By Matthew Asher
With the Falcons already securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs last week, Atlanta didn’t have anything to play for in their Week 17 matchup with the Bucs. The big question going into the game was if Mike Smith would treat this game as a pre-season one, starting his first team and then subbing them out throughout the game. Smith didn’t, and that choice may come back to haunt Atlanta in a few weeks as both Dunta Robinson and John Abraham had to leave the game due to injuries.
Smith said throughout the week that he was not going to take the starters out of the game, and that he was going to treat this like any other game. “We’ve said from the very beginning that we’re going to play this game to win. I think we did that,” Smitty said. “We just didn’t get it done today. We were low on DB’s when we started the game. We only had seven dressed. We were getting low where we were going to have to change our packages, but absolutely not. We were going to continue to play to win this ballgame.”
Whether or not Smitty’s decision to play his starters the whole game was a good or bad idea, Tampa’s 22-17 victory over Atlanta showcased several areas that Atlanta still needs to improve upon if they’re expected to make a deep run into the playoffs.
Asante Samuel gets an A. With Atlanta trailing 16-3 in the third quarter, Samuel gave the Falcons a chance to win. Stepping in front of a Josh Freeman pass intended for for Tiquan Underwood, Asante recorded his fifth interception of the season, and the fiftieth of his career. He is just one of ten cornerbacks since 1940 to achieve that feat. He is second only to Denver’s Champ Bailey (52) among active NFL players.
After Samuel’s interception, Atlanta needed just two plays to score their first and only touchdown of the game cutting the Tampa lead to 16-10.
Michael Turner gets an F+. Yes, Turner did score a touchdown, bringing his season total to 10, making him the only running back to post five straight 10+ rushing touchdown seasons. However, take away the two runs during the scoring drive, and his stats are frightening.
Turner finished with six rushes for 18 yards. That means without that drive, Turner would have finished with four rushing attempts for negative three yards. The other running backs for Atlanta finished with 10 attempts for a respectable 47 yards.
Earlier this week the Falcons website posted an article about the organization intentionally giving Turner fewer carries this season to keep him fresh for the playoffs. If that was the case, why then on a 3rd and one did Atlanta choose to keep Turner off the field and attempt a long pass?
Atlanta may have trailed 13-3 at halftime, but the defense was doing its job at keeping the game close. Tampa had put up 175 yards of total offense with just 37 rushing yards and were just 1 of 2 from the red zone. The second half changed all of that.
Doug “Muscle Hamster” Martin was limited to just 50 yards the first time the Bucs faced the Falcons. In the second half alone, Martin more than doubled his previous output. Atlanta kept him in check in the first half with 11 rushes for 36 yards. But the second half was a different story. Martin’s 17 rushes went for 106 yards including a 40-yard touchdown run where several Falcons tried to knock Martin down rather than actually tackle him.
Atlanta finishes the season 13-3 but all three losses came against NFC South opponents, making Atlanta just 3-3 against their divisional opponents. Atlanta will get Wildcard Week off and then will play the lower ranking team left either January 12th or 13th.
How are the Falcons going to make use of the extra days off? Matt Ryan wants to spend that time correcting mistakes the team has made recently. “We want to keep the rhythm and keep the timing that we’ve had,” Ryan said. “We’ll have a chance to make adjustments and self-scout a little bit and take a look at some of the things that we haven’t done well this year and try and improve on those. We’re going to practice quite a bit which is a good thing and we’ll have some time to work on it on the field as well.”
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Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on Examiner.com.