1) What's up with the Falcons the last couple of games? They started off red-hot but have really struggled to win games recently.
There's a lot of factors here. Leonard Hankerson has been a little bit banged up, and he's the only receiver besides Julio Jones who is consistently able to win his matchups and get the ball. Without him against the Titans, Matt Ryan more or less locked onto Jones for long stretches of the game. Ryan's accuracy and timing have been a little bit off all year, but especially over the last three weeks, when pressure has started to come home and his options have dwindled. Kyle Shanahan has also made some very odd, questionable decisions, such as having the Falcons throw twice on third and then fourth and short against the Titans, and not letting Devonta Freeman get goal line carries in that same game.
These are all fixable issues, especially because the defense has been remarkably solid this year, but Hankerson's absence is a legitimate concern, as is Ryan's accuracy issue.
2) Devonta Freeman was just a barely-used change-of-pace guy last year and now he's the most productive back in the NFL. What is going on?
I think Freeman's always had considerable talent, but he needed a year of seasoning and the chip on his shoulder that came with sitting behind the creaky skeleton of Steven Jackson to really realize his potential. The Falcons went out and assembled a more athletic offensive line built to utilize zone blocking concepts, which has created much larger holes for Freeman to run through, and his vision and quick acceleration means he can always identify and get through said holes. He's not shying away from contact, either.
What makes this scary is that I don't see any reason it can't continue, besides the universal concerns with fatigue and injury. Freeman's just a gifted runner, he blocks effectively, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield, which makes him an ideal three down back for as long as he can handle the load.
3) Vic Beasley looked like a terror in the preseason but hasn't quite put it together in the regular season from what I can see. How is he doing?
He's having a rookie start to the season, mixing in flashes of terrific play with long stretches of mediocre rushes. Beasley has been way more effective against the run than I anticipated, but he's a little too reliant on an ineffective spin move and his speed right now, and tackles have been able to fight him out of the play too often. The talent is there and legitimate, but he probably needs more experience and coaching to really utilize it effectively.
To be fair to Beasley, it would help if others were stepping up, but the pass rush is again fairly quiet for long stretches of each game, so there's no one to free him up at the moment.
4) How happy is everyone with Dan Quinn and the new coaching staff? And how has Raheem Morris' unit looked?
There are always the grumblers and even the very small number of "Dan Quinn is a bad coach" truthers out there, but generally the fanbase is extremely happy with Quinn. He's shown himself to be pretty adaptable, he's not afraid to shake up the roster, and he's pretty blunt about the team's failings, which endears him to the fanbase. More importantly, this is a 6-1 football team right now that has managed to rally time and time again, and I think most of us are aware that we're not seeing this team's best play right now.
Raheem Morris and Richard Smith have done a nice job with the defense, particularly in getting it to play more disciplined football. Morris's secondary has been one of the better ones in football thus far, with Desmond Trufant locking down his side of the field, Robert Alford growing in his third year, and new safety Ricardo Allen delivering aggressive play. There's the question of when the pass rush is going to rev up and what's to be done at linebacker, where nearly everyone struggles in coverage, but this is a drastically improved defense, and I give the coaches a lot of credit for that.
5) Explain to me how the Buccaneers can win. I mean, if they can.
I won't say they can win easily, but there's certainly a path to victory here. If you can get Jameis Winston out of the way of pressure and throwing across the middle of the field to tight ends and running backs, you've got a good chance to move the football. If rookie Jalen Collins winds up on Mike Evans, so much the better. Doug Martin has to figure into the gameplan, of course, but you're better off passing all day and choosing your spots carefully to exploit the team's weaknesses.
Defensively, you've got to knock Matt Ryan around and force him to throw to anyone but Julio Jones, because Jones can win even in double coverage, while most of his other options can't consistently win in single coverage. Devonta Freeman is going to eat, but if you can limit Ryan and the passing game, you can limit the scoring for the Falcons and win.
I'm wary of this game, but I do think the Falcons probably win.