As we continue to progress through the Atlanta Falcons 2012 schedule, we come to week 12, a road trip to Tampa. Tampa is a team that was 4-12 in 2011, but I don’t think that is the team we will see in 2012. Even the 2011 team was very competitive for much of the first half of the season, and even defeated the Falcons early on. While the Bucs probably aren’t yet ready to become major contenders for the NFC South title, they are certainly not to be underestimated. Let’s also not forget that until recently the NFC South was won by teams who were dead last the year before. Tampa will probably be even more competitive in 2012 due to a huge free-agency signing period.
Here are some of the matchups to keep an eye on:
Tampa’s D-line vs. Falcons O-line. This is going to be the key for every single week during the Falcons’ season, but until it is consistently a strength for the Falcons, it will consistently be a liability. Add in the fact that the Bucs have a d-line with a lot of potential, they are certainly going to give the Falcons a long day regardless of who wins the battles. DT Gerald McCoy was drafted by Tampa in 2010 and was expected to be a dominating presence in the middle. Taken after the Lions’ Suh, he isn’t quite as talented, but is still very good– when healthy. That has been McCoy’s problem in his first two seasons in the league. When he has been on the field, the combination of him and fellow DT Brian Price form a very solid duo. Maybe I’m biased because I saw Tampa pressure Matt Ryan over and over again in their 2011 Week 3 matchup, but I will never again underestimate them. Add in Adrian Claybore and a good pass rushing MLB in Mason Foster, the Bucs can get after the QB. Two things come to mind. Will the Bucs defensive line still be healthy by week 12? And if they are, will a (hopefully) improved & healthy Falcons O-line be able to repel them? This is the first and foremost matchup to watch.
Tampa’s Receiving Corps vs. Falcons Secondary. I don’t think anyone would argue that the Falcons’ secondary isn’t improved, but there is also no doubt that the Bucs receiving corps is improved as well. They did trade TE Kellen Winslow away which takes away their best playmaker at the position and some size, but there is still a lot of size and talent here. Mike Williams has the talent to be a very good No. 2 receiver, he will just need to be more consistent and look the ball all the way in, something he didn’t do in 2011. 2010 represented a slight anomaly for the Tampa receivers– guys like Desmond Briscoe, Arrelious Benn, and certainly Williams all looked like starter if not No. 1 type WRs. In 2011 they all looked miserable. The truth is somewhere in the middle. They have talent, and can be very good Nos. 2-4 receivers. The big free agent signing was Vincent Jackson, who was brought in here to be the true No. 1 receiver, a task he should have no difficulty grasping. The question is whether or not Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson, and Asante Samuel can reign them in. If they can make Jackson beat them (something he is capable of) they have a good shot at winning this battle. I would say they have a very good shot at winning this battle.
Falcons Receivers vs. Tampa Secondary. Tampa’s secondary will look a little different than the 2011 version. Tanard Jackson departed, and the Bucs have decided to move Ronde Barber to Free Safety. Sean Jones will give way to rookie Mark Barron from Alabama. The influx of youth in Barron, and veteran playmaking ability in Barber certainly makes the safety tandem pretty good, or at least look pretty good on paper. The move of Barber from corner to FS will give him a couple more seasons of play, help a position that was struggling, and allow more plays to be made from the position. Since he isn’t going to be at CB anymore, the Bucs went out and signed another corner to play his spot. They signed Eric Wright in free-agency from Detroit. Wright is a solid talent, and while I’d like to say legal troubles will keep him off the field, it doesn’t look that way. So the two starters will be Wright and Talib. One thing to keep in mind with Wright is that he was successful in Detroit, a team with an outstanding pass-rush. Perhaps he was able to benefit from quarterbacks who had to hurry to get rid of the ball, and given ample opportunities to make plays. On the other hand, he was also fairly successful in Cleveland, where they have a less than dominant pass-rush. Either way, the Falcons outside receivers (Julio Jones and Roddy White) will be able to win battles against these players. The real key will be when Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez are on the field creating matchup problems for Tampa’s defense. Whoever is the corner assigned to Douglas will likely have their hands full. Another matchup that would work in the Falcons favor would be if they lineup Jones or White in the slot position. They would be able to consistently win matchups against the safeties or 3rd-4th corners. One-on-one, it may be a toss-up between Wright/Talib and Jones/White. But overall, the firepower the Falcons have should be enough to bury the Bucs defense. If not, it could be trouble.
A couple other notes:
Weather could be a huge factor. It will be in an outdoor game in Florida in the fall. I’d say there is a good shot of rain in the preceding days, or during the game. In the 2011 matchup, a wet field/rain proved to be a huge detriment to the Falcons offense as it sputtered, and Tampa did just enough to win. If the weather permits, the Falcons should have a much easier go of it.
I’m not even going to get into the possibility of our defensive line getting to Josh Freeman. Even if our d-line is massively improved over 2011, I’m still not going to count on sacking/hitting Freeman. First, their o-line is improved with the addition of Carl Nicks, but I don’t think thats the main reason. Freeman is very similar to Ben Roethlisberger in the respect that he is good at rolling out of the pocket, throwing on the run, avoiding the rush, throwing even when getting hit, pushing tacklers off of him, and he can scramble decently on top of it all. Even if the rush gets to him, he is big and strong enough to not take the sack. I say drop seven men in coverage (if you blitz someone from one side, you should drop a down DE into coverage) and hope he tried to force a throw into a tight window. That seems to be the best formula for beating Freeman in the past, and I think he could make mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, if we can hit Freeman and drag him to the ground, I’m all for it. I’m just not counting on it.
The Falcons have a good shot at winning this game, but the key as with any week in the NFL is that this is a whole new game, against a whole new team, and on any given Sunday, any team can walk away with the victory. It is important that the Falcons protect Matt Ryan, and not allow the Bucs receivers to beat them. If they do those two things, their chances improve dramatically.