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Falcons vs. Buccaneers: Arrow up, arrow down for Atlanta heading into Week 6

This team needs more arrows pointing up, but there still a few glimmers after Pittsburgh.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Every week, there are Atlanta Falcons who distinguish themselves and seem to have bright immediate futures, and Falcons who look awful and force me to make the kind of sour face that you get when you eat a lemon and you weren’t really prepared for it.

Here’s this week’s collection.

Arrow up

CB Desmond Trufant

Tru needed a bounceback week after getting destroyed by the Bengals, and until an injury knocked him out of the game, he was having one. Trufant did an excellent job of holding Antonio Brown in check when he was against him, and it’s not a coincidence that the Falcons’ pass defense collapsed entirely with him out, allowing Brown to score twice.

Every bad game from Trufant kicks off a mini-firestorm of controversy from folks who have never thought he was all that good to begin with, but the Steelers game was a reminder of just how good he can be against some of the league’s elite options. The Falcons need that level of play to continue if they’re going to right the ship on defense.

Against Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and the rest of these Buccaneers receiving options, Trufant and fellow starter Robert Alford are going to need to be great. Full stop.

WR Mohamed Sanu

It’s certainly possible the Falcons move on from Mohamed Sanu next year, but it won’t be because he’s not performing. Over the last three weeks, Sanu has come on in a major way, and his touchdown against the Steelers was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise quiet day for the offense. The Falcons, whatever their flaws on offense, will always be able to find an option to hurt opposing defenses as long as they can put Julio Jones, Sanu, and Calvin Ridley on the field at the same time.

Against the Bucs, Sanu will probably fade into the background a bit as Julio eats against an opponent he has historically dominated, but expect him to be at least solid the rest of the way.

S Damontae Kazee

Kazee came into the NFL with a reputation as a ballhawk, and he’s living up to it now that he’s a full-time starter. In addition to some big hits—and some missed ones, but he’s getting there—he has two interceptions in the last two weeks, including a contested end zone grab of Ben Roethlisberger that briefly kindled hopes before they were smothered again.

If Kazee can continue to play at a pretty high level and/or get much better, the Falcons are going to be able to bring Ricardo Allen along slowly from his injury next summer and potentially into next fall, which will likely be a benefit. Hell, having three quality safeties is an exciting thought at the moment.

Against Jameis Winston, Kazee will be a vital player. He’ll be asked to make tough tackles of some of the Bucs’ big and speedy targets, and he’ll have opportunities to pick the inevitable errant Winston passes, too.

T Jake Matthews

Matthews was not immune from the carnage Sunday, but he continues to be the only week-in, week-out reliable starter on this offensive line. The Falcons have been way too susceptible to bull rushes, blitzes, and even half-hearted efforts at rushing the passer this year, particularly on third down, and Matthews is the rock they’re going to need to build around going forward. With a lack of viable alternatives along the offensive line, let’s hope everyone else gets it together soon.

Against a Tampa Bay team that can’t rush the passer effectively most weeks, Matthews should have a relatively easy day. Knock on wood.

Arrow down

T Ryan Schraeder

Schraeder has been this team’s rock for a long time. The former undrafted free agent has been a far better right tackle than anyone had a right to expect, and his reliability and durability has made him invaluable for this football team. Until 2018, that is.

I’ve seen several fans and analysts wonder aloud if Schraeder has some sort of injury, because he’s looked slower and less capable through the first five games and has been repeatedly beaten off the edge by pass rushers this year. That’s a major concern for a Falcons team that has seen Matt Ryan pummeled and lacks viable alternatives, unless you think Matt Gono got up to speed real fast.

Schraeder gets an easier matchup this week against the infamous Mike Smith pass rush special, but he won’t have many breaks like that the rest of the way. We’ll have to hope this is just a rut he’s in if Atlanta’s offense is going to get hot again.

S Jordan Richards

I don’t know how many times I can express my bafflement that Keith Tandy isn’t getting a shot at strong safety, where he’s started multiple games over the years and has played competently as a reserve when called upon. Tandy is nobody’s idea of a magic bullet for this defense, as is evinced by his tiny number of snaps since joining the team, but I’m not sure how long the team can continue to trot Jordan Richards out there without making a change.

Richards is a capable special teamer and at times he plays the run well, but he’s missed tackles, tackled too high, taken poor angles, and really struggled in coverage since arriving in Atlanta, same as he did in New England. I get that the Falcons don’t have a ton of viable options at the moment, but Richards is going to need to show improvement at some point.

Against Tampa Bay, he’ll once again have to deal with speedy, dynamic players and ensure he’s taking the right angle to the ball. Until proven otherwise, that arrow’s just going to keep pointing down.

LB Duke Riley

I don’t throw the word “disaster” around lightly—okay, maybe I do—but Sunday was a disaster for Riley. After two straight weeks of relative competence, which gave me some hope that Riley was on the verge of turning a corner, he missed tackles, fell short in coverage and picked up a sort of unfair pass interference penalty. The effort is not in question for Riley, but the results are, and he was a big part of the reason this team was such a tire fire on defense against the Steelers.

Again, the Falcons don’t have a ton of viable alternatives here. They can trot out Foye Oluokun, but he’s looked undisciplined and unready at times, and Bruce Carter is a veteran stopgap at best. Riley’s also on just his 17th NFL game and was pressed into a huge role at middle linebacker out of necessity, so if the Falcons are committed to giving him the time and honest look he needs to sink or swim, so be it.

But again, the arrow is pointing down for Riley, who needs to show he can pull it together and be a reliable linebacker before Deion Jones comes back and pushes him to the bench, perhaps permanently.

P Matt Bosher

From 2012-2016, Bosher was pretty consistently one of the better punters in the game, and certainly one of the most physical. Last year saw his average fall by two full yards to a low not seen since his shaky 2011 rookie season, and it’s even lower this year. He’s put too many weak punts on tape and has been blocked twice in five games, which is a big problem considering that two in a season is his career high to this point.

In other words, Bosher hasn’t looked like the same guy this year, and that’s a problem for a special teams unit that has improved coverage and has Matt Bryant but doesn’t have much else going for it. You have to wonder if the Falcons will consider making a change, however painful that might be, if things continue to go awry for Bosher.