FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the biggest tests of the year is upon the Falcons in Week 12 as they host Tampa Bay on Sunday. Atlanta enters the game with a 5-6 record. They're ranked second in the division. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers sit at the top and are 8-3, winning their last two.
This game means a lot not only to the standings within the division itself, but also from a big picture standpoint when thinking about where the Falcons organization is.
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Some would say Atlanta's wins this season haven't been impressive yet. With wins over teams like Jacksonville, Miami and both New York teams, the Falcons haven't had a head-turning win yet to really put them on the map. A win over Tampa Bay would do that.
So, with that in mind, let's dive into where the Falcons are right now and what you need to keep an eye on come Sunday's kickoff.
1. An active roster that's finally healthy
It's been a while since the Falcons have been able to say this. Cordarrelle Patterson's ankle injury has been a topic of conversation throughout the last two weeks. And last week the Falcons were without Deion Jones. All of that, though, is in the past as the Falcons enter into this weekend with only Jonathan Bullard given a game designation. He's out again with an ankle injury.
The Falcons also get Kendall Sheffield back, as well as Qadree Ollison who impressed coaches two weeks ago in Patterson's absence. Arthur Smith said earlier in the week that Ollison "earned" more carries, so maybe keep an eye out for a practice squad elevation for Ollison.
2. Getting the air attack back on track
The Falcons know things need to change in this area. They know that there needs to be an uptick in production since in four of the last five games the Falcons have only totaled 183 yards or less in each contest.
Matt Ryan said this week that he attributes this lack of production to there not being as much rhythm in the pass game as there needs to be. Ryan said this could be a quick fix: his footwork here or there, receivers timing on routes, protection at times. If one of these things are tweaked at the right moment, Ryan believes the Falcons can get back on track.
"I really do think it just takes a play here or there to get into a rhythm," he said.
The hope for the Falcons is that the rhythm returns on Sunday.
3. Continued gains in the run game
Atlanta had its best rushing attack last Sunday against the Jaguars. And though Jacksonville doesn't have a solid record, nor would many say they strike fear into opponents, they did have the No. 3 run defense in the league when the Falcons faced them a week ago. For a Falcons team that struggled to run the ball time and time again this season, to see Patterson have a two-touchdown, 100-plus rushing yard day, that meant a lot to this offense.
The Falcons have to prove against Tampa Bay (and Carolina next week) that what they did against Jacksonville wasn't a fluke. They have the chance to prove that against a very solid Buccaneers defense on Sunday.
4. The secondary's challenge vs. Tom Brady
It's not a secret any longer: AJ Terrell is a force to be reckoned with. And though it hasn't looked too great at times as the Falcons still attempt to figure out what to do at nickel (it's been a steady rotation of guys for weeks), the Falcons actually haven't given up significant explosive play through the air this year.
With the weapons Brady has at his disposal, continuing that trend will be very important. If the Falcons defense can have a bend-but-don't-break attitude, it could go a long way.
5. Remember that third quarter the last time the Falcons faced the Buccaneers? Do that again.
The Falcons were down 28-10 in the early minutes of the third quarter in Week 2. But through a couple big plays by the defense and solid execution by the offense, at the end of the quarter the Falcons had fought back into the game and found themselves down 28-25.
It was arguably one of the best singular quarters the Falcons had all year. The defense was finding the necessary stops to give the ball back to the offense, and the offense was capitalizing on those opportunities with not just points, but touchdowns. It sounds simple, but considering the Falcons have struggled at times to put consistent play together, it was good to see, even then.
Can the Falcons play a consistent four quarters? They haven't yet. Can they do it against the No. 1 team in the division? We'll see on Sunday.
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