For the first time since 2012, the Falcons will be facing the Buccaneers in their season finale. They have rotated between facing Carolina and New Orleans over the past six years. Most of those games had playoff implications. Any chance of this game having playoff implications was erased in early December. Both organizations are looking to reload after disappointing seasons. With clear flaws on both sides of the ball, each team has plenty of work to do to challenge the Saints at the top of the division.
Dan Quinn’s team does have an opportunity to end the season in a productive manner. Winning their last three games would give them solace in how they responded after enduring a five-game losing streak. The level of competition isn’t strong, but the quality of opposition shouldn’t hold much value in these circumstances. The Falcons were arguably the worst team in the league from Week 10 to Week 14. For them to respond with two definitive wins holds some credence. While it won’t save the jobs of certain coaches and players, another win can help them gain some confidence going into 2019.
Takkarist McKinley’s recent surge
It’s been a rollercoaster season for the 2017 first round pick. McKinley started off the season with an absolute bang. Producing five-and-half sacks in his first six games of the season was one of the few highlights on an otherwise abysmal defense. As the season began to unravel, McKinley became an anonymous figure. The emotional edge rusher stopped generating pressure off the right side. There were signs of him showing a lack of discipline by committing pre-snap penalties and personal fouls. His hand usage wasn’t affecting opposing tackles. If he couldn’t win with sheer power or explosiveness, opposing tackles would stonewall him.
His inability to evolve was becoming a legitimate concern. With Vic Beasley failing to show the big-play ability that made him beloved in 2016, the pressure was on McKinley to develop into a consistent force. He hasn’t quite lived up to those lofty expectations, but there are inklings of progression in his overall game. The last two games have been encouraging for his development. A stat line of six QB hits, four penalties drawn, and a half sack over the past two games provides optimism. While the matchups were favorable, the coaching staff needed to see something following weeks of lackluster play. McKinley is starting to produce like he did in late 2017-early 2018.
The Falcons desperately need another consistent difference-maker alongside Grady Jarrett. McKinley provides them their biggest hope on the current roster. His raw power and relentless motor always makes him a threat. It’s how he uses his hands, along with his timing off the ball, will usually determine McKinley’s effectiveness. His impressive get off can put tackles in a world of trouble. That was on full display against Marshall Newhouse last week. Left tackle Donovan Smith is known for his lapses, which can play right into his hands. McKinley will need to be wary of Jameis Winston’s playmaking ability, particularly on third down. The enigmatic quarterback leads the NFL in third down success per ESPN’s NFL Matchup. Creating pressure and forcing him to make off-balance throws is how the Falcons’ defense can reduce his impressive conversion rate. Expect McKinley to play a major part in their efforts towards rattling him.
Brian Hill takes on a featured role
The 2017 fifth round pick received his first genuine opportunity to carry the workload last week. It’s been a strange journey for Hill following his brief stint in Cincinnati last season. After initially giving up on him, the Falcons gave him another chance to show his capabilities. Hill’s physical downhill running style gives them a different unique look. They currently don’t have that type of running back on the roster. A player like Hill could help them solve a year-long issue of converting in short-yardage situations. Their woes have become so drastic that Mohamed Sanu running the wildcat is their most effective way to convert on third or fourth and short.
Hill didn’t waste time capitalizing on a golden opportunity. On eight carries, he ran with purpose in embracing contact at every angle. Lowering his shoulder to run past James Bradberry showcased his willingness to dish out punishment to make up for his lack of elusiveness. It didn’t take long to realize Hill was playing with a point to prove. Some of his attempts to impress did result in hurting the team. An impressive 21-yard run was negated by a careless personal foul penalty, where Hill got reckless in trying to stiff arm Donte Jackson. Trying to hurdle over Jackson led to an unforced fumble on the next drive putting the Panthers in excellent field position.
These setbacks shouldn’t diminish a strong performance from Hill. With more experience, you’d expect a talented back to play with more composure. How he fares on Sunday could play a role in how the coaching staff views him going into 2019. While the young back will certainly get a chance in preseason, the chance to handle a major workload rarely happens on a team with so much talent in the backfield. Tevin Coleman’s status remains unclear, yet it shouldn’t drastically affect the chances of Hill receiving ten carries or more. This is his time to shine against a slowly-improving Tampa Bay front seven.
Potential last game for both coordinators
There has been a growing discussion about the Falcons making changes across their coaching staff. It shouldn’t be a major surprise, considering how often the Falcons have been out-schemed this season. How they failed to adjust in games against Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore after poor starts was alarming. To get repeatedly torn apart in a certain aspect of a game doesn’t simply come from a talent standpoint. It reveals the flaws within a coaching staff’s inability to devise legitimate solutions.
Despite showing signs of improvement this season, there is enough evidence to suggest Steve Sarkisian is bound to be replaced. The embattled offensive coordinator hasn’t gotten enough out of an offense filled with playmakers. Most offensive-minded coaches would drool over what the Falcons have on paper and build them back into a top-five offense. That hasn’t happened under Sarkisian. Between his frustrating tendencies to not utilizing dynamic players effectively at a consistent rate, Sarkisian has played a significant role in their offensive decline over the past two seasons. He has called two consecutive solid games, but that remains insignificant in the larger scheme of things. Not being able to put together efficient game plans against top defenses has costed the Falcons in several games.
Marquand Manuel remains in a similar position. Unlike Sarkisian, the former defensive back has been vocal about his position. It’s not something you often see from coordinators. Manuel is clearly passionate about everything he’s done in Atlanta. The defense was legitimately good last season. Due to numerous injuries and high draft picks failing to play up to expectations, it’s been a disastrous season for a once-promising unit. Manuel hasn’t done himself any favors by sticking with a mostly bland, conservative approach for most of the season. It wasn’t until the game against Green Bay, where the defense started running more blitzes and disguising their coverage looks. Similar to Sarkisian, the late-season positive moves likely won’t change Quinn’s final decision. Both coordinators will likely be coaching their final game in Atlanta. It will be interesting to see if they can out-think what many consider to be a below-average coaching staff in Tampa Bay.
Containing Mike Evans
When it comes to “Falcons’ killers”, it’s hard to look past what Evans has done in recent years. The explosive playmaker has been a matchup nightmare for Quinn’s defense. His large frame, speed, athleticism, and physicality to win against press coverage makes him a difficult matchup for any cornerback. It’s remarkable that his own team keeps him from establishing himself as a top-five wide receiver. That’s how chaotic Tampa Bay has been over the past two seasons. For all their issues, Evans’ consistency is a testament to his deserved status as an exceptional player.
It’s difficult to measure how the Falcons will try to limit Evans. Without any playoff stakes, they may decide to try something different. Manuel will likely mix in zone coverage looks at some point to prevent Evans from getting behind the secondary. Will he try to be more aggressive with his approach in forcing players such as Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries to beat them? That could prove to be an issue. Todd Monken is known for being unpredictable by using a variety of different alignments to keep defenses guessing. Every cornerback will get their fair share of Evans. How many times they will face the former second-team All-Pro in man remains the biggest question.
The idea of using Isaiah Oliver to cover Evans is something that will be considered. A big reason behind drafting him in the second-round was based on his tall stature and long arms. Quinn has been a long admirer of tall, physical cornerbacks. That was evident when he didn’t waste time drafting Jalen Collins in the second round of his first draft as a head coach. Due to Collins’ transgressions, he had to draft another corner with a similar build three years later. Allowing Oliver to cover Evans can prove to be valuable experience against someone you’d expect to see him match up against for years to come. After witnessing Robert Alford get routinely torched by Evans for years, what is the worst that could possibly happen? Quinn and Manuel have been more ambitious recently. It’s time for them to take it one step further in ending the season on a positive note.