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Week 17 Preview: Falcons vs. Bucs

The season finale takes place on the road against the playoff-minded Buccaneers.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

One more game remains for the Atlanta Falcons on what has been a roller coaster of a season. Just about everything occurred during an ugly 2020 campaign for the Falcons. From unthinkable collapses to gut-punching injuries for key players to an in-season firing and a slew of rumors regarding the possible departure of two pillars on the team.

But, with the conclusion of this season, comes what is sure to be the most important offseason for the Falcons in a very long time. Before we arrive there, they have to encounter for the second time this season a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that is starting to click on both sides of the ball in time for the NFL playoffs. Let’s dissect the week 17 showdown in Tampa.

About their opponent

There is very little about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that you don’t already know. Their playoff spot is locked in and a much needed bye week in Week 13 has propelled them on a three-game winning streak at the right time of the season. They will be without key names in this matchup such as defensive end Shaq Barrett and linebacker Devin White as they are both on the team’s Injured Reserve/COVID-19 list.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Key matchups

Falcons front seven vs. Buccaneers offensive line - Go back to the first matchup in week 15 and it was a tale of two halves for the Falcons defense. In the first half, the team was able to pressure Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady considerably. Brady was sacked twice and hurried constantly before halftime which helped tremendously as the team cruised to a 17-0 halftime lead.

But once the second half began, the light switch was flipped and things changed dramatically. The constant blitz attempts were promptly picked up by the Buccaneers offensive line and suddenly, Brady had time in the pocket to write a letter, take a nap and still hit his open receivers. Brady has only been blitzed 147 times this season, which places him at 17th in the league in that category.

For a 43-year-old passer with next to no mobility, it’s interesting to see him in the middle of the pack in that category. The Falcons must get to Brady often in order to control offensive flow and overall effectiveness for the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback.

Falcons short passing game vs. Buccaneers defense - On the flip side, the second half produce plenty of opportunities for the Falcons offense to add to their first half success. However, they were unable to capitalize due to an increase in pressure packages from the Buccaneers defense. To counter an aggressive defense that blitzes from various angles and positions, the Falcons offense must implement shorter passing concepts to get the ball out of the hands of Matt Ryan more quickly.

Ryan is tied for second in the NFL in average pocket time at 2.6 seconds. Against a fast flowing Buccaneers defense that is predicated on speed, getting the ball out of his hands in a quicker pace than his average pocket time will prevent Ryan from getting sacked or hit by the Buccaneers defense.

Analytical outlook

The run game for the Falcons has been mediocre at best this season. The team is 29th in yards per game, 22nd in carries per game, and 31st in yards per rush. But after a season full of previews, you should be aware that I often go a little deeper when it comes to statistical research.

According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons also rank 28th in the league in power run success rate, 29th in open field yards, and 30th in second level rushing yards. In summation, the Falcons run game has been borderline non-existent this season. What lies ahead for them is the league’s best in run defense, yards per rush, rushes per game, and rushing touchdowns per game allowed. Level your expectations in this one.

Final thought

No question that the 2020 season as a whole was a colossal disappointment for a team that had winning talent. An 0-5 start became simply insurmountable for the team physically and mentally. I won’t be completely negative when I say that there were a few bright spots on the team that still leaves some level of hope for the 2021 season and beyond.

The team was in a similar predicament in the final stanza last season. In that one, we saw plenty of competitiveness from the Falcons as they closed out their 2019 chapter with a win over the Buccaneers in unique fashion. I can somewhat expect the same from this team as one that will come out swinging. But I do question whether or not they will land enough blows against a Bucs team that will be missing several key names, yet is also playing arguably their best football of the season.