After an unsuccessful stretch against AFC North opposition, the Atlanta Falcons are back in familiar territory. A divisional clash against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on their home turf is the best matchup they can ask for during these turbulent times. Although Tampa Bay is coming off a bye, they have endured their fair share of problems. Look no further than Dirk Koetter stating “fire everyone” following a humiliating defeat to Chicago.
Although things aren’t quite as drastic in Atlanta, they’re coming off the back end of their own humiliation in Pittsburgh. A complete second-half drubbing leaves them on the brink of irrelevancy. With the defense not correcting weekly mistakes and a once-reliable offensive line starting to look overmatched, it’s fair to question if the Falcons are good enough to remain competitive this season. This upcoming two-game stretch against two unbalanced teams will decide where the Falcons are headed. It starts by facing a team they have beaten in their last three meetings.
Feed the beast
It’s difficult to comprehend how one of the best wide receivers in the league didn’t catch a pass until the fourth quarter against one of the worst defenses in the league. It’s the latest chapter of Jones’ spectacular yet bizarre career. When you expect him to explode, it never quite materializes into a dominant performance. Between the offensive line imploding to Matt Ryan throwing behind him on a few occasions, Jones was unable to make an impact. It led to more questions being asked about his usage during Dan Quinn’s post game press conference. The fiery head coach wasn’t thrilled to hear more of the same questions he’s been hearing over the past two seasons. Better results on the field will prevent Quinn from having to hear those redundant questions.
What better way to address an issue than facing one the most overmatched defenses in the league. It’s the same defense Jones torched last season for 253 yards and two touchdowns inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mike Smith’s defense had no answer for a player he coached for four seasons. When they played either Cover 2 or Cover 4, Jones found the soft openings within their coverage. When Ryan Smith was forced to cover Jones, he was hopeless in trying to stay in front of the superstar wide receiver.
This is an excellent matchup for Jones to take over and bring some hope back to Atlanta. While they were busy improving on an anemic front four, Tampa Bay failed to make any significant changes in the secondary. Brent Grimes is a year older, while the rest of the cornerbacks are either below average or unheralded. It should be a major priority for Steve Sarkisian to make sure Jones gets at least ten targets. If that happens, another monster game appears to be on the horizon. A rare touchdown may be in the cards as well.
A much-needed response from the offensive line
One of the more favorable aspects of playing Tampa Bay in recent years was facing their limited front four. A lack of speed off the edge and power on the interior outside of Gerald McCoy made them an accommodating opponent. Quarterbacks would be comfortable standing in the pocket, while running backs didn’t have trouble finding gaping holes. That isn’t quite the case anymore. By taking an aggressive approach in signing Vinny Curry and trading for Jason Pierre-Paul, the Bucs’ front four aren’t pushovers anymore. There are still major problems across Smith’s defense, but the defensive line is capable of holding their own and bringing pressure.
Following last week’s debacle in Pittsburgh, there is significant pressure on the offensive line. Allowing six sacks is unacceptable, especially for a stabilized offensive line. What makes matters worse is Ryan Schraeder and Alex Mack were responsible for half of the sacks. The top two offensive linemen on the team have shown signs of major regression this season. Their disappointing play has also affected the running game, which hasn’t been effective in weeks. Some of their struggles could be due to Sarkisian’s insistence on running more outside zone. Per Pro Football Focus, the Falcons are running outside zone at a rate of 54% this season. That is eight percent more than any other team.
Diversifying the style of runs could be beneficial in reigniting a once-lethal running game. Regardless of how Sarkisian adjusts, the offensive line must perform better as a unit. They lost countless individual battles last week that prevented the offense from finding any rhythm.
Containing Mike Evans
The enormous wide receiver has found joy against the Falcons’ secondary in the past. In six games against Dan Quinn’s squad, Evans has caught five or more passes and gained 60 or more yards in every game except the first matchup. He also scored five touchdowns in the process. Other than Michael Thomas, there is no receiver that terrorizes the Falcons quite like Evans. His ability to use his large frame and catch contested passes across the middle is problematic for Quinn’s Cover 3 defense. If the Falcons shift to play man coverage, Evans can create separation at will. Robert Alford has looked overmatched when trying to square up against the star receiver.
Desmond Trufant hasn’t fared much better in the past. Similar to Alford, the former Pro Bowler tends to struggle against physical wide receivers. He is still by far the best option towards limiting Evans. Unlike in past seasons, the Bucs’ aren’t a dysfunctional one-dimensional offense. They have a plethora of playmakers at wide receiver and tight end. Trying to provide safety help doesn’t seem realistic, given Tampa Bay’s resources and Jameis Winston’s aggressive style. While Quinn will stick to playing more zone, Trufant should be used to shadow Evans when playing man. His willingness to get physical at line of scrimmage and anticipate routes makes him a better option than Alford.
After an extremely disappointing start to the season, the normally reliable corner was back to his best against Pittsburgh. He didn’t allow a single catch on four targets according to Pro Football Focus. That includes him tracking Antonio Brown and breaking up a potential touchdown in the red zone. It will take a collective effort to slow down Evans. Relying on Trufant on clear passing downs could end up being the difference.
The rise of two emerging talents
Within the abyss of the Falcons’ decimated defense, there are two young players stepping up in an otherwise disappointing group. Deadrin Senat and Damontae Kazee have played relatively well this season. Although Senat doesn’t have a steady role in the rotation, he is starting to see his snap count increase. His impressive performance against Pittsburgh came at an opportune time. With Grady Jarrett sidelined and the coaching staff having no other choice than to use the “next man up” approach, Senat stood out from the pack. He manhandled Maurkice Pouncey on multiple running plays. From playing with a strong base to using his fast hands to shed blocks, the Falcons appear to have a real solution at one-tech alongside Jarrett.
Kazee has bounced back nicely following his moment of madness against Carolina. Moving from cornerback to free safety can be a difficult process, especially when your pressed into the role. It hasn’t been a smooth transition, but there are more than enough encouraging signs that show he can be an above-average starter. Kazee entered the league with a reputation for being a ballhawk. Those tremendous ball skills have been on display, as Kazee’s stat sheet speaks for itself. In four-and-half games, the second-year player has produced two interceptions, one forced fumble, and three passes defensed. Let’s not forget his well-timed jarring hit on Dallas Goedert that led to Deion Jones capitalizing for an interception.
He does need to read the game better, as quarterbacks are starting to tear the secondary apart down the seam. For all the growing pains, both players have shined and will be needed to help the Falcons salvage what is becoming a lost season.