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The Falcons defense, the NFC South lead and more questions about Thursday Night Football

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons play tonight, which means it’s time for some questions with the enemy. We talked to Dave Choate of The Falcoholic about the Falcons and the upcoming game.

1) When the Bucs and Falcons first met in week one, the Bucs pulled out a win and seemed poised for a pretty solid season, while the Falcons looked more like what we saw at the end of last season. Things have changed a little since then. What gives?

You tell me, man. It's wild out here.

For the Falcons, it was finding their footing on offense. The ground game was virtually silent in that first week, Taylor Gabriel wasn't a part of the offense yet, and Tevin Coleman hadn't become the terrifying force in the passing game that he would become (though he's sadly injured and will miss this one). Basically, the offense just had to learn who they were, though Ryan's solid day in Week 1 was a positive sign.

Defensively, the Falcons are still no great shakes, but the pass rush has come to life and they're getting some very solid play out of the secondary, and that plus the league's best offense will get you to where you want to go.

2) Matt Ryan seems to be thriving in this offense, where he struggled at times last season. Was it just a matter of him getting used to how Kyle Shanahan's scheme works, is he just playing better football, or is it something else?

He is playing better football, there's no doubt about that, but the secret to his success has been both comfort in Shanahan's scheme and improvements to his supporting cast. The first one's easy enough to explain, given that Ryan himself admitted he had trouble adjusting to the offense a year ago, and he and Shanahan clearly did not see eye to eye on everything. Time took care of that.

The second one is a bigger factor, though. Adding Alex Mack at center has meant the Falcons went from one of the worst centers in the NFL to arguably the best, making life so much easier for the offensive line. Mohamed Sanu came on in a big way a week ago, Coleman has gone nuts in the passing game, Taylor Gabriel and rookie tight end Austin Hooper are doing quality work when called upon, and Ryan's basically spoiled with decent-to-excellent protection and great weapons.

3) For all the praise the Falcons offense gets, the defense looks like it continues to struggle, despite a defensive head coach. What's going on there?

It's really just that the talent level isn't 100% there yet, and it's not a particularly disciplined group. Vic Beasley has come on, Adrian Clayborn is a useful pass rusher, and Grady Jarrett looks like a stud in the middle of the defensive line, but basically everyone else along the defensive front is either one-dimensional (Dwight Freeney, who has one GREAT dimension) or just not all that good. Linebacker has been upgraded with the addition of terrific rookie Deion Jones, but fellow rookie De'Vondre Campbell has struggled, and there are no other great players there just yet.

That leaves a lot of pressure on the secondary, which has been good but is prone to flags and the occasional blown play. The Falcons are, realistically, a year away from having enough pieces to turn in an above average defense on a weekly basis, but at least they're capable of coming up with impressive stretches that simply weren't there a year ago.

4) How have the rookies looked so far this season? Any of them poised to break out soon? And any players the Bucs should look out for but who they may not know?

I love this rookie class so much. First rounder Keanu Neal occasionally whiffs mightily on a big hit, but he's genuinely been one of the better safeties in the NFC this year, and he should only get better with experience and a better cast around him. Second rounder Deion Jones has authored some huge plays, has tremendous speed, and already looks like the best linebacker on the team. Third round Austin Hooper has shown tremendous hands and quality route running I didn't think he had in him after preseason.

Fourth round linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and sixth round rookie Wes Schweitzer have been largely ineffective and inactive, respectively, but both posses real upside. Undrafted free agent cornerback Brian Poole has drawn a ton of playing time and has acquitted himself about as well as you'd ever expect for a UDFA stepping into that kind of role.

The players you may not know to keep an eye on are pretty easy. The first is Taylor Gabriel, a deep threat receiver who caught a 47 yard touchdown bomb from Matt Ryan a week ago and looks really good in this offense. The second is C.J. Goodwin, a converted wide receiver who had a couple of huge plays against the Packers last Sunday at cornerback, and has the size, physicality, and speed to be a problem.

5) Can you give us a prediction for the game, and for the rest of the Falcons season?

I've got the Falcons winning this one 31-21, and while that's probably an irresponsible predication given that the Bucs have won three in a row and are at home, I really do feel like this Falcons team has a big win in them, even though this will be their ninth straight game before the upcoming bye. A lot will hinge on what kind of game Jameis Winston and the Bucs' offense can manage, because the Falcons can be outgunned.

For the season, I have Atlanta at 10-6 and winning the NFC South. I think the Bucs will make it closer than I'd like to acknowledge, and the Saints are still lurking, but the Falcons' offense is just too good for them to suddenly collapse in the second half.