Since I’ll be picking this game anyway, it made sense to not do a separate weekly preview for tonight’s Atlanta Falcons game.
Last week was another fairly solid week of picking games, as I finished 9-7 both against the spread and picking games straight up. That brings my season totals to 19-13 against the spread and 17-15 straight up.
* All lines come from ESPN.com
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-2) at Atlanta Falcons (1-1)
Thursday, September 18 at 8:25 pm ET on CBS/NFL Network
*Line: Falcons (-6.5)
With news that Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is going to sit out tonight’s game coupled with the return of Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews to the lineup, the Falcons’ issues with pass protection should subside.
The Bucs haven’t been able to generate any meaningful pressure from anybody outside of McCoy this season, and it’s unlikely that a defense coached by Lovie Smith is going to blitz heavily, so it’s likely that quarterback Matt Ryan should have plenty of time to find his receivers.
Roddy White should be among them, despite missing practice all this week. He’ll be matched up against Alterraun Verner, the Bucs top cornerback, for much of the night, which should leave Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester in more favorable match ups against corners Johnthan Banks and Leonard Johnson and safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson. This game should offer better opportunities for a return to the high-powered offense the Falcons showed in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints rather than what they did last week against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Defensively, the Falcons front will be tested once more. The Bucs will likely rely on their rushing attack to carry their offense given the struggles of quarterback Josh McCown. The Bucs don’t feature an offense that should be able to score a ton of points even against a lackluster Falcons defense, so Lovie Smith’s plan of attack will likely be to shorten the game by controlling the clock on the ground.
Bobby Rainey is expected to get the start over injured running back Doug Martin. He’s coming off a strong 144-yard performance against a formidable St. Louis Rams front seven, and the memory of his 163-yard effort against the Falcons in Week 11 last year should still be fresh in the memories of team’s defenders.
The Bucs are still trying to build chemistry along their offensive line with left guard Logan Mankins just finishing his third week with the team. Left tackle Anthony Collins, center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right guard Patrick Omameh are also all new faces too that are still trying to build continuity. The relative weakness of the Bucs interior line could be something the Falcons try to exploit as the only real pressure the Falcons have generated this year has come from defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Malliciah Goodman. Of the Falcons 12 combined pressures, hits and hurries tallied this season, Babs and Goodman have notched 8.5 of them per Moneyball game reviews.
McCown has struggled in the face of pressure this season and it will be imperative for the Falcons to try and dial things up early. Finding ways to generate pressure on the edges and via blitzes will likely be something the Falcons try to exploit, especially with the noise of a home crowd buoying them.
Calls for the Falcons to dial back their usage of the nickel sub-package will likely be answered this week simply because the Bucs don’t utilize three wide receivers as much as the Falcons’ two previous opponents.
But regardless of the scheme and sub-packages, the Falcons defenders will simply have to play better than they have through the first two games. The inability of the linebackers to keep pace with Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill last week against the Bengals was stark. That pair combined for 265 total yards from scrimmage, over half of the Bengals 472 yardage total on the day. The Bucs will certainly attempt to try and exploit the same thing with Rainey and Martin, should the latter play, since they have a similar dynamic of quickness and power.
And if the Bucs are successful in establishing their run game, it will open up play-action opportunities down the field for wide outs Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. According to premium website Pro Football Focus, no team has attempted less play-action passes this year than the Bucs with just four pass attempts off play-action. In contrast, the Falcons are a team that are below average in terms of utilizing play-action, yet have attempted 16 play-action passes this year.
That low Bucs figure is surprising, especially coming off Rainey’s performance in Week 2. Whether that is by design remains to be seen, since quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo has been substituting as play-caller for offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who is still recovering from a summer medical procedure. But it would make sense that if the Bucs can establish the run early, they will dial up some opportunities for their tall receivers downfield as the game progresses. The Falcons have a relatively small group of corners, thus potentially putting them at a disadvantage against Jackson and Evans, who both measure above 6’5”.
Overall, most of the matchups favor the Falcons in this contest. While a touchdown spread seems significant in a divisional game, it’s a home game where the Falcons should be able to bounce back from a poor Week 2 and control most of this game. The Bucs simply lack the firepower to really match what the Falcons should be able to do in the Georgia Dome. And missing their best player, McCoy, won’t help matters when it comes to slowing down the Falcons offense.
Spread Pick: Falcons
Straight Pick: Falcons