The desperate Atlanta Falcons take on the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a battle that will decide who resides in the basement of the NFC South division as the loser will reside in last place.
One of the bright spots for the Bucs this season has been their defense, which has played well despite their inability to win a game. The Falcons will be playing with a depleted offense this week, thanks to injuries to top wideouts in Julio Jones and Roddy White, as well as missing running back Steven Jackson for the fourth consecutive game. The Falcons are forced to dig deep in order to find a way to attack this Buccaneer defense.
How the Bucs decide to deploy their defense could really impact how the Falcons offense operates. The addition of cornerback Darrelle Revis has really enhanced a Bucs secondary that was among the worst in the league in 2012. The past two weeks Falcons opponents have opted to bracket and double Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez alongside Jones. Now with Jones out of the mix, it will mean Gonzalez will be the focus of the Falcons offense and opposing defense. The Bucs would be smart to try and have Revis shadow Gonzalez throughout the day whenever possible. But that will require the Bucs to ask to play Revis more inside. While Revis is capable, it will mean that the Bucs will have to make significant adjustments to their defense. If the Bucs choose to do that, a way the Falcons can attack him is by lining Gonzalez up as an inline tight end and trying to run directly at him. In the passing game, the Falcons can try to group their receivers in trips sets and try to create confusion in the Bucs secondary.
If not and the Bucs try a more traditional defense, it will feature a lot of using their safeties, Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson, against Gonzalez. The Bucs haven’t faced many top tight ends this year besides Jimmy Graham in Week 2. Graham proceeded to catch 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown, leading the Saints receivers. If that is the case, it’s clear that Gonzalez has the ability to exploit that matchup favorably for the Falcons offensive attack.
If Revis is shadowing Gonzalez, then it will leave the Falcons other receivers on islands against the Bucs lesser defensive backs. Starting cornerback Johnthan Banks has had his ups and downs this year as a rookie. But he could match up favorably against a receiver like Harry Douglas, who will be the de facto No. 1 receiver for the Falcons. Douglas isn’t very big, and Banks has good size to be an effective press corner. If the Bucs opt to employ Banks to try and press Douglas on the outside, then it will be hard for sixth-year wideout to get off the line of scrimmage and be effective. The Falcons could mitigate that some by putting Douglas mostly in the slot away from Banks, and against the smaller, less physical Leonard Johnson, the Bucs’ normal slot corner. If Revis is freed up from shadowing Gonzalez, then Douglas will be hard-pressed to get open against one of the league’s premier cornerbacks. The Falcons will try and find ways to feature Douglas with most of the defensive attention going towards Gonzalez. Douglas is at his best on shorter, quicker routes that are designed to get him in space and make us of his speed and explosiveness after the catch. The Falcons may try some screens with Douglas and shallow crossing patterns to try and feature this ability.
But the big question for the Falcons offense is whether the team can rely on other receivers to step up their game. Backup tight end Levine Toilolo has become a reliable red zone option for the Falcons in recent weeks. But the Falcons may need Toilolo to become more reliable between the twenties. Backup receivers Drew Davis and Kevin Cone will also be asked to take bigger roles on offense. Davis has been a virtual no-show this season, while Cone made a critical catch against the Jets in limited action. Neither player has shown a consistent ability to separate from coverage in their limited reps over the years, but will need to show that the past three summers of working with this offense are finally going to pay off.
Another key aspect this week will be the Falcons running game. The Falcons were effective running the ball against a tough Miami Dolphins front in Week 3, but other than that have been a middling rushing attack this season. They cannot afford to repeat that this week, with the question marks they have in the passing game. The team will be without starting runner Steven Jackson, and thus will have to be once again heavily reliant on Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling. But the onus will be on the Falcons offensive line to win in the trenches. Gerald McCoy has been one of the best interior defensive tackles in the league this year, and it will be on the Falcons interior to get push against him. They were kicked around by a Jets defensive line last week, and guards Justin Blalock and Garrett Reynolds will need to have better performances to block a player like McCoy.
The offensive line will have to pull its weight in the passing game as well. They are going to need to have their best game in terms of protecting Matt Ryan. Given the question marks surrounding the Falcons receivers to separate from coverage, the more time the line can give Ryan, the more effective those receivers can be. Even great players like Revis cannot cover forever, and thus if Ryan is getting time to locate his receivers, it will make them more effective.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has indicated that the Falcons won’t be as reliant on the no-huddle attack as they have been thus far this year due to the inexperience level of the young receivers. That will put more pressure on Koetter’s play-calling to put this offense and its players in favorable positions.
The simple truth is that if the Falcons continue to play as they’ve played thus far offensively, they are going to struggle mightily to move the ball against this tough Bucs defense. They are missing a lot of reliable playmakers, and thus will be looking for someone else to emerge as a reliable option for Matt Ryan. In the past few weeks, that has not occurred. Defenses like the Jets and Patriots essentially challenged the other Falcons receivers with all of the attention drawn by Gonzalez and Jones, and those receivers did not respond. Ryan is going to have to show a lot more trust in these players than he has thus far this year. The good thing is that the Falcons will be playing at home, and have had an extra week to prepare coming off a bye. That could help mitigate some of these unfavorable circumstances for the offense.
But it’s likely going to be a low-scoring affair for the Falcons offense, and thus the Falcons chances of winning will rely heavily on their defense as well…