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What to know about Falcons vs. Buccaneers in Week 7

A classic matchup with some new twists.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Buccaneers were headed for irrelevance again. I was so sure of it after this team limped to the playoffs in the worst division in football last year, and then immediately turned around and endured a cap-strapped offseason that saw them lose Tom Brady. There’s still time for that to happen, but in a surprise to me, the Bucs have been pretty solid.

Now 3-2, they’ll host the Falcons in a pivotal NFC South matchup. A win here for Atlanta does wonders for their positioning in the division, as they’ll be 2-0 with a victory over a Tampa Bay team that may linger until the end of the season. They’ll also be 4-3, whereas a loss damages their divisional numbers and puts them under .500. That’s not fatal, but it’s certainly not where a team hellbent on contending wants to be after seven games.

To get by Tampa Bay, Atlanta will have to do something it has rarely done in 2023: Be the best version of themselves. That means staying tight on defense and harrying Baker Mayfield, playing a relatively mistake-free game on offense, and ideally getting the run going against a quality Tampa Bay front. That’s easier said than done, as the Falcons keep proving, but there’s no time like the present to buck a trend.

Here’s what you need to know about the matchup ahead.

Falcons - Buccaneers Rankings


Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Falcons 3-3 29 16 18 10 14 4 4 11 31 25
Buccaneers 3-2 25 25 17 29 8 14 26 7 5 5

This is a battle of two middling offenses and two really good defenses, just like we all expected.

Atlanta’s starting to put up plenty of yardage, but red zone woes and turnovers aplenty have them putting up scoring versus yards numbers that would make Dean Pees pleased. That’s a problem against the Buccaneers, who are both very good at slowing opposing offenses and very good at forcing them into mistakes, including turnovers. If Desmond Ridder is careless with his ball placement again in this one, Tampa Bay will take full advantage.

The flip side is that the Falcons have been lackluster at creating turnovers since the first couple of weeks of the season, but they’ve been aggressive and difficult for opposing teams to score against unless they have the advantage of a short field. For an anemic Bucs rushing attack, that spells trouble, with Baker Mayfield and his talented set of pass catchers probably providing a little more trouble for Atlanta. Still, that offense is nothing to write home about, which gives the Falcons a chance to clamp down hard and turn this into a slugfest.

How the Buccaneers have changed

No Tom Brady!

The big change here is the switch to Baker Mayfield, which came after Brady’s retirement. Mayfield is one of the better stories at the position right now, given that he’s playing like a decidedly above-average option through the first five games of the season in Tampa Bay, and that’s been a major reason this Buccaneers team has stayed afloat despite a completely non-existent ground game. There are reasons to be cynical about how long Mayfield can keep this up, but we’ll get to those below.

The Bucs lost cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, defensive linemen Carl Nassib and Akiem Hicks, and safety Mike Edwards, but they did a surprisingly good job of keeping talent around in spite of their strained cap situation, keeping key pieces like Lavonte David and Jamel Dean around. Given that this was already a pretty good defense, that was key, and they further supplemented it with a draft class that included promising defensive lineman Calijah Kancey. New guard Cody Mauch is a promising player even if he’s not playing well now, and new additions Trey Palmer at wide receiver and Sean Tucker at running back have considerable promise, even if Tucker has done virtually nothing to this point.

The Bucs largely held their nucleus together, in other words, and added some real promise via their draft class. It’s an open question how well that’s going to work out over the long haul, especially if Mike Evans leaves after 2023, but it has been enough to put a quality team on the field thus far.

What to know about Sunday’s game

The Falcons took a Commanders matchup that was tough but manageable and made it look impossible, failing to run the ball effectively, turning it over too many times, and making inexplicable decisions with their time that turned this into an eight point loss. The infuriating piece is that they really should have won, given that the opportunities in front of them, and it underscores just how costly this team’s most boneheaded mistakes have proven to be.

Tampa Bay is a team that simply hasn’t made those kinds of mistakes, which is one of the reasons they’re 3-2 right now. They’re among the best teams in the league at avoiding fumbles and interceptions thus far, but that comes with an important caveat: Mayfield is doing this at a level his career numbers suggest he cannot possibly sustain. The Falcons have to take advantage of opportunities given to them, because they’ve struggled to do so in recent weeks where A.J. Terrell, Jessie Bates, and others have just missed their chances. Mayfield has never had a sack rate lower than 5% in his career before this year, where he’s at 3%, and before last year had only had this low of an interception rate (1.9%) once. His turnover worthy play rate is also a little below his career average rate, and his big-time throw percentage is considerably higher. All of that suggests that Mayfield is well overdue for a rougher stretch, one the Falcons can provide him if they can play to their standards on defense.

It’s important to focus on Mayfield and this passing game because this rushing attack is impossibly inept. Tampa Bay is dead last in rushing yards and rushing yards per attempt, and starter Rachaad White is the only player to average over three yards per attempt. He’s 38th in the NFL in yards after contact out of 44 qualifiers, and paired with so-so run blocking thus far in 2023, this is perhaps the league’s least threatening rushing attack. They’ll surely break a couple of solid runs on Sunday, but Atlanta should easily keep that attack in check and force the Bucs to take to the air.

Unfortunately, they’re capable there. Mayfield may be playing at a level he can’t sustain, but that doesn’t mean Sunday is when he stops being a useful player. We all know how dangerous Mike Evans is—he’s still playing lights out football—and Chris Godwin and Cade Otton are genuine threats for Mayfield to work with. The fear here is that the pass rush can’t get home and Evans and Godwin break a few big gains that put pressure on Atlanta to respond.

Ultimately, though, it’s not the defense I’m worried about. Tampa Bay isn’t dynamic enough on offense to put up gobs of points on a Falcons defense that’s performing as well as any Atlanta D in recent memory; their defense is absolutely good enough and opportunistic enough to make for another long Sunday and win a low-scoring game as a result. My greatest fear is that Desmond Ridder will once again put together a reasonably good effort on balance that will be undone by a couple of untimely turnovers, which is not an unreasonable concern given that he has had exactly that sort of effort in two of the past three weeks. Tampa Bay allows gobs of yardage through the air but are stingier in the red zone and good at collecting interceptions (they’re tied for 8th in the NFL); the fact that they’re not the league’s most threatening pass rush hardly matters with really opportunistic defensive backs who can take advantage of Ridder locking on.

The run defense is another issue. Tampa Bay is among the stingiest in the league in terms of yardage and scores, with numbers that rank just a little behind that super-stingy Falcons run defense, and they’re absolutely capable of putting the same kind of hurt on the Falcons that Houston and Washington did the past couple of weeks. Atlanta desperately needs to get that part of their game going to take a little pressure off the Falcons and Ridder, who may well be improving but shouldn’t be throwing close to 50 times in any game this season. Getting Bijan to reel off a couple of big runs and getting Allgeier enough room to actually move—he ranks 44th out of 44 qualifying backs in yards before contact at 1.2 yards per attempt—would make a huge difference for this offense.

It’s a straightforward matchup, then. If the Falcons can avoid turnovers, they can probably pass well enough to stay in this one, and if they can get their ground game going, Tampa Bay will have a rough day given the strength of Atlanta’s defense. For what seems like the third week in a row, I am stressing this simple mantra: If the Falcons avoid beating themselves, they will be in a very good position to win this game. As I noted above, that’s just easier said than done for this inconsistent football team.