Falcons vs. Buccaneers: Alford and Trufant key for Atlanta, 5 other things to know

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- After playing four of their last five games on the road, the Falcons (6-4) now have three straight games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, beginning with a divisional clash against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.  

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Atlanta and Tampa Bay split the two games they played last season, with the road team winning each one, and each meeting in this rivalry is competitive. The Buccaneers (4-6) have won two straight games, while the Falcons have won three of their last four to remain right in the middle of the NFC playoff race.

Let's dive into this week's key matchup.

KEY MATCHUP: Alford and Trufant vs. Evans and Jackson

The Buccaneers' offense has struggled to gain much traction in the ground game this season, but they boast a top-five pass attack. Although Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't have the type of arm strength that Jameis Winston has, he's more than capable of getting the ball downfield to star receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson.

Tampa Bay's best chance to beat Atlanta is likely by hitting several big plays in the passing game, and Evans and Jackson might be the best receiver duo the Falcons have seen this year. Evans is the Buccaneers' leading receiver with 45 catches for 624 yards and four touchdowns, despite missing one game, while Jackson is right behind him with 532 yards and three touchdowns on 35 receptions.

Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have put together solid seasons thus far; Trufant is the 11th-best cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus, earning a grade of 87.4 through the first 11 weeks, while Alford leads the Falcons with 14 passes defended.

Although they've played well this year, the duo struggled to contain Evans in their last meeting. Trufant began the game matched up against Evans, but Alford took over the assignment once Trufant left the game due to injury. It didn't appear to matter who lined up across from Evans that Thursday night, as he led all players with 11 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns.

The offseason addition of Jackson adds another element to this matchup. Even in his 10th NFL season, Jackson has the speed to take the top off a defense and turn any catch into a big play. If the Falcons aren't careful, he can make them pay.

"It's that ability to change directions, and he has one of the best abilities to track a deep ball," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Jackson. "He's not just fast. He can go full speed and at the last second turn to create that kind of catch where some guys might have to turn and look for a long time. His ability to track the ball out of the air at the last second is one of the very best in the league. We have a lot of regard for him."

Five more things to know about Falcons-Buccaneers 1. Freeman will not suit up on Sunday

On Friday, Quinn announced starting running back Devonta Freeman will miss his second straight game as he continues through the NFL's concussion protocol. His absence means Tevin Coleman will against start for the Falcons. While handling the majority of the workload over the last two games, Coleman has 40 carries for 126 yards and two touchdowns. In his three career games against the Buccaneers, Coleman has 14 carries for 46 yards and seven catches for 109 yards. 2. Gerald McCoy beginning to heat up

Another big matchup to watch on Sunday will take place down in the trenches, where Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy will battle Pro Bowl center Alex Mack. Mack has been consistently excellent in the middle of the Falcons' offensive line, but McCoy is among the best players at his position and he has played well of late.

Over the last two games, McCoy has three sacks, 11 tackles, seven hits on the quarterback and three tackles for a loss. In 11 career games against the Falcons, McCoy has five sacks and 17 tackles. 3. Rookie tight end O.J. Howard an emerging threat

Among the intriguing additions Tampa Bay made to its offense over the offseason was rookie tight end O.J. Howard. A formidable player during his days at Alabama, Howard has flashed some serious potential in his first NFL season.

Howard has 17 catches for 279 yards and four touchdowns this year, and he's put together some big outings, including a Week 7 performance against Buffalo in which he caught six passes for 98 yards and two scores. The Falcons have played some of the league's most established tight ends this season, but they may be getting a glimpse of the future at the position on Sunday. 4. Ryan could pass Joe Montana for career passing yards

Matt Ryan continues to climb up that all-time career passing yards list in 2017. He's currently 18th among quarterbacks in NFL history after passing Colts' legend Johnny Unitas against the Seahawks on Monday night.

He's within striking distance of one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, Joe Montana. With 40,268 yards in his career, Ryan needs 283 yards against the Buccaneers to surpass Montana's 40,551 career passing yards and move to 17th on the career passing yards list. Ryan averages 247 passing yards in 18 career games against Tampa Bay, but he has topped 283 yards six times against the Bucs, including both games in 2016. 5. Falcons can even the all-time series in this rivalry

The Falcons have an opportunity to tie this series against the Buccaneers at 24 wins apiece on Sunday. These two teams have played each other a total of 47 times, with Tampa Bay winning 24 games and Atlanta winning 23. Although the Falcons scored an impressive 43-28 win over the Buccaneers in their last meeting, they had lost three previous three meetings. The average score in this series is 22-21 in favor of Tampa Bay.

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