3TFO: Falcons @ Buccaneers, Week 12
The Atlanta Falcons are 9-1 and leading the NFC, but haven’t necessarily looked the part. Six turnovers against the lowly Cardinals at home certainly won’t help that perception, but a win is a win and the Falcons moved one step closer to clinching the NFC South title. A win this week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would not only move Atlanta further toward that goal, but also provide the statement win they’ve been lacking.
The Buccaneers are one of the hottest teams in the league at 6-4, winning five of their past six games while averaging 35 points during that span. Can the Bucs keep up the scoring pace on Sunday? They can’t afford not to with trips to Denver, New Orleans, and Atlanta left on schedule.
Here are three matchups to watch in this NFC South showdown.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Bucs have become one of the league’s most explosive offenses. Much of the reason is that they’ve dramatically increased their verticality in the passing game. Josh Freeman threw just 6.5% of his attempts further than 20 yards in the air last season — the lowest figure in the NFL — but now leads the league in deep passing yards through Week 11; his 15 % deep attempt percentage is fourth among all quarterbacks. Adding one of the league’s best deep threats in receiver Vincent Jackson has made a difference, and Jackson leads all receivers (who’ve played at least 50 percent of snaps) in yards per catch at 20.5. His teammate Mike Williams isn’t a bad target either with a fifth-best in the league 17.6 YPC.
With the status of Asante Samuel uncertain, the Falcons will have their hands full defending Tampa’s explosive passing game. They’ve allowed 13 of 30 (43.3 %) deep attempts to be completed, slightly above the league-average accuracy percentage of 41.23 % on such passes. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, both whom have been solid this year, will have to remain disciplined in coverage and force Freeman to throw to his underneath targets. Freeman prefers to throw outside the numbers on the deep ball, with roughly 19 % of his attempts to the middle of the field. If DeCoud and Moore allow themselves to be manipulated by play fakes, they’ll have a long way to run to provide help over the top on Tampa’s outside throws.
Gerald McCoy vs. Falcons Interior Line
The Falcons have struggled to run the ball , especially recently, as they’ve averaged less than 2.5 yards per carry the past two weeks. Against the strong run defense of the Buccaneers, this likely won’t be the week they get the running game going. That means they’ll be airing it out most of the day, where they’ll have to deal with the interior pass rush of Gerald McCoy. This looks to be another matchup that favors the Bucs, as McCoy has been our fourth-highest graded defensive tackle rushing the passer, while the Falcons’ interior trio of Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, and Peter Konz have all graded negatively in pass protection. McCoy lines up more than 50 % of the time on the right side of the offense at DLT and will see a lot of the rookie Konz. But McCoy also spends a fair amount of snaps at DRT and NT (primarily in Atlanta’s nickel and dime packages) so Blalock and McClure will need to be on their games as well. Whether McCoy adds to his 34 QB disruptions against the trio that has combined to allow 48 of their own will be key in determining the outcome.
John Abraham vs. Donald Penn
Pressuring — or protecting — the quarterback will be critical as always, and the matchup between John Abraham and Donald Penn will be a significant one to watch. What makes the battle especially intriguing is that the two are coming off of Week 11 performances that were quite the opposite in quality. Abraham played one of his better games this season, registering two sacks, a hit and hurry. Penn is coming off probably his worst showing of the year after being terrorized by Greg Hardy and the Carolina front, allowing six hurries as well as three QB hits, both season highs. Playing most of his snaps in a two-point stance, the Falcon will provide a rather different test. And while Hardy primarily handled Penn with bull and inside rushes, Abraham does most of his damage beating offensive linemen to the outside with his speed. Don’t be surprised to see Tampa Bay use extra blockers to help out the left tackle, so they can protect Freeman and get off some of those shots down the field.
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