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Intriguing players to watch in Falcons vs. Buccaneers

Several Falcons have much to prove this week.

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NFL: Washington Commanders at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, I try and name five Atlanta Falcons that intrigue me in their upcoming Week 7 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Desmond Ridder

Last week, superstition got the better of me when I omitted quarterback Desmond Ridder’s name due to the hopes that he’d repeat the success he had the week before against the Houston Texans, when he wasn’t listed either. Ridder proceeded to throw three interceptions this past Sunday against the Washington Commanders.

Questions surrounding Ridder still linger on his ability to play on the road, where he’s 0-4 as a starter in the NFL. Ridder’s passer rating away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium falls to an abysmal 70.0, barely edging out the 69.4 career passer rating of Joey Harrington. That is not good company.

While Ridder isn’t anywhere close to putting up the 93.6 career passer rating of Matt Ryan on the road, he doesn’t need to be right now. Ridder just has to be good enough in the critical late-game scenarios featured in every Falcon game thus far this season.

Evidenced by the team’s 3-3 record, it’s been pretty hit-and-miss whether Ridder has looked clutch. But the grind of the NFL season never halts, and Ridder will have to prove himself all over again on Sunday against Tampa Bay.

Drake London

A week ago I named wide receiver Drake London as intriguing, due to the fact that other No. 1 wide receivers like D.J. Moore, A.J. Brown, and Stefon Diggs feasted upon the Commanders' defense to the tune of over 100 yards receiving. London went about his business with a 125-yard performance against that same defense, so I wonder if he can do it again versus the Bucs defense that has similarly been gashed by top wideouts. Justin Jefferson, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Moore, and Brown have all topped 100 yards against the Bucs this season.

While I consider London to be an excellent receiver, I generally avoid comparing him to the aforementioned more established No. 1 receivers due to their longer, more reliable production. But the more London mirrors said production, the less apprehensive I should be.

It’s notable that one potential No. 1 that did not feast against the Bucs defense was New Orleans Saints second-year wideout Chris Olave. He’s another player whom London is often compared to, due to the fact that both were selected at the top of the 2022 NFL Draft. If London has another big day against the Bucs, I won’t be apprehensive over pointing that out whenever the conversation centers on debating the top wideout from that draft class.

Drew Dalman

Center Drew Dalman could essentially stand in for the entire Falcons' interior offensive line. That group will have their hands full on Sunday against a Bucs defensive front featuring Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vita Vea. But Vea isn’t alone, since rookie defensive tackle Calijah Kancey is coming off an impressive return from injury in a six-pressure performance against the Detroit Lions.

Dalman, along with guards Chris Lindstrom and Matthew Bergeron, need to win their matchups up the middle. Should they lose that battle too often, it will disrupt both the Falcons' run game and passing attack. It’ll be a tall order, but potentially made easier if Vea is limited on Sunday due to a sore foot.

Bijan Robinson

A player that will benefit from the offensive line creating that push up the middle is rookie running back Bijan Robinson. Despite coming off his quietest game against Washington, Robinson has left little doubts this season about his ability to be a dynamic playmaker in the NFL.

Robinson should get plenty of pass-catching opportunities to make plays due to the Bucs’ reliance on Cover 3 defense. That scheme can often funnel the ball underneath to running backs, evidenced by New Orleans Saints runner Alvin Kamara’s 13-catch performance against the Bucs in Week 4. However, Kamara only gained 33 yards on those catches, which speaks to the swarming nature of the Bucs' defense. The Falcons clearly want to push the ball downfield more, given their recent attempts to upgrade at wide receiver, but aren’t afraid to dump the ball off to Robinson. He’ll just have to continue showcasing that dynamic skillset if he wants to avoid the swarm.

But being a complete NFL running back goes beyond being dangerous with the ball in your hands. Robinson’s pass protection skills will also be put to the test on Sunday. The Bucs are among the NFL’s most blitz-happy defenses as well, which means the Falcons will have to put a lot of faith in their running backs to aid in protection. That’s an area where Robinson has struggled so far this year, earning the team’s lowest PFF grade as a pass blocker. If the Falcons can’t trust Robinson to hold up in protection, that will limit his snaps, which means fewer opportunities to be a playmaker.

Jeff Okudah

Falcons cornerback Jeff Okudah has quickly made an impact on this ascending Falcons defense over the past month since making his 2023 debut in Week 3. That was clearest last week against the Commanders, where despite going up against smaller, quicker wideouts, Okudah was lights out. PFF credited him with allowing just one reception on five targets last week.

This week, Okudah gets to face one of the NFL’s biggest wideouts in Mike Evans. Given his own size and length, this feels more like the matchup that Okudah is tailor-made for. Evans has been a persistent thorn in the side of the Falcons defense over the years, averaging 82.3 yards per game in 16 career games against Atlanta. That even hasn’t slowed down in recent years, with Evans still averaging 85 yards per game since 2021. With another strong performance, Okudah has a great opportunity to remove that Evans-sized thorn.

Can you name more than these five Atlanta Falcons? Are there others that intrigue you entering this Week 7 matchup?