FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the opportunity to pick up a big division win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers (2-2) are coming off their bye week, and quarterback Jameis Winston will get his first start of the season against the Falcons (1-4).
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Every game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium has been a shootout this season, and the Falcons' offense has played well at home. They will likely need to be firing on all cylinders at home once again to get their second win of the season and start building some momentum.
Here are the three key matchups that could shape how this game unfolds:
*1. Falcons secondary vs. Bucs wide receivers and tight ends *
The loss of Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen has seemingly landed Atlanta's secondary among the key matchups every week, but the Falcons have also faced some really tough pass-catchers in recent weeks. That streak continues this week as the Bucs not only have Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin on the outside but O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate at tight end.
Thus far, most of the Falcons' opponents have been content to throw quick passes or hit the running back out of the backfield, but the Buccaneers are well equipped to hit big plays down the field. According to Pro Football Focus, the Bucs have 399 receiving yards on deep targets this season, which is second only to the Falcons.
Atlanta wants to make teams march down the field. Tampa Bay wants to connect on deep shots and get behind opposing defenses for big touchdowns. Whichever side imposes their identity could go a long way in deciding this one.
2. Falcons' pass protection vs. Bucs' pass rush
Matt Ryan was sacked a season-high six times against the Steelers, and the constant pressure certainly appeared to disrupt the Falcons' rhythm, offensively. Atlanta ranks 25th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass attempt, and PFF notes that the Falcons have allowed 65 total pressure this season, which is fifth-most in the league. Not all of the blame can be pinned on the offensive line, however, as Atlanta's running backs have missed their protection assignments at times as well.
The Buccaneers have just eight sacks this season – the same number as the Falcons – but they've managed to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks even if they aren't getting them to the ground. Per PFF, the Bucs have three players along the defensive line who have double-digit pressures this season: Jason Pierre-Paul (13), Gerald McCoy (12) and Vinny Curry (12). If this game does turn into a shootout, the Falcons will need to protect Ryan better than they did last week.
3. Falcons' run game vs. Bucs' run defense
The Falcons have managed to surpass 100 rushing yards just once this season, during their Week 2 win against the Panthers in which they ran for 170 yards and two touchdowns. Yes, starting running back Devonta Freeman has missed three games this year, but success on the ground doesn't begin and end with one player. Falcons coach Dan Quinn has been emphatic in his belief in a balanced approach, and Atlanta's offense truly does appear at its best when it can run the ball effectively on early downs.
Through the first five weeks, the Bucs have the fourth-best run defense in the NFL. But that ranking comes with a bit of a caveat: They are the worst team against the pass. Teams have run the ball against Tampa Bay just 90 times this season, which is the third least in the NFL. The Bucs are allowing under 4 yards per carry to opposing backs, but the Falcons are likely to test them in this area early on Sunday.