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Buccaneers vs. Falcons: The most compelling story lines

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Can the Falcons secure their hat trick of victories in the NFC South?

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Los Angeles Rams v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Another week, another divisional matchup. Based on their two recent performances, this is exciting news for the resurgent Falcons. They have put together multiple impressive showings since the bye week. The adjustments Dan Quinn have made on and off the field are clearly paying off. Inserting Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris into play calling roles is making a massive difference. With the offensive line starting to play better and Matt Ryan looking more comfortable, there are bright spots on a previously floundering offense. Playing a dysfunctional Tampa Bay comes at an opportune time. There is no reason why they can’t continue their recent surge.

Dirk Koetter’s revenge game

Although Koetter insists there aren’t any bitter feelings between him and Tampa Bay, the polarizing offensive coordinator will surely have a point to prove. His tenure as the Buccaneers’ head coach was largely filled with disappointment. Between his inability to create any semblance of a running game to being too loyal to his close friend Mike Smith, Tampa Bay was mostly the punchline of the NFC South under Koetter. It can be argued that they remain as the biggest punchline in the NFC South based on their overall incompetence. What can’t be argued is that Koetter floundered as their head coach with a record of 19-29.

Koetter hasn’t necessarily lit the world on fire in his second stint as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Despite scoring more than 20 points in the last two weeks, the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders. Play design and execution continues to be problematic in the red zone. The over-dependency on shotgun runs, particularly on first down, is hindering the offense. While Koetter is starting to show more of a willingness to use play action and pre-snap motion more often, it must be frustrating that he wasn’t doing this at the start of the season.

How he attacks a porous Tampa Bay secondary should be the focal point of the game plan. Similar to the Falcons’ inability to produce a consistent pass rush, the Buccaneers haven’t built a decent secondary in several years. It’s been their biggest Achilles heel with several high-round draft picks failing to develop. They are unable to play man, which results in Todd Bowles often gambling by running frequent blitzes. It’ll be fascinating to see if he changes it up against Matt Ryan, who has consistently torched his team’s defense in the past. Per NFL Matchup on ESPN, the Falcons rank fourth in efficiency on third and long. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them move into the top three after this game.

Julio Jones faces a favorable opponent

Nobody knows if Tampa Bay is Jones’ actual favorite opponent. The stats indicate they must be up there. In 14 games against them, Jones has produced 102 receptions for 1695 yards and 11 touchdowns. There was never a game where Jones had fewer than 54 yards. What’s even more impressive is that he gained more than 100 yards in nine of those games. Tampa Bay’s defense never had a cornerback that could hang with Jones or a defense balanced enough to limit him. It’s not surprising Jones has previously had field days against their helpless unit. His 12 catch, 253-yard, and two touchdown performance in 2017 showcased what he can do to a bad defense that doesn’t construct a proper game plan to contain him.

Can Bowles prevent Jones from taking over another game between these teams? His lack of personnel on the outside makes the long odds of stopping Jones even longer. Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting haven’t proven they are capable starters. While Jamel Dean has shown promise, he is still relatively raw as a rookie. There are also going to be scenarios when Jones lines up in the slot. Since Mohamed Sanu was traded, the superstar wide receiver has been utilized more often in the slot. That decision is proving to be highly beneficial for Ryan. Look no further than his incredible rainbow throw downfield to Jones over Luke Kuechly last week.

Using a player like Jones in different ways across various personnel sets can only help elevate the offense. Whether it’s in the slot or in bunch formations, Jones creates mismatches wherever he lines up. Koetter is finally starting to devise plays where Jones can help create openings for his teammates, rather than isolating him on the outside and relying on his ability to separate. That should continue to convert into explosive plays against a discombobulated defense. Jones is always bound to do something big against Tampa Bay. Expect another game of highlight-reel catches and individual brilliance against overmatched cornerbacks.

Containing a dangerous receiving duo

For all of Tampa Bay’s faults, their offense is one of the more explosive units in the league. It originates from having Mike Evans and Chris Godwin terrorizing defenses. Both wide receivers have had jaw-dropping performances this season. From Evans making contested catches and using his absurd athleticism to dominate opposing cornerbacks to Godwin’s nifty route running and ability to consistently gain yards after the catch, they have filled up the box score on a near weekly basis. The only thing that prevents them from taking over games is Jameis Winston’s tendency to self-destruct.

There is only so much a wide receiver can do when a quarterback can’t throw him accurate passes or, particularly in Winston’s case, throw the ball to the other team. Evans has been putting up with the chaos for years. It hasn’t stopped him from establishing himself into a top-tier wide receiver. Godwin is on the verge of joining him in that category. His knack for finding openings in zone coverage looks makes him a huge asset. What he can do after the catch elevates him into being a legitimate star. According to Pro Football Focus, Godwin has broken 11 tackles this season, which ranks second highest in the league. There aren’t many receivers who embrace physicality more than him.

The Falcons’ secondary may receive a few early Christmas gifts from Winston. They will be challenged by both stud receivers. Desmond Trufant’s return last week made an immediate difference in shutting down Carolina’s passing game. His past issues covering Evans does have to be noted. Based on Evans’ size, it seems like a decent possibility that Isaiah Oliver will be matched up against Evans more often. These are the type of matchups he was drafted for. With his long arms and long speed, he’ll need to be ready to stop Evans on vertical routes. Godwin tends to move around the formation, which will put pressure on Kendall Sheffield. The rookie cornerback has struggled to tackle and jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. This should be a great challenge for him, as he looks to establish himself as Atlanta’s new slot corner.