Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10 Keys to the Game for Atlanta

Joe MacContributor IINovember 23, 2012

Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10 Keys to the Game for Atlanta

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    Sunday’s game between the Falcons and Buccaneers is the epitome of strength versus weakness.

    Where the Falcons are strong (passing offense), the Buccaneers are weak (passing defense).

    Where the Buccaneers are strong (rushing offense), the Falcons are weak

    The game is shaping up to be a 60-minute last-possession contest.

    Despite having the best record in the NFC (9-1), the Falcons are 1-1 in the division.

    Tampa Bay is one of the hottest teams in the league, having won four straight which places them in the thick of the NFC playoff race, tied with Seattle for the final spot.

    The Falcons need to win and need to win their way to establish that the changes in place are for the better.

    In order to win, however, the Falcons are going to have to overcome their greatest weaknesses.

    Let’s take a look at the 10 keys for Atlanta versus Tampa.   

1. Win the Turnover Battle

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    Both the Falcons (+5) and Buccaneers (+9) do a great job in the turnover-ratio department.

    Atlanta has 11 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries, while Tampa Bay has 15 interceptions and five fumble recoveries.

    With Tampa’s propensity to run, the Falcons will be looking to cause and recover fumbles. Atlanta’s propensity to throw should put the Buccaneers in good position for a game-changing or game-winning interception.

    This game could honestly come down to the team that creates one turnover more than the other.

2. Focus on Defending the Run

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    Atlanta ranks 26th in the league against the run, allowing 130.5 rushing yards per game, and are one of three teams allowing at least five yards per carry.

    Tampa Bay is ninth in rushing offense, averaging just less than 130 yards per game and five yards per rush.

    More specifically, Buccaneers’ tailback Doug Martin is the third-leading rusher in the NFL with 1,000 yards rushing; averaging more than five yards per rush.

    While they are balanced offensively, the numbers show Tampa to be a run-first team willing to win a game on the ground.

    Atlanta will be hard-pressed to win without having tangible success in limiting Tampa’s ability to run.

3. Play the 4-3 Defense

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    The Falcons have played almost exclusively nickel defense this season under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

    To better stop the Buccaneers' run game, the Falcons need to play the 4-3 defense to get the extra linebacker on the field while getting the additional defensive back off.

    Linebackers by nature are more run-oriented than defensive backs, who tend to be better suited to defend the pass. 

    Linebackers are typically bigger and more physical, which allows them to play better run defense.

    The only time Atlanta should not be in the 4-3 alignment is when Tampa uses a four wide-receiver personnel package.

4. Play Three Defensive Tackles in the Four-Man Front Exclusively

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    Atlanta has had better success against the run when it has used three defensive tackles in its front four rather than just two.

    The Falcons have more depth at defensive tackle than defensive end. The extra tackle should allow them to rotate in fresher bodies throughout the game.

    Atlanta has played its best against the run when its front penetrates to the heel level of the offensive line rather than a full up-field pass rush.

    Defensive tackles by nature are heel-level players, whereas defensive ends are by nature pass-rushers.

    Furthermore, defensive tackles tend to be more physical while defensive ends tend to be more finesse in approach.

    The best approach for the Falcons in defending the run game is to have bigger, more physical players up front.  

5. Play Press Cover 2 Against Vincent Jackson

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    Vincent Jackson is having the best season of his career, averaging more than 20 yards per reception, which leads the league.

    Statistically, he is a top-10 rated receiver in yards receiving in 2012.

    The best way to handle a good deep threat is to play press-zone combination coverage; press coverage at the line of scrimmage and a deep zone over the top.

    Pressing Jackson at the line of scrimmage will not only take away his free release to get deep, it will also throw off his route timing as well as his timing with quarterback Josh Freeman. 

6. Contain the Deep Passing Game

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    The Buccaneers are ranked 14th in the league in passing offense at 240 yards per game.

    Josh Freeman throwing to Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams is a concern.

    In addition to playing press-zone coverage over the top of Jackson, the Falcons should combine that by playing quarters coverage with the other two defensive backs.

    Playing quarter-quarter-half will give the Falcons the necessary coverage to contain Jackson as an individual threat and the  deep threat posed by Tampa’s passing game.

7. Keep the Ball in the Air on Offense

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    Tampa Bay's pass defense is the worst in the league, allowing 312 yards per game and 17 touchdowns. But the Buccaneers are the league’s best defense against the rush.

    Atlanta is the fourth-best passing offense in the league, averaging slightly more than 292 yards per game and scoring 20 touchdowns. But the Falcons rank fourth from the bottom of the league in rushing.

    Atlanta shouldn’t have more than 20 rushes in this game.

8. Use the Short Passing Game as an Extension of the Run Game

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    The Falcons have done a good job in the medium and deep passing game.

    But against the Buccaneers, they need to focus more on the short passing game, allowing it to become an extension of the run game.

    Doing so will force Tampa to defend the entire field, horizontally and vertically, and will further exploit its weak pass defense.

    This plan should also further utilize the Falcons' best player, Matt Ryan, and force into more action Jacquizz Rodgers, their most productive tailback.

9. Provide the Offensive Line Protection Help

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    The Falcons must, they absolutely must, give the offensive line protection help.

    Atlanta needs to mix in max protection by using second tight end and running backs in pass protection. They also need to use screens and the short passing game to slow the rush.

    If they keep players in to protect rather than send out four or five guys on pass routes, the Falcons should have little trouble maintaining their prowess in the passing game versus the worst pass defense in the league.

10. Utilize Harry Douglas as the Primary Punt Returner

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    The punt return game for Atlanta has been abysmal at best with Dominique Franks as the primary returner.

    Franks ranks in the bottom third of the league, averaging slightly more than 7.5 yards per return. He has only two returns of 20 or more yards and no touchdowns.

    The Falcons have been wary of using Douglas as the primary punt returner thus far.

    Douglas had a major knee injury in 2009 that may still be in the minds of Falcons’ brass, as well as a lingering ankle injury that has caused him to miss time this season.

    At the end of the day, though, Douglas has shown himself to be a weapon. It is time for Atlanta to turn him loose. Injuries can’t be prevented in football.

    The Falcons may well need a score on special teams to win this game.