By Max Luckan
In what will be their most important game so far this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers––currently winners of four in a row––will take on the Atlanta Falcons––owners of the league’s second best record––on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs are still far from locking up a playoff spot, but a win against the Falcons will surely be an indicator of just how good they are. Both teams have played a total of 27 times and the Bucs lead the all-time series 19-18, but the Falcons have won six of the last seven.READ MORE: Authorities Have Identified The Suspect Who Attacked Author Salman Rushdie
As aforementioned, the Falcons are just trailing the Houston Texans, who are 10-1, for the NFL’s best record. They have key wins over the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys, but lost their first game against the New Orleans Saints two weeks ago.
Atlanta has been the NFC’s best team for much of the season, but has shown some signs of weakness lately, turning the ball over six times against the Arizona Cardinals last week.
This is the first of two matchups against the Bucs for the Falcons.
Falcons on Offense
The Falcons obviously have one of the best offenses in the league led by quarterback Matt Ryan. They have multiple weapons in wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, running back Michael Turner, and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Overall, the Falcons are averaging 382.1 yards per game on offense, which is good for 7th in the league.
Play-action is an important aspect of the Falcons’ offense, and they like to take deep shots down the field off of play-action. Ryan has the ability to make tough throws even though he prefers to stay in the pocket. The Falcons also utilize screen passes rather frequently, which keep the defensive backs honest.
The overall theme is that the Falcons have various ways to beat a defense, especially one that struggles with pass coverage like the Bucs’ defense does.
Falcons on DefenseREAD MORE: Anne Heche's Son Mourns His Mother
On defense, the Falcons aren’t too keen on stopping the run, and are ranked 21st in the NFL in that category, giving up an average of 119.3 yards per game.
But the Falcons do have very aggressive defensive backs in Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson, who have a combined three interceptions so far this season. While that may not seem like a lot, the fact of the matter is that they play very aggressively, which can startle opposing quarterbacks.
The Falcons are ranked 10th in the league in pass defense, and have many playmakers in the secondary.
The Bucs would be wise to get the running game going early against the Falcons, which could open up the passing game.
Falcons Players to Watch
Roddy White: White has had a fantastic year, and could be matched up with Bucs cornerback E.J. Biggers on Sunday. Everyone knows the Bucs struggle against the pass, so limiting White is essential.
Matt Ryan: Ryan may have had one of his few weaknesses exposed against the Cardinals last Sunday. He struggled when pressured in the pocket, so the Bucs will have to bring a lot of pressure to slow him down.
Tony Gonzalez: Gonzalez is extremely difficult to guard because he’s too physical for defensive backs and too quick for linebackers. The middle of the field is usually open for Gonzalez because of the big threats on the outside, but the Bucs will have to close down the middle.
This is the first ever matchup between Falcons coach Mike Smith and Bucs head coach Greg Schiano, but they will meet again in a few weeks. The Falcons thumped the Bucs 45-24 in the last game of the 2011 regular season, so the Bucs will surely be looking for revenge in what should be a close game.
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Max Luckan lives in Tampa, FL and is a sports writer covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFL. Luckan has been covering the Buccaneers for a few years now. You can find more of his work at Examiner.com.