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Falcons vs. Buccaneers: Fascinating Four for Week 15

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Can the Falcons continue their playoff push heading into the final stage of the season?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

After surviving a grueling five-day stretch against Minnesota and New Orleans, the Falcons’ first place push is on. They are on the right path heading into the final three games of the season. A win over Tampa Bay would set up a potential first-place showdown (Carolina could squash those plans) against the Saints on Christmas Eve. Dan Quinn will assure everyone that his team won’t be looking past Tampa Bay. Similar to Atlanta, they are playing every team in the division to finish the season. The Buccaneers will embrace the role of playing spoiler. It gives them something to play for in a lost season.

Things have gone awry in Tampa Bay. A once strong rapport between Jameis Winston and Dirk Koetter has deteriorated. Some have blamed Winston for not moving on from old habits, while others are fed up with Koetter’s predictable play calling. This will likely be the last time Koetter and Mike Smith face their old team together. The Falcons must capitalize on this golden opportunity, especially coming off an extended break. It’s one more chance for Julio Jones to continue his dominance over their mediocre defense. It’s one more roadblock in their pathway towards regaining supremacy in the NFC South.

Facing Jameis Winston

Winston will finally get a crack at the Falcons after missing the first meeting. It’s been long overdue for the embattled quarterback, who is enduring the worst season of his young career. Winston has found plenty of success against Quinn’s defense. From throwing four touchdowns on opening day last season to embarrassing them on a 20-yard run, it doesn’t take much to realize why Winston likes playing the Falcons. History would suggest that this could be an antidote to his yearlong problems. That doesn’t seem likely based on his recent performances.

The lack of development in Winston’s game is evident. His reckless decision-making continues to leave everyone scratching their heads. Refusing to take sacks has created unnecessary turnovers. There is an element of carelessness to his game. It didn’t matter in Tampa Bay’s eyes, as his natural talent surpassed those mind-numbing mistakes. A combination of arm talent and willingness to take risks made him such an intriguing prospect. Winston is the embodiment of a high-variance quarterback. An inability to mature as a quarterback appears to be his main issue. He trusts himself to make every tight window throw, while disregarding the coverage in the process. Opposing defenses are starting to pick up on how much he loves throwing down the seam. This was supposed to be another year of progression. It’s been nothing more than a discouraging year of regression. His footwork on this throw sums it all up.

This is still a dangerous matchup for the Falcons. Winston’s past success and potential still presents a legitimate challenge. Quinn mentioned his competitiveness as a major attribute to his game. Although his pregame speeches leave a lot to be desired, nobody can deny his ability to compete and make remarkable plays. The front four must generate pressure to bring those signature rash decisions out of Winston. Quinn implied that Vic Beasley would return to his primary pass-rushing role. The conversion to strongside linebacker hasn’t been a beneficial move for him. With Adrian Clayborn and Takkarist McKinley causing havoc, they need Beasley to rediscover his game-breaking ways. There have been semblances of it. Beasley nearly strip sacked Case Keenum and Drew Brees in recent games. Turnover opportunities will be there against Winston. It’s on the front four led by the NFL’s reigning sack king to create them.

Full workload for Devonta Freeman

For all the offense’s struggles, there was one major positive from last week’s thrilling victory. Devonta Freeman finally got the ball on a consistent basis. They didn’t shy away from him in critical situations. As Matt Ryan looked rattled, Steve Sarkisian leaned on one of Atlanta’s most reliable playmakers. Freeman only received 12 carries against Minnesota. It made sense for the coaching staff to bring him back slowly after suffering his second concussion in four months. Facing a must-win scenario, the Falcons needed to feature their star running back. Freeman reaped the benefits of their run-first approach.

By giving him a season-high 24 carries, the Falcons were able to run the ball effectively and control the clock. To have the ball for nearly 35 minutes is how you beat one of the best teams in the league. It showed that they are still more than capable of beating teams with their ground game. Freeman looked like his old self. Finding the cut back lane and shifting past defenders sparked their fourth quarter comeback. He also finished several runs in violent fashion. The past two games have been very encouraging for Freeman’s outlook. It comes at a perfect time following injuries to key players.

Tevin Coleman will likely remain in the concussion protocol. This is a disappointing setback for the third-year back following multiple strong performances in a starting role. Terron Ward will be used to spell Freeman on early downs. On the offensive line, Andy Levitre suffered a triceps injury against Minnesota. That pressed versatile lineman Ben Garland into a starting role. Despite looking overmatched in pass protection, Garland showed promise as a run blocker. His athleticism provides a good fit for their zone blocking scheme. Both changes shouldn’t drastically alter Freeman’s production. It may even receive a slight boost with Gerald McCoy possibly out. There is no reason why Freeman shouldn’t receive 18 to 20 touches. Special players can’t be used in secondary roles, especially at this stage of the season.

Mike Evans threat

Evans has been surprisingly on the peripheral lately. An uptick in production was expected following Winston’s return. That hasn’t transpired in the last two games, as Evans failed to exceed six targets or 33 yards. To see him limited against below average defenses like Green Bay and Detroit is shocking. It’s only a matter of time before the juggernaut receiver gets back on track. Koetter must know that Evans needs to be a factor in order to stay competitive against a superior team. Evans gave Robert Alford fits in the last contest. They could look to exploit that matchup once again.

While Quinn prefers to keep both starting cornerbacks on their respective sides, it would be wise to give Alford some support. The enigmatic corner does struggle against taller receivers. His tendency to get grabby could be problematic. Koetter likes to move his personnel around, which makes it difficult to pinpoint certain matchups. Desmond Trufant will get his opportunities to stop Evans. It’s a matchup that hasn’t fully materialized in the last two meetings. Trufant tore his pectoral in this game last season. Winston’s overthrown pass forced Evans to drive his helmet into him. The bizarre punishment continued this season. Keanu Neal unintentionally put Trufant on his victim list, which translated into a concussion. It would be nice to see the best players face each other for an entire game. For Quinn’s sake, he will need Trufant to cope with Tampa Bay’s more aggressive approach.

Ideal matchup for Matt Ryan’s bounce back

After playing lights out in November, Ryan has struggled in the past two games. Analysts have questioned his ability to deliver in big games. That is a harsh critique, considering what Ryan has accomplished in his career. Let’s not forget how well he played against Dallas and Seattle. Both games sparked life in what was becoming an infuriating season for the Falcons. Most quarterbacks will take their lumps against a stout Vikings’ defense. While his disastrous performance against the Saints nearly dented their playoff hopes, Thursday night usually brings out the worst in every team.

A ten-day break should do wonders for Ryan. The reigning MVP can recover and assess what went wrong recently. It will also give him time to make adjustments without two important players. As previously mentioned, Coleman and Levitre are expected to miss this game. Ryan tends to look more jittery in the pocket without a healthy offensive line. That was apparent against New Orleans, along with earlier games against Detroit and Buffalo. Thankfully for his sake, Tampa Bay doesn’t create much pressure. They are currently ranked last in sacks with 17. This should be a comforting matchup for Ryan, as he’ll look to exploit a non-existent pass rush and overwhelmed secondary. It’s essential for him to get back on track with colossal games against New Orleans and Carolina looming.