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Flattening the Falcons: What the Bucs need to do in order to beat Atlanta in Week 15

It’s the Dirk Koetter and Raheem Morris revenge game! Do the Buccaneers have what it takes to disappoint these coaches yet again? Or will they get the last laugh?

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18)
| Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

With a much needed win over the Vikings this past week, the Buccaneers are now one step closer to their first playoff berth since 2007. Seeing as the NFC has cannibalized itself, the Bucs are in even better position to make the dance, even if they manage to lose another game.

Despite this, I don’t think anyone wants to see the Bucs lose to an ailing Atlanta team who are three weeks away from a complete rebuild.

While this may look like an easy game on paper, seeing as the Falcons are entering this game with a 4-9 record, these divisional games are typically always competitive (especially between these two teams).

To add another element to this matchup, two former Buccaneers head coaches will be looking to exact revenge on the same team that gave up on them after failing to live up to expectations after three seasons apiece. I believe that they want nothing more than to stifle the Bucs hopes at the post-season, they should be used to it after all.

While the Falcons have not had a lot of recent success, the firing of Dan Quinn proved to be the right move as the team has been much more competitive as of late. After starting the season 0-5 they have won four of their last eight, including a 43-6 shellacking of the Las Vegas Raiders.

In order for Tampa Bay to go into Atlanta and come out with their ninth win of the season, they’ll need to play better than they have against some of the other teams they’ve faced. While it won’t take a perfect game, anything less than good may end up in an upset loss.

So, what will it take for them to win? Well, they’re going to have to limit penalties, turnovers, and three-and-outs for starters. Other than that, I’m going to walk you through some specifics here.

Offense

Take advantage of soft zones

Coming out of the bye week, I think we all expected a little more of an adjustment from a team that has shown that they can become stale offensively. Unfortunately, we didn’t really get to see that.

Third and shorts still seem to be a problem, as do first down runs. However, their ability to overcome these issues and still come out with a win against Minnesota was a good first step.

Atlanta’s defense is by no means one of the better defenses in the NFL. In fact if we look at yards per game allowed, they find themselves ranked fifth-worst, allowing just over 390 yards a game.*

Despite this, they are actually top-10 against the rush when looking at yards per game allowed, only allowing 109 yards per game on the ground.* Though, this may be a product of teams choosing to air it out against the Falcons less than stellar secondary.

When looking at the tape, it was pretty clear why the Falcons are allowing so many yards through the air, and it’s primarily because their zone coverage schemes leave guys wide open on a consistent basis.

While they aren’t giving up a lot of deep shots, they are allowing a lot of yards underneath, akin to the Mike Smith days of bend but don’t break (despite that defense breaking more often than not in his tenure).

In addition to this, the Falcons send quite a few blitzes (31.2% per dropback with a 23.4% pressure %)* and it leads to less time in the pocket, which can also explain the lack of deep shots given up.

Even with the pass rush applying pressure, it hasn’t been too difficult for opposing QBs to march down the field, and it’s because the Falcons underneath coverage plays conservatively.

Here’s a look at that:

On this play, it looks to me like the Falcons dialed up Tampa 2 with a pressure fake. After the snap, the three defenders that faked pressure drop all the way back about five yards behind the sticks (on third down by the way).

The deep safeties also drop quite far back and it leaves a ton of room between the two levels of coverage, which gives Derek Carr an easy option for a first down.

Even if that dig weren’t there, the defenders underneath are so far back that a pass to Darren Waller at the 40 yard line would’ve also been enough for a first down. Leaving two wide open options for a first down on third and five seems a bit too soft, but alas it happens quite often.

Here we can see what looks like another Tampa 2 call that gets exploited for an easy pickup. The Raiders draw up a spacing concept and when Renfrow settles down in the softest part of that zone, Carr has yet another easy completion.

It almost looks like they’re so scared of being beat over the top, that they keep all of the receivers 10 yards in front of them. With a quarterback like Tom Brady, you can expect that he will find these gaps and get it to the open man more often than not.

To look at this from a statistical perspective, the Falcons are giving up well above average completion percentages between 0-15 yards (80% short left, 75% mid, 79% short right), but are actually about league average in passes 15+ yards downfield according to Sharp Football Stats.

Given this information, I don’t see why the Bucs would want to run anything other than passes like these, especially as it would put them in better second and third down situations.

They’re going to take the deep shots, it’s just the nature of a Bruce Arians offense. However, they have to be aware of this and recognize that sometimes the best guy to throw to, is the guy that’s open.

Get the running-backs involved in the passing game

Before you start bringing up how bad these running-backs have been at catching the ball, remember that LeSean McCoy is being re-introduced into this offense on third downs and he’s historically been much better at catching than he has shown this season.

On top of that, there may be some need to get these guys involved in the passing game as Ronald Jones II may miss this game and he’s been the only capable pure-runner (still need to see more Ke’Shawn Vaughn).

For the Falcons, defending pass-catching running-backs hasn’t necessarily been their strong suit. They currently rank 12th-worst in the NFL in receiving yards given up to running-backs with ~40 yards given up per game.*

While an extra 40 yards might not win you the game, it can definitely help. Especially when a team blitzes a lot and the quarterback needs to find a quick option instead of taking a sack.

An important thing to remember here is that their underneath coverage is often playing about eight yards off the line, giving ample room for a clean catch and time to secure (something the Bucs have struggled with).

Now, I want to be clear that I am not talking about getting these guys involved in the passing game through screens. This is based on a Buccaneers screen game that has looked poorly executed and has been overwhelmingly unsuccessful.

While I did see a lot of screen game success against this defense, I wouldn’t advocate for it until I see a better product. The good thing though, is that these teams also had success when using running-backs purely as check-downs.

The Falcons once again look to be in Tampa 2 (something they like to run a lot clearly) and the four man pressure starts to collapse in on Carr. Even with the pressure, the depth of these defender’s drops leave a lot of room for Josh Jacobs to make the catch and get a first down.

While the Raiders did have some success with this, it was infrequently used. Though, I’m pretty sure that has more to do with the five turnovers, and less to do with the cushion that the Falcons gave these short routes and check-downs.

Here’s another look at how much cushion is left for these running-backs to get open:

This one is a bit more egregious than the previous one mostly because Austin Ekeler was left way too much space for a man with his elusiveness. The Falcons look to be in Tampa 2 again (Morris is ultimately using what he learned with Tampa Bay in 2002), with yet another successful four man pass rush.

The issue here is that when Justin Herbert looks to the right, the backside linebacker covering the space where Ekeler ends up, flies all the way to another zone to double the hook receiver.

Not only does this allow Ekeler to pick up a first down after the catch, but it also allows Herbert to get out of trouble when he may have taken a sack otherwise.

For the Bucs to be successful, their running-backs have to be more successful in the passing game. If they want to take that into the playoffs, they’ll have to show us in the last three weeks that they can get it done. Against Atlanta, they’ll be given plenty of opportunities to polish that aspect of their game.

Defense

Do something about Calvin Ridley

The Falcons come into this week potentially without the Buccaneer-killer himself, Julio Jones. Even if he does play, the hamstring injury that has hampered him throughout the season will continue to play a role in his production.

In his absence, Tampa Bay would still have to worry about another former Alabama receiver in Calvin Ridley. While Ridley has not seen the same output as he did early in the season, he is still putting up good numbers.

In fact, he eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 14 after putting together a brilliant performance that resulted in eight catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.

If the Falcons field both star receivers, I would still expect that Ridley will get his fair share of targets, and that leads me to believe that a major key to victory is in limiting him. In every game that Ryan has targeted Ridley 10+ times this year, he has produced at least 100 yards and has five total touchdowns in such games.

So why is he such a big threat? Well, he’s quick, agile, and is a very proficient route runner. Many teams worry about his speed and play him back, which leaves him wide open on routes that break off like comebacks, curls, outs, and digs.

Let’s take a look at that:

Ridley begins his route with a slight hesitation which forces Casey Hayward (#26) to stay in his typical drop. When Ridley notices this, he takes off downfield, leading to Hayward breaking out into a full on sprint to keep up with him deep.

Once he feels that Hayward is on top of him, he breaks down, flips his hips, and cuts out towards the sideline for a 25 yard gain.

Players like these have had a lot of success against the Bucs secondary, and that’s primarily because they’ve liked to keep guys in front of them, leaving offenses to pick up easy yards on any route that breaks after the initial stem upfield.

Let’s take a look at another play from the same game that occurred a few minutes before this one. It may help to explain why Hayward was so eager to get over the top instead of playing closer.

So on this play, Ridley stems upfield hard, leaving Michael Davis (#43) to break towards the end zone to cover over the top. However, about 10 yards into the route, Ridley breaks down and fakes a move which slows down Davis’s drop. After that he just takes off and ends up wide open.

The only reason that this play didn’t end up with six, is because Matt Ryan was a little late to seeing this. I paused it right around the time that he ends up wide open, which is when Ryan should’ve thrown this ball.

As you can see though, any little hitches in these routes can freeze even the best corners which can lead to wide open plays like this one. That’s why I think that Hayward was a bit more cautious when Ridley took off towards the end zone on the previous play.

If Jones doesn’t play, I would want to see the Bucs bracketing Ridley by carrying a corner underneath, and sending a safety over the top. Without this kind of game plan, I expect Ridley to end up with a lot of big plays and the Bucs defense can’t allow him to beat them.

Pressure Matt Ryan

Despite Ridley being a huge problem, there are other ways to slow him down outside of coverage adjustments. He has to have someone throw to him, and Ryan can’t do that when he’s on the ground.

In last year’s matchup, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett absolutely ate this offensive line alive and I would hope to see something similar this week.

While the Bucs haven’t been able to get home against quarterbacks that get the ball out quickly, Ryan isn’t that kind of quarterback, so there should be more time to hit home.

According to NFL NextGen stats, Matt Ryan has the fifth longest time to throw (2.91 sec), meaning that he holds onto the ball for much longer than the average quarterback.

On top of this, Atlanta’s offensive line has been banged up as of late and the continuity just hasn’t been there. This, combined with Ryan’s propensity to hold on too long, has lead to the Falcons being top-10 in sacks allowed, with 33 on the season.

To make matters worse for Ryan (and better for the Bucs), he is pressured on 24.2% of his dropbacks, and this obviously came without facing Tampa Bay, whose pressure rate is 27.8% on the season.*

With the Buccaneers being a fairly shut down defense against the run (barring NYG and MIN), and Atlanta not being good at running the ball, I would have to predict that Matt Ryan drops back a lot in this game.

Being five years removed from his MVP season, Ryan has shown flashes, but has never returned to the same form. While there are a number of factors that play into that, there’s also been some inconsistency on his end.

When pressure gets in his face, he tends to stand in and make the throw. However, since he has been holding onto it longer than usual, he doesn’t always follow through with his motion and it can lead to inaccurate passes that can easily get picked off.

Even though the Bucs didn’t have an interception last week against Kirk Cousins, I think they’ll be able to get one or two in this pivotal Week 15 matchup.

Conclusion

While I expect many people will look at this game and see an easy win, I don’t think the Bucs can afford to think that way. Their inconsistencies on both sides of the ball, as well as their slow starts have limited their success thus far.

Additionally, the Falcons will not be going down without a fight, especially because this game is personal for both Koetter and Morris.

If the Bucs want to win in decisive fashion, they’ll need to bring their A-game and make sure that they take advantage of every opportunity that they are given.

Atlanta leaves the underneath areas of the field open, and with receivers like Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin, these can lead to big plays or at worst, first downs.

Outside of these receivers, the running-backs need to be able to hold onto the ball in this game. Not only will the shallow area be open, but oftentimes the drops are so deep that a lot can be picked up after the ball is caught.

On the other side of the ball, stopping Calvin Ridley will slow down their offense significantly, especially if Julio Jones isn’t playing. If the Bucs are able to get to Matt Ryan, I think stopping Ridley will become just a little bit easier.

With so much on the line, this is yet another huge game. Atlanta may be looking to play spoiler, but they might not have the firepower nor the defensive capabilities to do so. I guess only time will tell.

What do you think it’ll take for the Bucs to win? Should we just write them into the playoffs already? Who do you think is the biggest threat this week? Let us know in the comments below!

*According to Pro Football Reference

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