The Atlanta Falcons pulled out an ugly win against the Arizona Cardinals last week and will be facing a tougher challenge on Sunday when they go to Tampa. At 9-1, the Falcons—along with Houston—still hold the best record in the NFL. But the most recent wins haven’t come convincingly. In order to beat a team as hot as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons are going to have to fix a lot of things.
Here are three keys to an Atlanta victory over the Buccaneers:
1. Get to Josh Freeman
The Buccaneers have only allowed 14 sacks all season which is the second fewest in the NFL. In the last five games, the Buccaneers are 4-1 and have only allowed six sacks; one in each win and two in the loss to New Orleans.
Along with a reliable offensive line, the Buccaneers offense will be led by their red-hot quarterback, Josh Freeman, who has been absolutely torching defenses. In the last five games alone, Freeman has completed over 58 percent of his passes, thrown for 1,387 yards, 13 touchdowns, and only two interceptions.
It is up to the Falcons to make the pocket uncomfortable for Freeman. John Abraham will lead an attack that must get to Freeman and take him down. Abraham is coming off his best game. He posted two sacks, a forced fumble and created havoc all afternoon for the Cardinals in the backfield. In order to beat the Buccaneers, the Falcons cannot only rely on pressure, but must get to Freeman and take him down.
2. Fill the gaps and make the tackles
Atlanta’s 26th-ranked rush defense will have their hands full against Tampa Bay’s ninth-ranked rushing attack led by rookie phenom, Doug Martin.
In his last five games, Martin has rushed for over 130 yards on three different occasions, including his 251 yard performance against the Oakland Raiders three weeks ago. With Freeman as hot as he is, the Falcons can’t put eight players in the box too often. This means that whenever Martin is running the ball, the first guy to him must make the tackle. Martin is second in the NFL in runs of 20 yards or more (9) and first in runs of 40 or more yards (4). The Falcons have given up runs of 20-plus yards to five different running backs and one quarterback so far this season.
The good news for the Falcons is that starting linebacker and defensive captain, Sean Weatherspoon, should be returning to the field after missing the last three games with an ankle injury. Even after missing the last three games, Weatherspoon is Atlanta’s third-leading tackler, with just eight fewer than linebacker Stephen Nicholas.
Weatherspoon is the most physical defender and the more plays Akeem Dent is off the field in lieu of Weatherspoon the better. While Dent is progressing, It seemed that Dent was never in the right spot, hardly ever filled a gap, and missed at least one tackle every series. The only way the Falcons are leaving Tampa with a win is if they fill the gap, have the first man there make the tackle, and keep Martin from breaking the long run.
3. Put the ball in Matt Ryan’s hands
Matt Ryan had his worst career game last week throwing a career-high five interceptions. Although a couple of the interceptions came off tipped passes by the defensive line, most of them were results of Ryan trying to force the ball into spaces that weren’t there.
Ryan and the Falcons will be facing a completely opposite defense than they faced last week. The Cardinals had the NFL’s second-best pass defense and 24th-ranked rush defense. This week they will be facing the Tampa Bay defense that is ranked No. 32 in pass defense and first in rush defense.
With back-to-back games with less than 70 yards rushing, and no noticeable differences being made, the Falcons need to continue to rely on Ryan. As the No.1 back, Michael Turner, will be relied upon to be a workhorse because of how physical he is with the ball and how much he can wear the defensive front down.
As for Ryan, consider last game a fluke. This week, Ryan, who leads the league in passing yards and passing yards per game, will be going up against a defense that allows over 300 yards passing per game. To add on to the good news, Ryan tends to play his best ball when he is the away team.
This season, Ryan has completed 70 percent of his passes and thrown for 14 touchdowns and three interceptions when on the road. At home, his completion percentage is more than five points lower (64.8), and he’s thrown just six touchdowns and nine interceptions.
There is absolutely no reason to why Atlanta should run the ball more than 25 times this entire game. As long as Ryan doesn’t make the same mental mistakes as he did last week, his weapons in Roddy White, Tony Gonzales, Harry Douglas and Julio Jones, if healthy, should be more than plenty to lead Atlanta’s offense on a successful trip to Tampa.