3TFO: Buccaneers @ Falcons, Week 17
With the Buccaneers out of the playoffs and the Falcons having the No. 1 seed in the NFC clinched, this game is not as impactful as some of the others on the Week 17 slate. That being said, there are still things that these teams would like to accomplish as the season ends. For the Bucs, getting a win and momentum here would be huge, after they squandered a mid-year hot streak with five consecutive losses, including heavy defeats in the past two weeks. The Falcons would like to stay hot — and Mike Smith has said as much — as they head into their first-round bye, coming off dominating wins against the Giants and Lions. And if those aren’t reasons enough for these two teams, there is still NFC South pride on the line.
It may not be the most important game on this week’s schedule, but here are a few matchups worth tuning in for. For the sake of entertainment, let’s hope both coaches leave their playmakers on the field.
Will the Slump Continue?
Once again, a pressing question coming into this game is whether Josh Freeman can end his second-half slump and return to the level of play that had the Bucs in the playoff mix midway through the season. He’s graded negatively in five of Tampa’s past six games, with his last positive grade coming in the Week 12 matchup between these two teams. Since that game, Freeman has completed less than 60% of his passes and thrown nine interceptions. In his past two games, he’s done better in terms of accuracy with a 55.4% completion rate in Weeks 15 and 16, compared to just 43.8% in Weeks 13 and 14. However, he’s also completing more passes to the opposing team in the past two, with four interceptions in each. How the quarterback handles the rush will be critical. Facing pressure on 34% of drop-backs this season, he’s averaged a 4.4 YPA with an adjusted completion percentage of 54.1% –one of the worst figures in the league. And no quarterback has thrown more interception’s under pressure than Freeman’s eight.
The Falcons’ pass rush is above-average, but probably not among the league’s best — they don’t have a consistent threat outside of John Abraham, though with 53 QB disruptions on the season, there aren’t many better individual players to have. Abraham will primarily rush from the right side of the defense against Donald Penn, who’s coming off a great showing against the Rams, but has struggled at times this season — including the last time he faced Atlanta, when he surrendered five pressures. Look for Freeman to see a similar amount of pressure to what he’s faced on average this season. Either way, he’ll have to perform better as his play in the second half of this year has been far from what you’d expect from a ‘franchise quarterback’. It’s even worse when you consider he has targets such as Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams to throw to, and a solid running game backing him up. And though his protection hasn’t been great — the Tampa offensive line ranks 21st in Pass Blocking Efficiency — they’ve been far from the worst unit in the league, with four of the five current starters graded positively in pass protection.
Jones and White
Atlanta features one of the top pass-catching tandems in the league in Julio Jones and Roddy White. However, with the top seed in the NFC locked up, it’s unclear how much Mike Smith will play them. When they’re on the field, though, the Buccaneer secondary will surely have its hands full. Jones was named to the Pro Bowl this week, though interestingly White was omitted despite having highly similar numbers — and better in some cases — to his second-year teammate. Let’s start with the fact that for the season, White’s graded at +22.6 to Jones’ +13.1, largely due to the fact that White has been on the field more often, having played 937 snaps compared to 784 for his teammate. And when they’ve both been on the field White’s been the more consistent player, as he ranks eighth in the league with 87 receptions, while only three receivers have a lower Drop Rate than his 4.40. Most would argue that Jones is the more talented of the two, being a more physically imposing athlete. And despite being in only his second season, he’s probably the bigger household name, having come out of a more prominent college program. That’s not to say Jones isn’t deserving of the honor, but White certainly has an argument, if not a better one, than his teammate.
Pro Bowl or not, the two Falcons will be tough to handle for a Tampa secondary that has struggled the past two weeks. They’ll likely face the pair of Danny Gorrer and Leonard Johnson, with EJ Biggers’ status uncertain due to injury. Of the two, Gorrer has played fewer snaps, but has yielded a better 1.59 yards per snap in coverage, while opposing QBs have a team-low rating of 58.9 when throwing in his direction. As always, when you have this kind of playmaker on the field, this will be a fun matchup to watch.
Bennett vs. Clabo
Another Falcon with a legitimate gripe about not being selected to the Pro Bowl is Tyson Clabo. On the season, the right tackle is our ninth-highest rated tackle — and third in the NFC — and has been particularly impressive over the latter half, having allowed just three combined hurries in pass protection since Week 11. That stretch includes the first matchup between these two teams, in which Clabo dominated his Buccaneer counterpart, LDE Michael Bennett. In that game, Bennett rushed the passer on 28 snaps — all from the defensive left side — but netted zero pressure for only the second time this season.
Aside from his prior faceoff against Clabo, Bennett has had a strong season rushing the passer, as he ranks in the top 12 among the league’s 4-3 defensive ends in our Pass Rushing Productivity, ahead of the likes of JPP, Mario Williams, and Julius Peppers. As impressive as his pass rushing has been, he might be having an even better season in run defense, an area in which only four 4-3 DEs have graded higher on the year. And while Clabo has been solid in run blocking, he hasn’t dominated in the same way as he’s done in pass protection. With the Falcons likely to use a more conservative game plan in a matchup that will not affect their playoff seed, including a heavy dose of the run, this may be the area in which Bennett can make in impact.
Whether it’s in the run game or rushing the passer, you can count on Bennett trying to exact revenge his Week 12 domination at the hands of the Falcon.