8:25 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Atlanta -6
An NFC South clash takes the stage tonight as the Atlanta Falcons host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Georgia Dome. It’s not uncommon for some teams to experience a sense of urgency this early into the season, but if you’re Lovie Smith and the rest of the Buccaneers (0-2), the panic level is gradually rising. After a dreadful 4-12 campaign that began with an 0-8 start, Management completely cleaned house, placing Smith in charge, who spent five years on Tony Dungy’s staff coaching Linebackers. The idea was to reach back into the past to create a better here and now, but the prevailing question through two games of this new regime is are the Bucs really any better?.
“Not yet” seems to be the optimistic approach to that answer, but nevertheless it is the same old story for Tampa Bay. They are solid on defense, but have looked average at best on the offensive side of the ball. In 2013, they finished 30th (18.0) and 32nd (299.6) in scoring and total offense, along with dead-last in both passing offense (198.8) and net yards per pass (5.0). After acquiring Quarterback Josh McCown in Free Agency, whom Smith had in Chicago, things were supposed to improve, but that hasn’t quite been the case; the veteran passer has steered the league’s 28th-ranked offense (310.5), presiding over the 31st-ranked passing attack (181.0) in particular. Despite being 35-years old and a bonafide journeyman, McCown was signed for two reasons: first and foremost, Smith trusts him after coaching him for two seasons in the Windy City, and second, he was coming off of the season of his life. When Jay Cutler went down last year, the veteran was surprisingly effective, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 228.6 yards per game, tossing thirteen touchdowns and just one interception, with a Passer Rating of 109.0, all of which mark career-bests. However, in two starts for the Buccaneers, McCown has averaged just 181.0 yards while throwing two touchdowns to three interceptions, with a Rating of 75.1. In fact, he has as many rushing touchdowns (2) as he does passing. Perhaps facing Atlanta’s porous pass defense will ignite the aerial attack, but the early returns have not been positive as this unit appears to be only marginally better than it was a year before.
And for that matter, how good has the defense really been? Tampa Bay enjoyed the good fortune of facing the Panthers and Rams in the first two weeks of the season, with both teams missing their starting Quarterbacks due to injury, and in the case of the latter, the Bucs were facing third-string passer Austin Davis. Oh, and both games were played at Raymond James Stadium, so basically Smith and Co. were set up for success, a blessing given how bad they were the previous year. A golden opportunity if there ever was one, right? Yes it was, and it was one that they simply couldn’t take advantage of. Through two games, the Buccaneers have ranked twelfth in scoring defense (19.5) and fourteenth in total defense (336.5), including sixteenth against the pass (220.5) and eighteenth against the rush (116.0). Last week against St. Louis, they simply couldn’t rattle the aforementioned Davis, who calmly completed 22-of-29 passes for 235 yards and didn’t commit a single turnover. The previous week Derek Anderson went 24-of-34 for 230 yards and a pair of touchdowns with no turnovers. Through two games, opposing quarterbacks are averaging 6.7 net yards per pass, 23rd in the NFL. And don’t look now, but injuries are starting to really take a toll here; Linebacker Mason Foster (shoulder) will miss tonight’s contest, while Defensive Linemen Gerald McCoy (hand) and Michael Johnson (ankle) are listed as questionable leaving a pass rush with just three sacks this season without much teeth. So what is going to happen when this unit faces the likes of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, or dare we say it…..Matt Ryan?
Shameless segue aside, that is the reality, as Ryan and the Falcons’ high-octane passing game look to get Atlanta (1-1) back into the win column tonight. Like their opponent, the Dirty Birds are coming off a very forgettable campaign; Atlanta went 4-12 in 2013, the first time since Mike Smith came to town back in 2008 that they had experienced a losing record. Injuries decimated this team a year ago, leaving an unbalanced offense even more one-dimensional, and a bend-but-don’t-break defense in shambles. Management spent quite a bit of money in the offseason to solve these problems, and through two games it’s been quite a mixed bag; as good as they looked against the Saints in the opener, the Falcons looked just as punchless in Cincinnati last weekend against the Bengals. So just who are the 2014 Atlanta Falcons?
Make no mistake, since Smith and Ryan arrived six years ago, the Falcons have been an offensive football team. The passing attack in particular has been the driving force, ranking eighth, sixth, and seventh in passing yards over the past three seasons. That hasn’t changed in 2014, with Atlanta leading the league in that category, averaging a robust 339.5 yards through the air. Ryan was sensational in the opener against New Orleans, completing 31-of-43 passes for a career-high 448 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-34 overtime victory. However, he along with the rest of the offense struggled against the Bengals, going 24-for-44 with 231 yards, a touchdown but a pair of interceptions. One of the biggest problems for this team a year ago was their Offensive Line, which couldn’t create any push in the running game and simply couldn’t protect their Quarterback. Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times in 2013, despite never being dropped more than 28 times in his previous five campaigns. That was largely due to Left Tackle Sam Baker missing the majority of the season with a knee injury, and lo and behold, Baker is once again on Injured Reserve with a torn ACL. With the veteran’s injury history in mind, Smith and Co. selected Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick in the Draft, and quietly moved him over to the left side in the opener, where he kept Ryan clean and upright. But as fate would have it, Matthews hurt his ankle in that game and missed the following contest at Cincinnati where his QB was harassed by the Bengals’ vicious defensive front. The young tackle is expected to play tonight, which should provide Ryan the time to find the likes of Roddy White (10 catches, 114 yards, 1 touchdown) and Julio Jones (14 catches, 204 yards, 1 touchdown), who comprise arguably the most feared receiving tandem in the league.
And if the previous two games are any indication, he may need to find them early and often, for the Falcons’ defense has been absolutely abysmal in the early stages of this season. Smith’s background is on the defensive side of the ball, making it particularly frustrating that this unit doesn’t seem to be any better than it was in 2013. Through two contests the Dirty Birds rank dead-last in the league in total defense (472.0), including 31st against the pass (317.5) and 26th against the rush (154.5). The biggest problem is that they simply can’t get any pressure on opposing Quarterbacks; Atlanta has allowed a league-worst 9.6 net yards per pass attempt thus far, and has recorded zero sacks. Defensive Linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai were acquired in the offseason to ease the transition towards a 3-4 scheme, and at the very least were expected to factor into defending the run. However, neither has been able to collapse the pocket with any consistency, or keep their compatriots behind them clean from blockers. So where exactly is the pass rush supposed to come from? Osi Umenyiora looks like a shell of himself at age 33, and doesn’t look very comfortable as an Outside Linebacker. Sean Weatherspoon is again on Injured Reserve, this time for a torn Achilles. Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan will have to find ways to get creative with his blitz packages, but that may not be something that he is willing to do with Cornerbacks such as Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford who while possessing potential are each in their sophomore seasons, and lack much experience in Man Coverage.