At 1-4, the Falcons can ill afford to take any opponent lightly, particularly a divisional opponent like Tampa Bay, a team that is very familiar with Atlanta's schemes.
Before we break down Atlanta's game plan going into this NFC South matchup, let's take a look at the recent series history between these two divisional rivals and get an update on the current state of affairs for the Buccaneers.
Recent Series History
Atlanta has won four of its past six matchups against Tampa Bay, but five of those games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
The teams split their two meetings last year in Tampa coach Greg Schiano's first season as the visiting team won each contest.
While his struggles against the New Orleans Saints are well documented, Falcons head coach Mike Smith has gone 7-3 against Tampa Bay since taking over as Atlanta's head coach in 2008.
State of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If misery loves company, the Falcons and Buccaneers should have a great time together on Sunday afternoon. In a season that's only six weeks old, the Buccaneers have dealt with a MRSA outbreak at their facility, a very public breakup with former starting quarterback Josh Freeman, having three of their five losses come by a total of six points and questions about Schiano's future with the team.
After an offseason that saw them add stud defensive backs Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson to a core group that included Vincent Jackson, Doug Martin, Carl Nicks, Gerard McCoy and Mark Barron, the Buccaneers haven't made the leap that many observers expected them to make in year two under Schiano after finishing 7-9 in 2012.
Now that we've covered the background, let's get into the offensive, defensive and special teams keys for the Falcons in Sunday's game.
Offensive Keys for Atlanta
1. Young Receivers Must Step Up
Julio Jones is done for the season, and Roddy White hasn't practiced all week as he continues to nurse ankle and hamstring injuries. Even if White plays (which is probably a long shot at this point), he will be extremely limited.
The Buccaneers will likely focus their coverage on Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas, so that means young players like Kevin Cone, Drew Davis and rookie tight end Levine Toilolo should have opportunities to make an impact in Atlanta's passing game.
Tampa Bay has a lot of big names in its secondary, but the Falcons can't be afraid to throw the ball when they have to and give their young receivers a chance to make plays. If Atlanta is going to win this game, they'll need either Cone, Davis or Toilolo to step up and make a contribution.
2. Take the Points
The Buccaneers haven't scored more than 20 points in any game this season. Assuming the Falcons defense is able to rebound from its poor showing against the Jets, Atlanta should recognize that the Bucs are playing with a rookie quarterback who is making his first start on the road.
That means that despite the offense's desire to improve its efficiency in the red zone, the Falcons should take points when they have opportunity to do so because this isn't likely to be a high-scoring game.
3. Avoid Drive-Killing Penalties
The Falcons have shot themselves in the foot too many times with penalties this season. Tampa has two quick defensive tackles in Gerard McCoy and Akeem Spence who can make Atlanta's offensive linemen vulnerable to holding penalties.
It's important for Atlanta to avoid offensive penalties moving forward because the Falcons absolutely can't afford to fall behind in down and distance with their best big-play threat sidelined with an injury.
4. Don't Give Up on the Run Game
Like Roddy White, Falcons running back Steven Jackson hasn't practiced this week and is also looking like a long shot to suit up on Sunday. Nevertheless, Atlanta needs return to re-establish itself at the line of scrimmage by running the ball and hitting the opposing defense in the mouth.
Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers have filled in as best they can for Jackson, and the Falcons need to feed both of them to keep Tampa Bay's defense honest on Sunday.
Defensive Keys for Atlanta
1. Stop the Run
Doug Martin paced Tampa's Week 17 win at the Georgia Dome last season when he ran for 142 yards and a touchdown. Given that Mike Glennon will be making his first road start, you can bet that the Bucs are going to lean on Martin heavily when they have the ball.
The Falcons run defense has improved slightly this year, but teams haven't run as much against Atlanta's defense because of the success they've enjoyed in the passing game. In addition, Martin is arguably the most talented running back that Atlanta has faced this season.
The Falcons will need a strong game from their front seven, particularly linebackers Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow, to slow Tampa's ground game down.
2. Get After Mike Glennon and Create Turnovers
After facing five quarterbacks who know how to buy time in the pocket with their feet, the Falcons defense will finally face a true pocket passer in Glennon. Atlanta has to take advantage of Glennon's relative immobility and get in his face with pressure.
Atlanta's defense has suffered this year because it hasn't been able to generate takeaways. With a rookie under center, Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan needs to reach into his bag of tricks and lure Glennon into a mistake to jump-start this defense. This means going a step further than blitzing and doing things like sending a defender underneath Glennon's hot read in an effort to get an interception.
3. Be Aware of Down and Distance
Atlanta's pass coverage has been burnt this season because Falcons defenders haven't been cognizant of down and distance enough. The Falcons must know where the first-down markers are and be sure to either adjust their zone coverage or use press technique depending on how many yards Tampa needs to convert.
In addition, teams have eaten the Falcons up with a short route where the slot receiver fakes a slant and then darts back outside for a quick out. You can expect the Buccaneers to attempt to do the same with Mike Williams and Tiquan Underwood in passing situations on 3rd-and-short.
4. Clean Up the Missed Tackles
Hopefully the Falcons spent some time getting back to fundamentals during their bye week, because this defense has cost itself some valuable yardage by missing tackles.
Tampa has a physical running back in Martin, and a big wideout in Jackson. The Falcons have to get these guys to the ground and avoid giving up too much YAC.
Special Teams Keys for Atlanta
1. Be Wary of Trick Plays
The Buccaneers are a desperate team that doesn't have much to lose after what they've been through thus far this season. Schiano isn't necessarily a riverboat gambler, but Atlanta's special teams units need to be on alert for a fake punt or a fake field goal.
2. Maintain Lane Discipline in Kick Coverage
The Falcons' rash of injuries has cost the teams special teams units nearly as much as it has the team's offensive and defensive units because players who were expected to be key special teams contributors are now forced to log playing time on offense and defense.
Atlanta needs to force Glennon to earn every point that the Bucs score on Sunday, so it can't allow any cheap touchdowns on special teams or give up any big returns like it did against the Jets.
3. Create Opportunities for Robert Alford in the Return Game
Since Douglas will have to play a larger role on offense, rookie cornerback Robert Alford is expected to get the opportunity to return punts for the Falcons. Now that Jones isn't playing, Alford is arguably the best pure athlete that the Falcons have.
Falcons special teams coach Keith Armstrong would be wise to pull out some of his better return plays to give Alford the opportunity to show what he can do with the ball in his hands in the open field.
The Falcons proved that there's no such thing as an "easy win" for this team when they lost a game at home against the Jets and rookie quarterback Geno Smith last Monday night.
While the Buccaneers appear to be in disarray, they are a divisional opponent who have played the Falcons tough the last couple of years, and their defense has outperformed the Falcons defense against common opponents (the Saints, Jets and Patriots) this season. Add to that the fact that Atlanta may be without White and Jackson, and Falcons fans shouldn't be surprised to see another close game on Sunday.
On paper, the Falcons probably should win at home against this Tampa Bay team mainly because Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon will be making his first start on the road. With that said, has anything gone the way it should go on paper for this year's Falcons team?
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