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Five things to watch when Falcons face Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road

This Week 7 matchup means a lot for both teams, vying for position atop the NFC South division. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It may be Week 7 of the 2023 season, but this divisional matchup between the Falcons and Buccaneers means a lot to both organizations. In the NFC South, division leaders have been decided by one or two games in recent years. This year is shaping up to be no different.

With the Falcons at 3-3 and the Bucs leading the division at 3-2, what is there to watch? Well, a whole heck of a lot. Let's dive into this game.


1. A need for turnovers...and taking care of the ball

A major point of emphasis for the Falcons in Week 7 had to do with the turnover battle. It's something the Falcons have lost a few times recently, and there were dire consequences against the Commanders Sunday. Atlanta's offense led in almost every single statistical category, and yet they still lost. More so, they had the second-most offensive production of any team in the league in the last two weeks.

As this week's Nerdy Birds installment explained: Since Week 5, the Falcons have averaged 424.5 yards per game – good for second in the NFL. Only Miami (474) has averaged more yards per game over the past two weeks.

And yet, that production feels like a moot point on account of the turnovers that have stalled drives. Like head coach Arthur Smith said Monday and Wednesday: The Falcons have seen improvement in the pass game. However, it's difficult to feel good about where the offense is without the points scored to back it up.

This is also a conversation for the defense, too. They know they have to hold up their end of the turnover bargain. Since the third quarter of the Detroit loss in Week 3, the Falcons defense has been really, really good. But they haven't had a takeaway since. More so, only Jessie Bates III has produced a turnover for this Falcons defense in 2023. That, Bates said, is an obvious step this defense needs to take.

"We have to find a way to create some more turnovers on defense," Bates said after the Falcons loss to the Commanders last Sunday. "It's hard to win when you're 0-for-3 in the turnover battle and you give up a big return on special teams. We're not going to overreact. It's Week 6 and we're 3-3. We have everything we want ahead of us."

The defense has seen major improvement in almost every single statistical category this year (not unlike the offense in the pass game in the last couple games). However, there's always room to develop, defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said this week, and forcing takeaways is where this defense can develop next.

It's something assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray said the Falcons defensive backs are drilling. They're hungry for some turnovers, and that hunger should help this team.

"We've got to get back to that. It has to become natural to us again. Going out, ball's in the air, go get it. Don't worry about the collisions. Then, you'll do the same thing in the game," Gray said. "And I think we've been in a position a couple of times where the ball hit A.J. (Terrell) on the foot last week or Jessie missed one going on an over route. So, we've been in a position to catch the ball. Now it's time to go get the ball and not worry about the collision in practice because if you worry about it in practice, you're probably going to subconsciously think about it during the game, and that's what we can't do."

Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker DeAngelo Malone #51 during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Wednesday, October 18, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

2. Baker, Tampa Bay edition

When asked about facing Baker Mayfield this week, Nielsen said this version of Mayfield is a "tough sack."

"The guy has done a great job moving around the pocket, staying alive," Nielsen said Thursday. "He's a great play-extender. I think they've done a really good job because knows where to go with the ball. He's been very decisive."

Nielsen said you see that decisiveness and play-extending ability most obviously in the red zone. Through five games, Mayfield has taken care of the ball, too. He's thrown three interceptions to his seven touchdowns. He's only been sacked five times this year, too.

The Falcons -- and Nielsen, too, having been with the Saints -- have seen Mayfield before. This version of Mayfield, however, has been one of the best. He's playing at a very high level to start the 2023 season, Nielsen said. You can't overlook what he's been for Tampa during that time.

"This is as good as I've seen him play," Nielsen said. "It's very impressive what they've done with him."

3. Buccaneers selling out to stop the run (?)

Another week, another opportunity to face a top defensive line. And, regardless of opponent, an underlying theme has prevailed in recent weeks: Opposing defenses are selling out at times to stop the run, essentially daring the Falcons to beat them through the air.

They've still been able to run the ball, but perhaps not at the clip we're used to seeing from this team. Last week's 106 rushing yards felt like the Falcons were fighting tooth and nail for every yard on the ground. The week before, the Texans held the Falcons to under 100 rushing yards, similar to what Detroit did in Week 3 when the Falcons only notched 44 rushing yards on the day. The Falcons are searching for a little more balance in their offensive attack, but with another stout defensive line opposite them in Tampa, it won't be easy.

"It's every week, right? Last week we were sitting here talking about (Montez) Sweat, (Jonathan) Allen, (Daron) Payne and (Chase) Young. Next week we'll be talking about big Jeff (Simmons), Denico (Autry), (Teair) Tart and (Harold) Landry and all of those guys," Smith said. "It's just going to be a challenge every week, that's the NFL. So, this week obviously, Vita Vea — really damn good player. The middle of their defense is pretty damn good, Devin White, Lavonte David, playing a lot of high-level football. They drafted Calijah Kancey, a good little player. I wouldn't say little, but he's smaller than others and that's not a shot, the guy is a damn good football player, too.

"(Joe) Tryon-(Shoyinka) is a guy who they drafted early who's gotten better every year. (Shaquil) Barrett is back out there... Shaq's a good player. So, (they have) a lot of guys that they can throw at you."

4. Jeff Okudah playing his best ball yet

Since returning to the field after missing the first couple weeks of the season with a training camp foot injury, Jeff Okudah has been exactly what the Falcons were hoping for when they acquired him from Detroit. The former No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft is playing -- arguably -- his best ball, according to Nielsen.

And the stats back it up. Even though Okudah has only been targeted 10 times, he's given up just three catches on 85 coverage snaps. According to our Nerdy Birds report, Okudah has only allowed opposing passers to complete 30% of their passes. Since he's been back in action for the Falcons, he's been pretty dang reliable.

"Jeff, he's a willing worker," Nielsen said. "He is always trying to get better with communication, he's early on the practice field, he stays late, he's always working to get better, and that combination is really cool to see, and I think that's what you're seeing on the field."

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Jeff Okudah #1 during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Thursday, October 19, 2023. (Photo by Jay Bendlin/Atlanta Falcons)

5. A desperate need for a road-game win

The Falcons need this win because, yes, it's a divisional game and in the NFC South every game counts. But the Falcons need this win from a morale standpoint, too.

As noted in Thursday's Falcons Daily, the last time the Falcons won a game on the road was when the team faced the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 3 of the 2022 season. They have lost every single road game since, including defeats to Detroit and Jacksonville (in London) this year. Since 2021, the Falcons are 6-13 on the road, with five of those six wins coming in 2021. They've lost eight straight road games since that Seattle day in Sept. 2022.

It's been even longer since the Falcons won a division game on the road. They beat Carolina in Charlotte on Dec. 12, 2021, though they've only played three NFC South road games since.

So, those are the facts. The Falcons have to be better on the road. And that can start in Tampa this Sunday.

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, presented by Fast Twitch.

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