After long road stretches and difficult matchups, the Atlanta Falcons are finally home. They don’t play a road game until December 18th. A long-awaited homecoming was needed following a thrilling victory over the Seahawks. It was the kind of victory that can cultivate confidence and better play in an entire organization.
For all their struggles, the Falcons never lost their strong self-belief. It has contributed to their massive wins over Dallas and Seattle.
This roster is far too talented to have their season wrecked by self-inflicted mistakes and wasted opportunities. The offense is starting to find a rhythm under Steve Sarkisian. With Matt Ryan playing at a high level again, they are getting back to their standards of scoring in the high 20’s. Generating pressure and creating takeaways have contributed to the defense’s recent success. To force six turnovers in three games must be a major confidence booster for Dan Quinn.
The number should increase against a turnover-prone Buccaneers’ side. It’s the first of a three-game home stretch for the playoff hopeful Falcons. They can’t afford to look ahead against an opponent with a few familiar faces.
Mike Evans threat
Desmond Trufant is one of the most reliable cornerbacks in the league. His ability to physical and intelligent gives him a distinctive advantage over wide receivers. While the former Pro Bowler can get occasionally grabby, he is going to win his individual matchup for the majority of the game. Look no further than last Monday night. According to Pro Football Focus, Trufant only saw six targets on a whopping 56 coverage snaps. He allowed as many catches (three) as he made plays on the ball. With one interception and two pass breakups, the stellar corner was making plays all over the field.
Trufant is always ready for any matchup, but there is one wide receiver that is known for getting the better of him. Mike Evans has been a thorn in his side for years. From drawing game-changing penalties to beating him on dig routes, Tampa Bay’s most reliable star has given Trufant problems in recent years. At six foot five, he holds a five-inch height advantage over him. What makes him so special is his catch radius. An overthrown ball can turn into a 30 yard-gain when Evans is being targeted. When a play appears to be dead, the former first round pick can make your jaw drop with a sensational grab.
Evans had a field day in their previous matchup. After creating separation at will versus Trufant, he used his size advantage to overwhelm Robert Alford. The Falcons had no answer for him. Not even Keanu Neal’s jaw-dropping hit prevented him from making plays. It will be interesting to see if there is a substantial drop-off in targets with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm. He won’t receive 17 targets like last year with DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard commanding attention. They will still look to feature him as much as possible. Expect Dirk Koetter to utilize his best option, especially with their running game being virtually non-existent. Trufant hasn’t been used to shadow number one wide receivers this season, so it will take a collaborative effort to prevent Evans from running wild again.
Pass rushing wave
In preparation for Sunday, the defense must feel refreshed after three long weeks. It doesn’t get much more grueling than facing Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, and Russell Wilson in three consecutive games. Whether it’s playing contain or chasing them down on scrambles, defenses can get easily frustrated. The defensive line did an excellent job generating consistent pressure during that stretch. They are responsible for creating three of the six takeaways, as Adrian Clayborn played a part in each one. The resurgent pass rusher forced two fumbles against Dallas in a stunning six sack explosion. His success continued by returning a fumble for a touchdown after Takkarist McKinley and Courtney Upshaw sandwiched Wilson.
Quinn loves talking about his team being resilient. It’s one of his most used words at press conferences. Nobody embodies resilience more than Clayborn. To suffer three season ending injuries in six years usually marks the end of a player’s career. Clayborn contemplated retirement last off-season. With guidance from his wife and former teammate Gerald McCoy, he decided to continue playing football. Who would have thought it would have resulted in the most fulfilling year of his career? Clayborn has been the Falcons’ most consistent pass rusher this season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him reach the ten-sack mark (currently at eight) against Donovan Smith. For a player that is known for having bad footwork and poor hands, Smith’s habit of quitting on plays has put his future in jeopardy. His flaws fall right into Clayborn’s strengths, which is a combination of violent hand usage and relentless motor.
Fitzpatrick won’t take sacks easily. The gunslinger will take chances, regardless of the opposition or situation. It’s crucial for the front four to make him feel uncomfortable. That will force Fitzpatrick to make those costly decisions, which will ultimately lead to turnovers. The Falcons are starting to look stabilized up front. Grady Jarrett is coming off one of his best performances of the season. The same can be said for Dontari Poe, who has been a force since the Sunday night debacle in Foxborough. Vic Beasley hasn’t played quite as well, but a player of his caliber will get going soon enough. It’s too early to call Quinn’s defensive rebuild a finished product. That said, they’ve never looked closer from being a very good unit.
As the defense looks to cope with Koetter’s aggressive offense, Matt Ryan will face his old head coach. Mike Smith’s simplistic scheme should present plenty of big play opportunities for him. Ryan had a field day in their previous matchup on Thursday night. It doesn’t get much better than throwing four touchdowns with a 144.7 quarterback rating. After beating Green Bay four days prior, that incredible week catapulted Ryan into MVP discussion. They used all their playmakers in what became an all-out assault.
Ryan has bounced back from an early-season slump. He isn’t overthrowing open receivers downfield or getting rattled under pressure. With excellent pocket movement, the reigning MVP is showing more poise and making better decisions. The stat sheet doesn’t do his recent performances enough justice. That should change on Sunday. Tampa Bay’s slow undersized secondary will struggle to stay in front of Atlanta’s wide variety of receiving options.
Julio Jones is notorious for having big games against them. Atlanta’s greatest quarterback-wide receiver pairing are starting to connect downfield following seven frustrating games. After Kenny Stills roasted Tampa Bay last week, Sarkisian would be wise to get Taylor Gabriel more involved. His speed and knack for making defensive backs stumble on double moves can present major problems. Openings will be there for the taking. It’s not like there will be much pressure either. Tampa Bay is tied for the second fewest sacks in the league. There is no reason why Ryan shouldn’t pick apart a below-average defense against a coach he knows better than most.
It’s been a rollercoaster first season for Wes Schweitzer. After taking an opening day beating from Akiem Hicks, the former sixth round pick started showing noticeable improvement. His showings against Buffalo and Miami were very encouraging. Schweitzer looked more comfortable in pass protection, along with making effective blocks at the second level in the running game. That has disappeared in recent weeks. His tendency to get overpowered in pass protection is becoming more prevalent. Taking poor angles on stretch runs continue to occur on a weekly basis. Schweitzer hasn’t recovered from his poor performance against the Jets.
As previously mentioned, Tampa Bay’s front four hasn’t generated much pressure. Losing Noah Spence is proving to be more catastrophic than some anticipated. His season-ending injury leaves them shorthanded off the edge. They still have one of the most menacing defensive tackles in the league. McCoy is a matchup nightmare for most guards. His blistering first step gives opposing guards fits. It’s a worrying matchup for Schweitzer after struggling against David Irving and Sheldon Richardson.
This is another brutal matchup on a crazy slate of talented defensive tackles. While the coaching staff will remain patient, younger players should be improving at this stage of the season. Schweitzer’s regression could be a game changer in future games against tougher teams. While the Falcons should win comfortably, his problems are hazardous for an offense that is starting to regain their form.