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Intriguing players to watch in Buccaneers vs. Falcons

Will the Falcons make a change at LB and/or SS? Can the offensive line stabilize? Will the pass rush start to take shape? We examine some of the most interesting players to watch when the Falcons take on the Buccaneers in Week 6.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons
ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 26: Tevin Coleman #26 of the Atlanta Falcons runs the ball during the second half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 26, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Falcons (1-4) return home in Week 6 to face the division rival Buccaneers (2-2). Atlanta needs a win in the worst possible way, coming off a 3-game losing streak. If the team wants to keep any hope alive for a possible miraculous postseason run, they absolutely must win this game. Luckily, they’ll get to do it against a dysfunctional Tampa Bay team in the midst of a QB controversy, that also happens to feature one of the league’s worst defenses.

With all that in mind, here are some of the most interesting players and matchups to watch when the Falcons take on the Buccaneers on Sunday.

Who starts at LB and SS?

The biggest question going into this game is who starts at LB and SS. Atlanta hasn’t relented from their insistence on playing sophomore LB Duke Riley and late trade addition S Jordan Richards, but both have been downright awful thus far. We saw two veteran free agent additions—LB Bruce Carter and SS Sharrod Neasman—come in for a few series against the Steelers, and the defense seemed to get measurably better. After halftime, the Falcons replaced them once again with Riley and Richards, and the rest is history.

If the Falcons are serious about trying to save the season, they need to make that change permanent—or at least give the veterans a real chance at the job. Bruce Carter isn’t a great athlete anymore, but he’s an 8-year veteran at MLB—he’s the most experienced player on the defense at this point. Neasman was the primary backup for Keanu Neal in 2017, and he looked a lot better in limited action than Richards—who has been by far the worst player on the defense in 2018. If Atlanta sticks with Riley and Richards after reviewing the last two games, it’s clear they aren’t really committed to trying to salvage the season by any means necessary.

Ryan Schraeder and Alex Mack

The two players that have really disappointed on the offensive line this season, based on our expectations, have been C Alex Mack and RT Ryan Schraeder. Mack hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been his usual elite self either. Schraeder has looked solid through much of the season, but was absolutely abused by T.J. Watt in Week 5. The Falcons have virtually nobody behind either of these players, so we’ll need the two of them to step up in Week 6 and beyond.

Can Mack and Schraeder get back on track against a solid but beatable Buccaneers’ front seven? Absolutely. Outside of Gerald McCoy, the Bucs haven’t been great on the interior—which should give Mack a good chance at a rebound game. Schraeder will get to face either an aging Jason Pierre-Paul or journeyman Vinny Curry. Both are solid players—better than the Bucs have had in some time—but neither really scares you either. If he struggles in this game, it might be a long season on the right side of the offensive line.

The pass rush

The Falcons should be getting DT Grady Jarrett back for Sunday’s game against the Bucs. That’s good, because they desperately need him for the pass rush to have any chance—even against a middling OL like Tampa Bay’s. Takkarist McKinley has been very good this season, and when he and Jarrett are on the field the Falcons are able to generate some pressure. Jack Crawford has also been solid in his nickel pass rushing role. Unfortunately, Vic Beasley has been a complete ghost thus far, giving Atlanta limited options.

It’s clear the Falcons need long-term answers next to both Takk and Grady—both of which are likely to come in the 2019 draft—but what can the team do in 2018? The team already appears committed to giving in-season free agent addition Steven Means more playing time, but it might be time to hand the starting role over to Brooks Reed. At DT, it’ll be interesting to see if the team gives more reps to rookie Deadrin Senat and recent addition Michael Bennett. Terrell McClain has been solid in the worst possible way, and I believe Senat and Bennett offer more in both run defense and pass rush.

Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith

With Devonta Freeman’s status for Sunday’s game looking increasingly doubtful, it seems likely that the duo of Coleman and Smith will be handling the RB duties once again. That hasn’t been a bad thing for the Falcons in 2018, as Atlanta has (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) been far more productive offensively with Freeman out of the lineup. Still, Freeman’s absence gives the Falcons another opportunity to evaluate Ito Smith, who has been very impressive in limited action.

We know what we have in Coleman as both a home-run hitter and a receiver, but he lacks the consistent gains that we’re accustomed to from Freeman. It appears that Smith might be far better in that regard, and the team clearly trusts him in short-yardage and in the red zone. In my opinion, the more snaps for Smith, the better—he’s been awesome thus far, and I’m anxious to see if he can keep it up against the run defense of the Buccaneers. Could he possibly end up being the most talented RB on the team at the end of 2018? It’s still early, but I wouldn’t completely rule it out at this point.

Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Isaiah Oliver

The one area of the defense that we thought we could trust even with starters dropping like flies all around them, the CB corps has been pretty disappointing in 2018. Some games—like against the Saints and Steelers—I’m willing to give them a little bit of a pass, seeing as the pass rush was nonexistent without Takk and Jarrett on the field. But outside of those games, the CB corps still hasn’t managed to live up to their billing. That will have to change this week against the talented receiving trio of the Buccaneers.

While we aren’t exactly sure what we can expect from Jameis Winston in this game, we know that Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and Chris Godwin will all be heavily featured. While TE O.J. Howard is likely to remain sidelined, Winston also has a strong connection with TE Cameron Brate, who could be a factor. The Falcons need Trufant, Alford, and especially Isaiah Oliver to step up against this talented group.

If I were the Falcons, I’d roll the dice and put Oliver on Evans with safety help. He’s simply too big for Trufant and Alford to cover, and those two could effectively neutralize the Bucs’ other options. This is what we drafted Oliver for, and it’s time to see if he can handle it. Making Jameis force the ball to Evans in double coverage to beat you might not be pretty, but it could be the most effective strategy for getting a win on Sunday.

What are your thoughts on this Week 6 matchup between the Falcons and Buccaneers? Who are some players that you’ll be watching closely on Sunday? Any predictions for the outcome?