Three to Focus on – Falcons @ Buccaneers

| September 22, 2011

From the moment the NFL schedule was released, everyone knew that this was going to be a premiere matchup.  However, this game has been made even more interesting, seeing as how both teams sit at that precarious record of 1-1, meaning that somebody will be slipping under .500 and staring upwards at the teams battling for the playoffs.  Week three always takes on a kind of artificial importance in the mind of many organizations, because the prospect of losing two out of three games doesn’t sit well with anybody.
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Atlanta bounced back from their week one defeat to the Chicago Bears by overcoming the Philadelphia Eagles at home, and now they’re looking to get their season rolling in the right direction.  Like the Falcons last week, Tampa Bay was able to overcome a 17-0 half time deficit to the Minnesota Vikings on the road, as Josh Freeman successfully engineered a late comeback to give the Bucs their first game of the season.
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Divisional match-ups are always compelling but this one seems just a little more so than usual.  Here’s why:
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1) Matt Ryan vs. Josh Freeman

Above all else, these two teams arguably rely on their franchise quarterbacks more than any other team that is not the Indianapolis Colts. After a 2010 season that was far better than most of the public has given him credit for, Matt Ryan hasn’t been nearly as successful in 2011.  Josh Freeman on the other hand is currently our second highest graded quarterback and was one of the main reasons that Tampa Bay was able to properly execute their fourth quarter comeback.
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Ryan may be referred to as “Matty Ice,” but entering this week, Freeman is completing 73.3% of his passes when under pressure.  While that is a pretty absurd figure, it does show the kind of poise that Freeman has.  If the Bucs can only convince Freeman to play before the game is on the line, then they’ll really be in business.
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2) John Abraham vs. Donald Penn

Last week, Donald Penn gave up a sack, two hits and two quarterback pressures to Jared Allen and yet he actually managed to keep Allen in check for much of the game.  This stat just goes to show the kind of impact that pass-rushers can have over the course of the game, even if an offensive tackle gets the better of him for much of that time.
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This week, Penn finds himself going up against John Abraham, who is currently our fourth ranked 4-3 defensive end with a +5.9 grade on the season.  Abraham has a pair of sacks, a quarterback hit, two pressures and a batted pass this season, and the Falcons have been limiting his snaps to keep him fresh for the entire game. If history has shown us anything, its that Penn does not like dealing with quick, explosive pass-rushers, and Abraham definitely fits that profile.  The fact that Abraham is being kept fresh, means that Freeman could find himself facing serious pressure late in the game, which is when he usually needs to be at his best.
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3) Julio Jones and Roddy White vs. Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber

Roddy White and Julio Jones were supposed to be the combination that vaulted the Falcons into the realm of the Green Bay Packers this season. They were supposed to give the Falcons’ offense the type of balance they didn’t have last season, prompting White to break out in a huge way.  While that hasn’t happened yet, an interesting thing to note is that neither player has a positive PFF grade yet (White is at 0.0 and Jones at -0.7 through Week two).    The pair have combined for just 18 receptions for 184 yards and a touchdown this season, which is cause for mild concern, as other receivers have had bigger games than that in a single games.
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The Buccaneers have Aqib Talib, one of the league’s most athletically gifted corners, and Ronde Barber, the ageless stalwart of the Tampa’s defense. Similar to  cover both White and Jones. Like the two players they will be covering, Barber and Talib have started the season with similar struggles, as they have combined for a -7.1 PFF grade through two weeks (although Talib does have a positive coverage grade).  The coverage numbers reflect that discrepancy, as opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 115.5 when throwing at Barber, but just 54.9 when targeting Talib.
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