For the second consecutive year, the Falcons will be finishing their season in Tampa Bay. The circumstances are different this time around.
Last season, the Buccaneers were expected to fire Dirk Koetter and revamp their coaching staff. The Falcons find themselves in a similar situation. While it’s not a foregone conclusion that Dan Quinn will lose his job, there is growing speculation this will be his final game as head coach. It makes a usually entertaining divisional clash more complicated than usual. Quinn isn’t likely to change his approach. How the players approach this game is an entirely different question.
They clearly want to finish their season on a high note. To end the season on a four-game winning streak with a winning record in the division will hold some merit. They also want to put Quinn in the best position possible. Facing a much improved, albeit shorthanded Tampa Bay team should present a decent test to finish a chaotic season. They were the last team to dismantle the Falcons. It was the only one-sided defeat Quinn’s team suffered since the bye week. Avenging that loss will be the final step in completing an impressive second half of the season.
Quinn’s potential final game
When the Falcons get normally criticized, many will point out their tendency to get out-coached and look unprepared. That was evident during the first two months of the season. Since Quinn made the decision to give full defensive play calling responsibilities to Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris, there has been noticeable improvement across the board. A once horrific defense is playing more like a respectable unit. For them to limit offenses coached by Sean Payton and Kyle Shanahan is a tremendous feat for the entire coaching staff. It’s the main reason why Quinn went from being certainly fired to potentially given another chance.
Another matchup against an offensive mastermind is on the cards for Quinn. Bruce Arians hasn’t disappointed in his first year as Tampa Bay’s head coach. A pass-happy, high-powered offense is how Arians likes to build his offenses. Despite having to cope with Jameis Winston’s incessant blunders, they’ve still managed to produce explosive plays and impressive numbers on a weekly basis. Their play action efficiency is a huge facet behind Winston’s success. Only Tennessee is more productive off of play action per NFL Matchup on ESPN. With Arians’ knack for scheming open players downfield, Atlanta’s back seven will need to be well-organized to prevent Winston from receiving clear openings.
Some of Winston’s best games have come against the Falcons. The enigmatic quarterback turns into an All-Pro quarterback at times with his accuracy on tight window throws. Not having Mike Evans or Chris Godwin will make it more difficult to make his signature tight throws. His preference to take chances down the seam will also be more difficult than usual with Deion Jones and Damontae Kazee covering that part of the field.
This is a good matchup for the defense to capitalize on Winston’s carelessness and not allow him to make big plays. Staying well positioned is obviously essential for their success, but they also need to force Tampa Bay’s undermanned wide receiving corps to beat them on the outside. That will help Quinn end the season and possibly his tenure as the Falcons’ head coach on a high note.
Strong response from the offensive line
Before taking a beating against New Orleans on Thanksgiving, Matt Ryan was shellacked four days earlier against Tampa Bay. On 52 drop backs, Ryan endured six sacks and 13 hits in a dreadful pass blocking display.
Free agent flops James Carpenter and Jamon Brown were routinely beaten by Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. Whoever lined up in front of Kaleb McGary ended up generating pressure, as the rookie right tackle looked a step behind for the entire game. Jake Matthews had one of his worst games of the season. As great as Shaquil Barrett is, there’s no reason for someone as good as Matthews to be completely overmatched. The offensive line looked reminiscent of the hopeless 2013 unit with the likes of Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz starting. That’s about as low as a comparison it can get.
The offensive line has made excellent strides in recent weeks. Chris Lindstrom’s return elevated the unit, particularly from a run blocking standpoint. His ability to cross pull and take out linebackers at the second level is giving the running game a much-needed boost. Although Wes Schweitzer can still get overpowered quite often in pass protection, his footwork and awareness makes him an upgrade over Carpenter. Both players are much better fits on an offensive line that should be built on athleticism rather than power. Whether Quinn stays or not, the front office will need to reevaluate what they want their identity to be up front. The signings of Carpenter and Brown proved to be clear misevaluations in their quest to get bigger.
Before the offseason, they must make sure Ryan doesn’t take severe punishment like he did in their previous matchup. Barrett is developing into one of the most terrifying edge rushers in the league. With Vea’s violent hand usage and Suh’s raw power, Tampa Bay built an imposing front four rather quickly. Lindstrom and McGary should be tested early and often by their powerful defensive line. There are lingering questions about McGary’s footwork, along with his ability to anchor around the edge. It’s something scouts questioned going into the draft. He has fared much better in recent weeks after being embarrassed in games against Tampa Bay and New Orleans. On a mostly stabilized offensive line, his development will be most crucial in order for them to become a top-ten caliber unit.
Vic Beasley’s unlikely achievement
In a season filled with surprises, one surprise that is going under the radar is Beasley’s recent resurgence. The 2016 sack king has produced 6.5 sacks in the last seven games. He’s looked more confident coming off the edge in recent weeks. How the coaching staff has moved him around different formations has benefited him as well. For all the criticism about him not living up to expectations, it can’t be discounted that Beasley is playing his best football since 2016. That likely won’t sway the front office’s mind in deciding if he should be re-signed. His overall improvement still deserves credence, especially since he made major contributions in the upset victories over New Orleans and San Francisco.
Some will attest to his recent play on him recognizing he is playing in a contract year. Others will claim it’s irrelevant because he is doing it during games that “don’t matter”. Polarizing players like Beasley will always attract a variety of opinions. What can’t be disputed is that the former first-round pick is two sacks away from a double-digit sack season. To achieve that will not only make a popular Atlanta radio host get a tattoo, but more importantly command a bigger price on the open market. Any player with a first-round pedigree will get more opportunities than usual. Combine that with his past success and freakish athletic abilities, and Beasley should receive interest from several teams.
He does face a tall order in sacking Winston twice. From his large frame to fearlessness in throwing the ball downfield, Winston doesn’t take too many sacks. His gun-slinging, unpredictable style makes him difficult to sack. Demar Dotson does have a history of nullifying Beasley in previous matchups. Although Donovan Smith is about as inconsistent as it gets, his long arms can give speed rushers like Beasley fits. This will be a good challenge for the embattled edge rusher to prove how much he’s worked on his hand usage and counter moves. While Morris and Ulbrich have utilized more twists in recent weeks, he will need to win his individual matchups with some extra effort to get back into the double-digit sack category.