The Falcons are 2-2, but they’ve been in every game thus far this season. After getting blown out repeatedly by contenders in 2021, they’ve nearly handled the Rams and cleaned up the Browns already this season, a mark of the significant progress that has been made.
Week 5 offers a chance to continue the good times, and also to defeat one of Atlanta’s biggest bogeymen. The Falcons have never beaten Tom Brady, but they have a prime opportunity to knock off Tampa Bay now when Brady is...dealing with some things...and the Buccaneers are fresh off a tough loss to the Chiefs.
Whether or not they do so, it should be a lively, competitive game behind a Falcons offense finding its footing and a Tampa Bay defense keeping the Bucs afloat. Here’s what you’ll need to know for the matchup ahead.
Falcons - Buccaneers comparison
Basically, the Buccaneers have one of the ten or so best defenses in football, one that’s both stingy and opportunistic in terms of how frequently they create turnovers. Their offense has been a bit of a mess thus far, with a solid-but-not-great passing attack keeping them afloat while the ground game looks like the 2021 Falcons. The offense will likely revive a bit as the season goes on, but the defense has had to carry this team thus far, and will pose the stiffest challenge of the young season for Atlanta.
The Falcons, meanwhile, are a so-so defense that has had a knack for coming up with big stops and very timely turnovers. It’s fair to wonder what happens if those turnovers dry up, but this is a young group that seems to be improving, so hopefully they can continue to contribute to the effort. The offense has been an erratic-but-efficient passing attack and a borderline great rushing attack in all but one week, with the passing attack falling apart last week and the ground game struggling against the Rams. When they put it all together—and hell, even when they’re just running well—they’re awfully fun and hard to stop.
How the Buccaneers have changed
The biggest thing is that Tom Brady retired, and then elected not to retire. I’m not going to get into the Brady family drama that is swirling around the news right now, but suffice to say coming back for a team that’s probably playoff-caliber but probably not championship-caliber was a weird choice, and Brady looks pretty damn miserable so far. His offense has not looked as good as it once did, and Rob Gronkowski both retiring and actually staying retired didn’t help.
With Brady coming back, though, the Buccaneers went out and signed a bunch of former Falcons pass catchers. They added Russell Gage to serve as a consistent short-to-intermediate target for Brady, picked up Julio Jones in the hopes that he’d be healthy enough to turn back the clock and give them a full season of Julioesque play, and brought in Keanu Neal to help catch passes from other teams. It’s depressing to see these players, who I like a lot, in Tampa Bay.
Their offensive line went haywire, with Ali Marpet retiring, Alex Cappa heading to the Bengals, and losing Ryan Jensen to injury. They managed to get Shaq Mason for a song from the Patriots to address one hole and pushed 2022 second round pick Luke Goedeke into another, but this line isn’t quite what it once was. Aside from adding interesting tight end Cade Otton via the draft and picking up reserve running back Rachaad White in April, the offense is otherwise largely the same.
The addition of Logan Hall to their defensive line made an already tough unit even stronger, while Logan Ryan is a useful addition on the back end. They also picked up Akiem Hicks, who also made a strong front even stronger, and deprived the Falcons of a very good former Bear. The defense isn’t perfect, but it is damn good, loaded with talent up front and with plenty of intriguing young players in the secondary. They’ve largely had to carry the squad this year.
Oh, and they added a rookie punter in Jake Camarda.
Several of these moves set them up nicely for the future—Otton is promising, Goedeke should be good, and Hall is a potential beast for the long haul, plus Gage is a useful young receiver—but this is still a team hoping to win right now. It’s not clear whether they’re good enough to do so anymore, but regrettably they’re still a talented squad.
What lies ahead
This is Atlanta’s toughest matchup of the season thus far, though injury has the potential to make it more straightforward. The Saints are always competitive against Atlanta but aren’t that good, the Rams are a mess right now, the Seahawks are a solid-but-unspectacular team in the midst of a rebuild, and the Browns are good but were short key pieces on Sunday. The Falcons have won or almost won all of their games against quality teams, but for all their early struggles, the Buccaneers are probably the best opponent they’ve faced thus far.
More importantly, they’re also fielding the best defense Atlanta’s faced. While their front has been more susceptible than expected to opposing ground games, the backend is pretty stingy and opportunistic, and the pass rush still gets home. Marcus Mariota will have to rebound from a rough effort and key a passing attack that could be down Kyle Pitts, Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley will have to get rolling on the ground to take advantage of Tampa Bay, and the offense will have to avoid the kinds of drive-killing mistakes that have become a little bit too common in the first part of the season.
Defensively, the task is a little easier with a banged up Tom Brady, especially given that the Buccaneers offense has been pretty lackluster thus far. Julio Jones, Russell Gage, Chris Godwin and Breshard Perriman are all dealing with injuries of some kind and so is tight end Cameron Brate, leaving Tampa Bay’s pass catches a little less impressive than they’d be at full health. This still can be a dangerous offense, but assuming Atlanta is disciplined and can keep Mike Evans from killing them single-handedly, the Buccaneers may once again put together a lackluster day on that side of the ball. The Falcons probably can’t win a defensive slugfest, but if the offense gets cooking they’ve got a very good chance given Tampa Bay’s current limitations.
It’d probably be foolish to expect a win, given that Atlanta has never beaten Brady and the Bucs are still loaded with talent from top to bottom, but it certainly looks more feasible than it did before the season began and Tampa Bay began stumbling. The injury report this week will be worth watching closely, but Atlanta’s best effort on Sunday could very well carry them to the top of the NFC South. What marvelous times to live through.