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Intriguing Falcons to watch against the Buccaneers

After another dominant victory over the Panthers, the Falcons (3-7) return home to face the Buccaneers (3-7) in their third-straight division game. Here are some of the most interesting players to watch when Atlanta takes on Tampa Bay in Week 12.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After dispatching the Panthers (5-5) in Week 11, the Falcons (3-7) are on their first winning streak of the 2019 season. It’s unclear exactly what prompted this resurgence from the team, but it is clear that the defense has performed a total 360—Atlanta allowed an average of over 31 points per game in the first eight games, but just 12 total over the past two.

Week 12 brings another divisional opponent, this time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7). The Bucs have been struggling almost as much as the Falcons, but it’s a lot easier to find the faults in their team: an undermanned defense, and QB Jameis Winston—who leads the league in turnovers. Can Atlanta continue their winning ways on Sunday? Let’s take a look at some of the biggest matchups heading into Week 12.

Isaiah Oliver and Desmond Trufant

The biggest challenge during Sunday’s game will be containing the Bucs’ primary weapons: WR Mike Evans and WR Chris Godwin. Evans has long been a thorn in the Falcons’ side, and has been having another excellent season. Meanwhile, Godwin has been having the best season of his NFL career as a high-level WR2. While Tampa Bay has other quality weapons, it’s clear that the offense runs through these two receivers.

Facing off against them, in all likelihood, will be CBs Isaiah Oliver and Desmond Trufant. Oliver’s size makes him a better matchup option for Evans, who is simply too big for Trufant and definitely too big for rookie Kendall Sheffield. While Oliver struggled mightily to start the season, he has been improving, and how well he contains Evans will be a big story in the game. On the other side, Trufant is likely going to be forced into 1-on-1 coverage against Godwin. I like Trufant’s ability to limit Godwin’s damage in that scenario, but it’s still a tough matchup.

Kaleb McGary

The Falcons offensive line held up admirably against the NFL’s best pass rush in the Panthers last week. Things should be a bit easier against the Buccaneers, as the team has only 22 sacks on the season (2.2/game average). Half of Tampa Bay’s sacks have come from a single player: EDGE Shaq Barrett, who has 11.5 on the season. Barrett is likely to go up against the weaker of Atlanta’s OTs to maximize his chances.

Enter Kaleb McGary, who had a bit of a rough week against Carolina but totally shut down Saints star EDGE Cameron Jordan the week before. McGary has had an up-and-down rookie season—which is par for the course for rookie OTs—but has been solid at worst since the bye. McGary will have his work cut out for him against Barrett, who has been one of the NFL’s biggest surprises this season.

The pass rush

One of the keys to limiting the damage Buccaneers’ QB Jameis Winston can do is to put pressure on him early and often. Pressure in Winston’s face can cause him to make poor decisions, and poor decisions lead to INTs—of which Winston currently has a league-leading 18. Before the bye, I would’ve told you not to get your hopes up. Now? There’s a possibility that Atlanta’s pass rush can take over this game, as they have the previous two weeks.

After putting up only 7 sacks in the first eight games, the Falcons have added 11 in the past two. They’ve done it against one of the NFL’s premier OLs (Saints) and one of the lower-tier units (Panthers). The Bucs are probably somewhere in the middle, with solid-to-good interior linemen but poor play from their OTs. Atlanta has been finding ways to create pressure on the outside and inside, but they’ll likely need to maximize their outside pressure—and keep Winston effectively contained—to keep Tampa Bay’s offense in check in Week 12.

Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison

The first starting opportunity for RB Brian Hill was a rather disappointing one. Despite facing a Panthers defense that was giving up over 5 yards per carry, Hill was largely ineffective on the ground—15 carries for 30 yards (2.0 YPC). That probably has more to do with Koetter’s utter incompetence in calling a rushing attack—endless runs up the middle into the teeth of Carolina’s defense certainly didn’t help things—but Hill still has a lot to prove if he’s making his case to be a starter in 2020 and beyond.

Qadree Ollison also got the first real carries of his NFL career, turning one into a TD. I wouldn’t be shocked if Ollison gets more opportunities this week, particularly in the red zone. It won’t be easy for either RB, however, as the Bucs are currently one of the NFL’s premier run defenses. Tampa Bay is 2nd in rushing yardage allowed and 3rd in yards per carry (only 3.5). I wouldn’t expect a big game from Hill or Ollison, but hopefully they can do enough to keep the offense on schedule.

Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley

With Tampa Bay’s excellent run defense, the Falcons are likely to air it out plenty on Sunday. With Mohamed Sanu traded and Austin Hooper still sidelined with injury, it’s clear who Atlanta needs to target in Week 12: Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Jones and Ridley put on a show against a premier pass defense in Carolina last week, and they’ll have a far easier matchup against a Buccaneers secondary that is 31st in passing yardage allowed and 31st in passing TDs allowed.

While tertiary targets like WR Russell Gage and TE Jaeden Graham will certainly have some opportunities, it’ll be up to Jones and Ridley to carry the day. We saw Ryan have arguably his best deep passing game of the season against the Panthers last week. Can he replicate that performance in Week 12? The Falcons will be at home, and are facing a clearly inferior defense. I’d expect Julio and Ridley to put up serious numbers in this game.

Who are some players you’ll be watching closely when the Falcons take on the Buccaneers on Sunday?