. Shanahan won't hesitate to use Hooper on vertical routes.
Atlanta should face plenty of red zone situations in this game. Hooper received his first red zone target last Sunday. Considering his build and catch radius, that is disappointing, especially given the Falcons' inconsistency in the red zone. He would fall behind Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu as the best receiving option to make catches in traffic. They should look to utilize him there more often. Jones constantly attracts double teams in the red zone. Sanu benefitted from it on the game-winning touchdown. With Sanu likely commanding more respect following his performance against Green Bay, it could be Hooper's time to shine.