Coming off a bye week has been pretty good for the Atlanta Falcons as of late. In each of the past five seasons, the team has won in the games following bye weeks. That figure includes three road wins as well.
However, those past Falcon teams were a lot better than this current one. Even last year’s Falcon team was certainly a diminished group, but in their Week 7 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had not quite reached the lows that this current 2014 team has reached in recent weeks.
The Falcons last win this year came against the Buccaneers in an ostentatious beatdown by a score of 56-14 in Week 3. However, the Falcons have been a very different team since that game. Since then, the team has scored just 89 points, the lowest output of any team in the league in that span.
Yet last week’s bye probably has come at its most opportune time. The Falcons simply needed a week off from losing, and hopefully have spent the week off regrouping and healing. They are once again facing the Buccaneers, who at 1-7 are the only team in the NFC with a worse record than the Falcons.
But despite the weaker record, it’s not quite fair to say that the Bucs are a weaker team. At least judging by the past month or so of football, both teams appear about even and equal in their ineptitude.
Defensively, the Bucs are pretty vanilla. By the end of Lovie Smith’s tenure in Chicago the Bears were doing a lot more than running a basic “Tampa-2” defense, but that was something that developed over multiple years. Through his first season in Tampa, Smith has been fairly basic with his looks as he tries to install the new system. That puts added emphasis on players performing in their roles, as opposed to doing anything exotic that can throw off opposing offenses. That is an advantage for the Falcons offense this week.
Falcons have struggled at times with blitzes and stunts, two things that the Bucs are unlikely to do in abundance on Sunday. That should mean that the Falcons should have less fear of deploying four wide receivers on Sunday, which is when the offense is at its best.
However that doesn’t mean that the Falcons will find it easy to defeat the Bucs vanilla sets. After missing the Week 3 game, Gerald McCoy is playing this week and he’ll constantly draw double teams from the Falcons blockers. While Falcons right guard Jon Asamoah has enough skill to contain McCoy, he doesn’t quite have enough to be stuck on an island against him and win. There will still be times where McCoy wins despite the regular double teams, and if there are too many of those instances, the Falcons offense could easily stall.
Matt Ryan is best when he has a clean pocket to slide up into. Particularly given the heat he’s faced in recent weeks from the edges due to subpar play from left tackle Jake Matthews. The Falcons are optimistic that new starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder will offer an upgrade on that side of their offense and limit the amount of pressure that comes screaming off the edge. Yet the critical component will be preventing McCoy from collapsing the pocket and allowing Ryan the room to step up and slide within the pocket to find those throwing lanes.
The Falcons don’t want to get into a situation where they are relying on too many check downs. Especially given that running back Antone Smith isn’t quite healthy with a neck injury. Checking down to Smith has proven to be a potent option in the early part of this season, but it’s not quite the same when it’s Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman or Steven Jackson catching those underneath passes. Smith has the capability to turn a simple check down into a touchdown, while the others do not.
The Falcons should be able to get a boost this week with a healthier Harry Douglas, who is in his second game back returning from a foot injury. While Douglas is still questionable on this week’s injury report, even a diminished version of him is a better alternative as the team’s fourth wideout than Eric WEems. If healthy enough, Douglas will be asked to pick up some of the slack lost by the likes of starter Roddy White, who just hasn’t been the same player this season due to a severe knee injury. The hope is that the week off will also give White some extra pep in his step, but that remains to be seen.
But if the Falcons can consistently deploy four wideouts on Sunday and avoid too many pass-protection breakdowns, this week appears that it could be the best week for an offensive resurgence that has been sorely missing for six weeks.
Offensively, the Bucs are by no means a juggernaut. Starting quarterback Josh McCown is set to return to the lineup, having injured his hand in Week 3. Since then, Mike Glennon has performed at a semi-competent level. That level was something that McCown was unable to do in the first three games of this season.
While Glennon only completed 55.9 percent of his passes over the past five starts, his yards per attempt was a competitive 7.24 in that span. Compared to McCown’s numbers in his first three games, which saw him complete 63.2 percent of his passes but only average 6.17 yards per attempt. Glennon also threw nine touchdowns to six interceptions, while McCown had a pair of touchdowns against four interceptions.
The biggest difference between the two being that Glennon was much more willing and effective generating big plays down the field than McCown. The Bucs will hope that McCown will be able to dial up some more big plays, as without them, their offense has struggled to generate points.
A large part of that deficiency is due to a weak rushing attack. The Bucs have averaged just 79 rushing yards per game since Week 3, thanks largely to their propensity to get behind early in games. The Bucs have been outscored 75-17 in the first quarter this year although that number is inflated by the huge leads the Falcons and Baltimore Ravens put on them in their respective games. Yet, they still have found themselves behind at halftime in all but one game this season, that being last week against the Cleveland Browns. Those early leads have prevented their rushing attack from being as effective as they hoped.
The Bucs will be hoping to take advantage of a porous Falcons rush defense this week with some new blood in the lineup. Rookie Charles Sims will be making his NFL debut this week after missing most of the past three months with an ankle injury. The Bucs hope that Sims can provide a spark to their ground attack.
Such a spark is the main reason why Smith decided to start McCown this week despite arguably better play from Glennon over the past month.
The Falcons will hope to have a repeat from Week 3 of their ability to dial up effective pressure against the Bucs. They should get a boost from the presence of Oniel Cousins at left tackle, replacing an injured Anthony Collins, who struggled at times against Osi Umenyiora earlier this year. Umenyiora is coming off arguably his best game since joining the Falcons with a very effective game against the Detroit Lions prior to the bye. Cousins has struggled everywhere he’s been (Baltimore, Cleveland and now Tampa) in terms of protecting the quarterback, despite being functional last week against the Browns. It’s a critical matchup the Falcons will have to take advantage of, and they may be able to rely on top pass-rusher Jonathan Massaquoi to provide a ton of help, as he nursed a foot injury this week in practice.
But yet again, a major key for the Falcons will be re-establishing an identity as an offense that can spread the field. As mentioned earlier, the team was at its best against the league’s best defense when they employed four wide receivers. They have been unable to do that for much of this season due to injuries to their wide receiver corps. Last week’s game against the Lions was the first time that the team had both White and Douglas in the lineup since Week 2.
As noted in my review of the All-22 from Week 8’s loss to the Lions, the Falcons went away from their four wide receiver sets in the second half and their offense stalled. The Falcons played fearful of the Lions pass rush, and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter admitted as much after that game to ESPN.
Despite the presence of McCoy, the Falcons should not be quite as fearful this week of the Buccaneers’ pass rush. Regardless, the Falcons need to employ as many four wide receiver sets as possible. Tight end Levine Toilolo is simply not a better option than either Douglas or Hester. If/when the Falcons are worried about protecting Ryan, they should look to employ a shorter, quicker passing game.
There was a play on the opening drive against the Lions where the Falcons utilized four wideouts and it resulted in a 24-yard play for White. This play should essentially become a bread-and-butter play for the Falcons for the rest of the year. Here’s a GIF of the All-22:
Note the shallow drag route from Julio Jones which draws a pair of underneath defenders, opening up the window for Ryan to hit White over the middle. Also not that Douglas is also wide open on the play, but Ryan doesn’t see him. Douglas gets open because the safety gives help to the slot corner, who Hester was able to run past. If that safety plays Douglas, then the play is potentially a touchdown over the top to Hester. If neither underneath defender bites on the shallow cross of Jones, then he has the room to make something happen after the catch on a simple checkdown.
This play is perfect play for the Falcons to run multiple times per game. It gives Ryan quick, underneath options in the event that the pass protection is not ideal. It also gives him deep options in the event that it is.
The play represents a sea change from how the Falcons offense has typically operated over the years. In the past, the Falcons have mostly relied on their receivers to get open and separate from coverage. Essentially, the Falcons relied on the individual prowesses of players like Jones, White and Tony Gonzalez to beat man coverage.
Instead the above play utilizes a number of complementary routes, designed to draw defenders away from other receivers. Now, other receivers are responsible for opening windows for other receivers. Hester frees up Douglas, while Jones frees up White. And it can easily work vice-versa. That is a necessary transition because the Falcons no longer have the caliber of receivers that can simply line up and beat man coverage. Gonzalez is gone, and as previously mentioned, White is a shell of his former self. Beating man coverage was never a strength of Douglas, and nursing a foot injury won’t make things any easier. Hester, while blazingly fast, was never the sort of precision route-runner during his tenure in Chicago.
The above is the sort of play that should be the centerpiece of the Falcons’ new identity. It’s a play that can be run on the majority of offensive series. Based off how their opponents defend the play on a previous series, Ryan can adjust which players are his initial reads and offer a different variant of the play every drive, keeping defenses on their toes.
The Falcons currenty lack an identity. The team’s former identities were centered around having quality players at key positions. In the early days of Mike Smith’s Era, it was reliant on running back Michael Turner just being a beast after contact and wearing down defenses. Then it morphed into a pass-first attack, but it was still reliant on the individual skill of their three primary targets than really be a system of offense where guys were interchangeable.
Now, the Falcons are limited to having one standout individual skill position player in Jones. As the above play shows, Jones is able to draw the eyeballs of multiple defenders. Hester’s vertical speed is another asset that can affect opposing coverages, and it has been underused by the Falcons this year.
There’s certainly no guarantee that Jones will remain healthy for the remainder of the year, but as long as he is, then the Falcons need to utilize him to his best capacity. He’s consistently drawn bracket and double coverage from opposing defenses. The Bucs failed to do that effectively in Week 3 and it led to the offensive explosion from the Falcons. Despite their vanilla defensive scheme, the Bucs are unlikely to make that same mistake on Sunday. Optimizing Jones includes using him all over the field to keep the Bucs guessing and not allowing them to settle.
Ultimately, this week’s game offers the best matchup for the Falcons for the remainder of the year, especially if they can get back to spreading the field in the passing game. If the Falcons cannot find a way to pull out a victory on the road this week against the Bucs, it’s going to be very difficult to find another this season. The same can be said about the Bucs.
This could be considered a must-win game, not because there are particularly any high stakes for the winner of this game. But in the cases of both teams, this might mark the last legitimate opportunity either team can have enjoy a “Victory Monday.”