We’ve reached Week 15, and the final three game stretch of the season. Atlanta is sitting at 8-5, and despite being one game behind both the Saints and Panthers, still control the outcome of the NFC South. All that will be for naught, however, if the Falcons fail to take care of business on Monday Night Football against the reeling Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This match-up has had a tendency to be weird during the Dan Quinn era, with the Falcons inexplicably blowing their opening game in 2016 to the Bucs (in Atlanta) and then dominating Tampa Bay later in the season on the road. In 2017, the Falcons match-up incredibly well with the Bucs, who are struggling mightily on both offense and defense.
Hopefully, this will be a game that the Falcons can control from start to finish. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest players to watch on Monday Night Football.
QB Matt Ryan
Ryan has had a relatively pedestrian season in 2017—especially compared to the historic 2016 campaign—and he’s coming off arguably his worst game of the season on Thursday Night Football. That three-INT performance was troubling, but Ryan managed to rally from those mistakes to help the Falcons ultimately overcome them and defeat New Orleans. However, that level of play is unlikely to lead to victory very often, and the Falcons will need Ryan to execute at a much higher level going forward if they plan on making the playoffs.
This week is an opportunity for Ryan to really go to work against a Tampa Bay defense that is worst in the league at defending the pass and worst in the league in sacks (only 17 on the season). Ryan needs a bounce-back game on Monday night to build some confidence and rhythm heading into the very difficult match-up with the Saints in Week 16. This is the easiest defense left on the schedule for the Falcons—I’d like to see Ryan and the offense capitalize on it and show us how dangerous they can be.
G Ben Garland
With LG Andy Levitre more than likely out for significant time with his tricep injury, versatile player extraordinaire Ben Garland will have to hold down his spot for at least a couple more weeks. We saw Garland have a solid game against New Orleans, where he held up well in pass protection and had a few nice blocks in the running game to go along with a holding call and a pretty embarrassing rep against Cameron Jordan.
Garland has a real shot here to earn the trust of the coaching staff. He can prove himself as not just an incredibly versatile depth G/C/DT, but as a worthy starter as well. If Garland continues to hold up successfully over these final three games (and possibly into the playoffs), he could earn himself a permanent starting job in 2018 if the Falcons elect to move on from Andy Levitre. Let’s see how he performs in his second official start at LG, this week against a severely undermanned Bucs’ defensive front.
EDGE Takkarist McKinley
With the news that Adrian Clayborn may miss Monday’s game with a hamstring injury, the Falcons will likely have to rely upon talented rookie Takkarist McKinley to take over many of Clayborn’s snaps on the outside. This could also be an interesting “preview” for the coaching staff, as Clayborn’s excellent play this season has likely earned him a sizable contract (that the Falcons are unlikely to match) which could see the veteran playing elsewhere in 2018.
Takk was likely drafted to be Clayborn’s eventual replacement, and it looks like the future is now—at least for this week. I’m excited to see what Takk can do with more reps, as I feel he’s been an asset as both a pass rusher and as a run defender. His relentless motor simply makes him too much to handle for an entire game, especially against a Bucs’ offensive line that is absolutely reeling from a series of injuries. This game has the potential to be Takk’s “breakout” performance—let’s see if he can capitalize on the opportunity.
WR Julio Jones
We’re always watching Julio closely in every Falcons game, because he’s impossible not to watch. However, this game presents a unique opportunity for Julio’s career. We all remember that Julio posted the insane stat line of 12 catches for 253 yards and 2 TDs the last time these teams played each other, and the Bucs’ defense has not gotten any better at defending the pass since then. Julio is already the only WR to have multiple 250+ yard games in his career, but what if he could have multiple 250+ yard games in a single season?
Admittedly, that is unlikely to happen. Still, it would be a pretty cool (and meaningful) career mark for a player that seems destined for the Hall of Fame one day. Plus, it’s always nice to stick it to a division rival in their house. Even if Julio doesn’t have a monster performance on Monday Night Football, he’ll still be an integral part of the game plan.
The Falcons CBs
Outside of one drive early in the game the last time these two teams played, the Falcons’ starting CBs (and defense as a whole) was completely shutting down the Bucs’ offense. After halftime, Atlanta lost star CB Desmond Trufant, nickel CB Brian Poole, and even CB Robert Alford for a brief stretch. It was then that Tampa Bay finally started to string some drives together, only to see the Falcons’ offense put the nail in their coffin with a masterful clock-killing drive in the fourth quarter.
This game will see the Falcons’ starters all returning. They’ll be facing Jameis Winston this time instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick, but Winston hasn’t really shown himself to be a better option at this point in the season (both Fitzpatrick and Winston have been responsible for 2 wins). Can Trufant, Poole, and Alford put on an even more dominant performance this time around? Can we please get some turnovers to help dig this team out of the -5 hole they’ve found themselves in?
What are your thoughts on this NFC South match-up on Monday Night Football? Any players on either team you’ll be watching closely during the game?