Beating the Bucs: A Falcons Football Fantasy

After suffering a drubbing at the hands Philadelphia Eagles, the Atlanta Falcons will look to restart their season in week two. The first step is to watch the film from last Sunday. The second step is pour a glass of bourbon while burning said film and forget it ever happened. The third step is to pour another one upon remembering the team’s next opponent is Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay, as in the reigning Super Bowl champions. The situation is…less than ideal.

This season marks my 20th year of following this team with near-religious fervor. Over the past two decades, I’ve learned a few hard truths about this team. First, it’s never been a rewarding exercise to let my expectations rise to anything above mediocrity. Secondarily, I’ve seen time and again how this team, independent of leadership, plays down to bad teams but somehow manages to find another gear when playing good teams. I wonder if this long-running Jekyll and Hyde bit is paying back some kind of karmic debt we collectively owe to the universe, but answers, like touchdowns, have been hard to find. 

You Have to BELIEVE

Last season, we saw this play out with inept performances against the Saints and Chargers followed by solid performances against the Chiefs and Bucs. Neither resulted in a win, but it proved this roster can stand toe to toe with a good team and compete. We opened this season with a tragic performance, once against giving the Eagles fan base a reason to crow about their lousy team, but can this team find a path to competing against a good team this week? Generally, I am not some great purveyor of hope. However, for today only, I will summon my inner Ted Lasso, suspend all reason, and ask you to BELIEVE.

The Falcons can win IF the interior line steps up.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem. The Eagles utterly dominated the Falcons offensive interior, and this matchup against the Bucs isn’t any more favorable. There has been enough (justified) Jalen Mayfield slander on Twitter. I don’t feel the need to add to that chorus. Matt Hennessey didn’t fare much better, and even the generally steady Chris Lindstrom struggled at times. Plainly stated, this group has to step up. There’s ways the coaches can help this group later, but a repeat of last week spells doom against any opponent; against the Bucs, it may lead to our first taste of the Josh Rosen experience. 

The issues with Mayfield aren’t a matter of physical limitations. Unlike our other rookie option at guard, Mayfield has the size and strength to be effective. His arm length is less than ideal, but it shouldn’t sink him. His problem is his technique. It’s terrible. It looks like someone plucked him from a completely different position, gave him two weeks to get ready, and asked him to block one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Shocking really. I guess everyone has to get baptized sometime, right, Art?

This group doesn’t have to come out and perform like a top-five unit to win. They do have to look like an NFL-caliber line, however. Anything approaching average is enough, provided the rest of the coaching staff and roster do their jobs.

The Falcons can win IF the offense can run the ball.

The lone bright spot from the Eagles game was the triumphant return of a rushing attack to Atlanta. Sure, it only lasted for two drives, and a former wide receiver spearheaded it, but I’m taking every victory lap I can. Finding a way to extend this success on the ground will be the biggest key to a Falcons victory. Everyone knows the story. Run the ball, burn the clock, give your QB manageable third downs, and keep the ball out of the hands of a dominant offense. It’s cliché, but it’s Atlanta’s only hope. Of all the “If’s” I’m going to present, this is the most important. Thankfully, it is also the most likely to come to fruition.

The Falcons offensive line was surprisingly decent in the run game last week. The Bucs, who have a much better set of linebackers to account for, stifled the Cowboys’ rushing attack. However, it’s not out of the question that Atlanta can open up holes for Davis and Patterson. Expect the Falcons to try and manufacture light boxes by repeating the heavy reliance on multiple tight ends sets and forcing the Bucs to chose between sound coverage and winning the numbers game upfront. If the Bucs, like the Eagles, decide to defend the run with seven in the box, the Falcons will find running lanes. Then it’s just a matter of keeping the score close enough that the run game is still an option.

The Falcons can win IF the offense stays on schedule.

We’ve established the run game is step one, but it isn’t enough on its own to win the game. Penalties and miscues plagued Atlanta last Sunday, and eliminating those mistakes will be crucial. Tampa has a dangerous defense with a distinct advantage with their defensive line, but their secondary can be exploited, especially with Sean Murphy-Bunting’s absence. Atlanta will have to get out of its own way to take advantage of it. Drive killing penalties and missing open receivers will, yet again, lead to disaster this week. It is probably unfair to demand a near-perfect performance from Matt Ryan, especially in situations that will be far from perfect, but that’s what it will take to win this season. He needs to play like a $40 million player, and his teammates need to play with more discipline to allow him that chance.

The Falcons can win IF they find a way to get a few explosive plays.

Ok, so here’s the tough one. The Falcons must find a way to generate a few explosive plays. Even if Ryan is playing lights out, it is too much to ask of this offense to create multiple, 14+ play scoring drives. That is too much to ask of any offense. Atlanta will need to hit some big passes somewhere along the way to keep this defense honest. Thankfully, we have a few options.

To create these crucial explosive plays, Arthur Smith needs to take advantage of Kyle Pitts’ ability to work vertically. If Smith can force a matchup between Pitts and Devin White, he must challenge him down the field. For all of White’s athleticism, he is a liability in coverage. Lavonte David is the only player that has the potential to limit Pitts in single coverage. Ross Cockrell, Mike Edwards, and Antoine Winfield Jr. are all at a disadvantage trying to cover Pitts. Smith has to find ways to get one-on-one matchups and exploit them. 

Finding ways to isolate Calvin Ridley across from Jamel Dean is another matchup Smith needs to seek. Dean is a good corner, but he is ultra-aggressive and will bite on just about every double move he sees. Enter route runner extraordinaire Calvin Ridley, and you have all the ingredients for a big play. This group of Falcons receivers found space to work against this secondary last season, but the route concepts this season have been starkly different. For this week at least, Coach Smith may want to harken back to some of the vertically attacking concepts Atlanta used last season.

The big caveat here is the ability of the line to protect Ryan long enough to get a deep pass off in the first place. I haven’t tracked Smith’s usage of seven- and eight-man protections from week one, but he used max protection more often than any OC in the NFL last year. He will need to dial it up again this week if he wants to escape Tampa with a win. Judicious use of max protect is the name of the game here, but if he can get the defense off-balance with play-action, it can be effective.

The Falcons can win IF the defense can stop the run.

The Eagles rushed for 173 yards against the Falcons in week one. Even though over a third of that yardage came from Jalen Hurts, the Falcons still allowed a ludicrous amount of yardage before contact. Part of that is Hurts keeping the defense honest, but this front needs to improve dramatically to slow down Tampa’s offense. Tampa would love nothing more than to establish the run early and grind out the game without putting Brady at risk by having him throw 40 times. The first step to this defense doing their part is limiting Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette early and forcing Tampa into being one-dimensional.

The Falcons can win IF they generate consistent pressure on Tom Brady.

Let’s imagine the Falcons do firm up their defensive front and stymie Tampa’s run game. Great! Now they have to defend Tom Brady and his bevy of talented receivers. Not as great. The bottom line is that the Falcons don’t have the talent to depend on their secondary to limit this offense. If Brady is allowed to sit in the pocket, no amount of coverage trickery will save Atlanta. Brady has seen it all. There is no hope of confusing him for an entire game. There is no hope that AJ Terrell, Fabian Moreau, and Isaiah Oliver can keep their heads above water in man coverage against this wide receiver corps. The only hope is to rattle Brady early and hope for the best.

Dean Pees will need to draw on his decades of experience for Sunday. I don’t think there is much hope that he can confuse Brady, but perhaps he can sew a little chaos among Tampa’s offensive line and speed up Brady’s internal clock a bit. For all his greatness, Brady hasn’t been able to avoid altogether the issues that creep into every older QB’s game. In the face of quick pressure, particularly interior pressure, he doesn’t have the athleticism to create off-structure. With enough pressure, he will make mistakes, and if Atlanta can capitalize on those, their chances of a miracle rapidly increase.

The Falcons can win IF they finish +2 or better in turnovers.

The easiest way for a less talented team to steal a win is to win the turnover battle. Tampa’s four turnovers to Dallas are the only thing that kept the Cowboys in that game. Atlanta has to hope for a similar result. Ronald Jones and Fournette have been known to cough up the ball, and Brady isn’t above throwing a dumb INT, but the Falcons will have to put enough pressure on the Bucs to force them into making mistakes. 

Alternatively, the Falcons have to pitch a perfect game in terms of turnovers. The Bucs have the more talented roster. It will be hard enough to stay competitive without giving the Bucs extra chances. However, winning will be impossible if Atlanta can’t take care of the ball.

Final Prediction

IF the Falcons offensive line performs well, and IF the run game is effective, and IF the offense doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot, and IF Arthur Smith can dial up some explosive plays, and IF the defense can stop the run, and IF Atlanta keeps pressure on Brady, and IF the team can win the turnover battle, I think Atlanta will win this game. 

See the problem there? That’s a lot of ‘if’s”. Without hitting the mark on essentially all of those, I can’t see Atlanta even making this game competitive. We aren’t here to talk about worst-case (or even most likely) scenarios, though. It’s still early in 2021, and unbridled optimism reigns for at least one more week. Let’s all imagine Atlanta shocks the NFL world, hits every marker, and comes away with a 34-28 victory in week two. 

Follow us on Twitter @atb_football, @falcons_atb, and myself @stevieraylee.

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