Reporting Robbie Rosenhaus
First down – TONY THE TIGER?
With a season ending foot injury to Julio Jones and extended absences for Steven Jackson and Roddy White, the Falcons are bereft of offensive weapons as they enter week seven against Tampa Bay. So who does Matt Ryan turn to? With Harry Douglas making only a handful of starts in his career and rookies Drew Davis and Kevin Cone taking on the number two and three wideout roles, it’s a “no-brainer” for Tony Gonzalez to become the focal part of the passing game according to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. According to the stats, however, it seems that the progression towards that has already begun. The past two games, Matt Ryan has looked Gonzalez’s way 24 times with passes, with the future Hall of Famer catching 22 of them for over 240 yards and a couple of scores to boot.
Second down – ROLL OUT THE WELCOME MATT
The Falcons have averaged just a shade over 391 yards a game on offense this year, good for eighth best in the NFL. Without his normal targets, the pressure to succeed is more than ever on the sixth year man from Boston College. Ryan has performed well this year with and without his full complement of weapons, posting a 100.9 passer rating through their first five games. Atlanta is 33-2 all time when Ryan posts a 100 or higher QB rating, so look for the Buccaneers to try to take him out of his rhythm early.
Third down – RUNNING… ON EMPTY?
The Falcons are 26th in the league in rushing this season, partly because Steven Jackson hasn’t been seen since week two, and partly because the offensive line is in complete disarray. The Falcons combination of Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling have combined for just 288 rushing yards since Jackson went out, certainly not the kind of production they need as their passing game misses its two star wideouts. After ranking first last season, Tampa Bay ranks just 13th against the run this season. They have, however, allowed just one TD on the ground all season long. It will be very interesting to see how the Falcons choose to attack this Tampa defense on Sunday.
Fourth down – DEFENSIVE DRIVING
Injuries have really piled up on the defensive side of the ball for the Falcons, but the biggest loss seems to be defensive captain and starting middle linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. The linebackers were supposed to be a strength of this team with Weatherspoon in the middle but have really struggled with two undrafted rookies playing in Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Both shined in the preseason but have been the frequent target of the opposition’s offensive gameplan. The Falcons rank 29th in the league against the pass as teams continue to go over the middle against them, especially tight ends and slot receivers who have carved them up. In recent weeks, Jeff Cumberland for the Jets, Julian Edelman of the Patriots and Brian Hartline of the Dolphins are all recent examples of pass catchers who have had big games against the Falcons defense. Seven different players have started at least one game at linebacker this season for the Falcons as they try to find a combination that will work for the long haul.