With 6 games left in the season, the Falcons enter a critical stretch with 5 of their last six opponents being in the NFC South. The game on Sunday is against a Buccaneers team that has not lived up to expectations yet again. However, this defense does have some talented players that Falcons fans will need to keep an eye on. Here’s how this match-up looks.
Note: Assessments based off of scores from PFF Edge
In the trenches
The Falcons offensive line is still a good unit, but they have had to face some very tough defensive lines in 2017. Alex Mack is still one of the top centers in the league and excels in both the running game and pass protection. Andy Levitre is a solid veteran who is prone to the occasional false start penalty. First year starter Wes Schweitzer is definitely the weak link in this line, as he’s struggled with stronger defensive tackles all year. Tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder are solid, but also seem prone to get beat once or twice a game this year. This is still a relatively good overall line, but it’s not particularly dominant.
The Bucs have some talent on their defensive line. Gerald McCoy is easily one of the best defensive tackles in the league and could be a problem in the middle. Chris Baker is a solid veteran defensive tackle who doesn’t necessarily blow you away. On the edges, Darryl Tapp is not having a good year, though he’s been a relatively steady presence on the line over the past decade. Robert Ayers is a capable defensive end, but only has 2 sacks on the season. In sub packages, Ryan Russell will get some snaps at end and is a liability when he does. The same can be said of Will Clarke, who is a below average player when he’s in the game. While there’s some talent on this line, it’s not a particularly overwhelming group.
The Bucs pass rush is virtually non-existent this year. They’re in the bottom 5 for total sacks and next to last in sack percentage. Given how the Falcons OL performed against the Seahawks on Monday night, there’s no reason to think the Bucs will suddenly become consistently disruptive on Sunday.
The skill positions
After a relatively slow start to the season, QB Matt Ryan is back to form. His accuracy and decision making have been phenomenal in recent weeks. Julio Jones is still an alien freak athlete, but his production has slipped as he’s battled recent injuries. Teammate Mohamed Sanu has been a good WR2, showing capable hands and delivering in the red zone over the past few weeks. Taylor Gabriel is hit and miss this year, but still has the ability to break off a big play at any given moment. TE Austin Hooper has also been inconsistent, but seems to be improving recently. In the backfield, Tevin Coleman has done ok with Devonta Freeman out, though his production suffered greatly against a strong Seahawks front. Terron Ward has shown he deserves a handful of snaps per game, as he was a physical and productive runner against Seattle. This is a highly skilled group that can attack even the best defensive secondaries.
The Bucs have one of the best linebackers in the league in Lavonte David, who excels against the run and the pass. In the middle, Kwon Alexander is a decent player that doesn’t excel in any particular area. Rookie Kendell Beckwith is decent in coverage but struggles in run defense. At corner, Brent Grimes is a capable player who is having a down year. Vernon Hargreaves is playing ok, but is certainly not living up to his draft position thus far. Rookie Ryan Smith is a liability in this secondary that the Falcons should look to attack. The same can also be said for nickel corner Javien Elliott. Safety Justin Evans is a definite liability while Chris Conte is capable in coverage but struggles against the run. Veteran safety T.J. Ward is very good against the run, but has been dismal in coverage.
The Bucs don’t have a player in their secondary capable of covering Julio by himself, which means plenty of one-on-one opportunities for guys like Sanu and Gabriel. This is a bad defense going against an offense that is getting hot at the right time. Sorry Mike Smith, but your defense is going to go through a painful process.
After facing some very good defenses to start the year, the Falcons are finally facing a unit that struggles on multiple levels. The Bucs can’t generate pressure and struggle to cover well. With Matt Ryan playing at a very high level recently and Julio Jones being a dominant monster since birth, this match-up heavily favors the home team on Sunday.