Sitting at 2-2 with a chance to take the lead in the NFC South race early in the season, the Falcons head to Tampa Bay for their first of two contests against the rival Buccaneers. Atlanta enters this week's game with an opportunity to even the all-time series, as Tampa Bay holds a 29-28 edge. The Bucs have won the last four matchups and five of the last six between the two teams. It's been a series of streaks in recent memory with the Falcons winning five-straight contests between 2016 and 2018.
Marcus Mariota returns to the site of his NFL debut, where he led the Titans to a 42-14 win that saw him throw four touchdowns and complete 87 percent of his passes. Atlanta brings its fourth-ranked rushing offense to Tampa as it tries to knock off the Buccaneers 12th-ranked rushing defense.
Next Men Up
The loss of Cordarrelle Patterson to injured reserve for a minimum of four weeks means the Falcons will turn to a stable of young running backs to carry the load in their rushing attack. While the sample size is small, the trio of Caleb Huntley, Tyler Allgeier, and Avery Williams has given the Falcons impressive production through the first four games.
Huntley and Allgeier had breakout games in the Falcons' Week 4 win over the Cleveland Browns, with Huntley racking up 56 yards and his first career score on 10 carries. Meanwhile, Allgeier notched a team-high 84 yards on 10 carries and added a 20-yard reception. The rookie from BYU became the first Falcons rookie running back to log 100 scrimmage yards in a game since Tevin Coleman in Week 12 of the 2015 season.
For his performance, Allgeier made Pro Football Focus' top 15 rookies of Week 4 list, coming in at No. 7. The 5-foot-10, 226-pound running back showed a fantastic balance of power and speed on Sunday. He is at once a bruiser, averaging 4.8 yards after contact per carry, and a speedster, hitting a top speed faster than 15 miles per hour on three of his runs. According to Next Gen Stats, Allgeier's speed at the line of scrimmage was 11.34 miles per hour. That was the fifth fastest by a running back with at least 10 carries, trailing Aaron Jones (12.18), Huntley (11.73), Derrick Henry (11.63), and Antonio Gibson (11.40).
Huntley flashed in the preseason but, with limited carries to go around in a crowded room, he was signed to the practice squad. The loss of Damien Williams to a rib injury in Week 1 saw Huntley elevated to the active roster in Week 2 but he only got one carry in that game. A run-heavy game plan and Patterson missing two days of practice in Week 4 saw him elevated once again and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Huntley was the big beneficiary of the Falcons 10 play, 10-run drive to start the fourth quarter as he toted the rock eight times and punched in a 5-yard touchdown to give the Falcons a 17-13 lead.
According to Next Gen Stats, Huntley ranks third in expected points added per rush (0.33) among all running backs with at least 10 carries. He's also tied for second with 63.6 percent of his runs gaining more yards than expected and he holds a rushing success rate above 60 percent.
In Week 4, Huntley ranked second in rushing success rate (70 percent), third among running backs with 0.40 EPA per carry, and also rushed for five first downs including two first downs over expectation. With two of his practice squad elevations used, the Falcons signed the former Ball State standout to the active roster ahead of their Week 5 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Williams, a converted cornerback, has also gotten in on the fun. He notched 37 yards on four rushes, averaging 9.3 yards per carry. A fifth-round selection out of Boise State, Williams was one of the top punt returners in the nation. He's turned that vision and burst into a role on the Falcons offense. Williams has posted 0.59 EPA per carry and has a rushing success rate of 75 percent.
The Falcons will need all of their backs to replicate their performances from a week ago as the Bucs boast one of the most formidable defenses in the NFL.
Teams have run 100 times for 427 yards (4.3 yards per carry) with two touchdowns against Tampa this season. That's the sixth-lowest yardage total allowed by a team this season and the seventh-lowest number of rushes faced. Despite those staunch-looking numbers, Tampa's defensive success rate against the run (53.5) is the sixth worst in the NFL. Additionally, only four teams have seen opponents out-gain their expected rushing yardage at a higher rate than the Buccaneers (42.6 percent). Stats suggest the Bucs can be run on, but you must stay ahead of the chains and stay in the game.
The Buccaneers have been successful in dictating terms to the offense, getting advantageous looks for their defense against the opposing offense. Tampa has seen the third-lowest rate of rushes against light boxes (28 percent) and the fourth-highest rate of rushes against loaded boxes (42 percent). But getting the right look doesn't always equal success. When the Buccaneers have had eight-or-more defenders in the box, teams have run for 117 yards, two touchdowns, and averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
This will more than likely be a strength-on-strength matchup for these two division rivals on Sunday. This season, the Falcons have the fourth-most successful rushing offense against stacked boxes (8+ defenders) with a 57.7 percent rushing success rate. Atlanta has the second-most first downs (11), the most first downs over expected (4), is tied for the third-most 10+ yard runs (3), and the highest speed at the line of scrimmage (11.61 MPH).
It will take all 11 offensive players being in sync if the Falcons want to continue to run the ball effectively and efficiently against the vaunted Buccaneers' defense.
Got to Have It
Most NFL games tend to hinge on a handful of plays in critical situations. This is why so many coaches and players harp on the importance of situational football. People can argue about whether or not momentum is real but there's no doubt that converting one of these crucial plays can swing the game in your favor. Atlanta felt that firsthand at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the Browns in Week 4.
Despite struggling to find a rhythm for most of the game, Mariota made a play that might not have outright won the game for Atlanta but it certainly influenced the outcome in an outsized fashion. With 3 minutes, 35 seconds remaining and the score tied at 20-20, the Falcons faced a second-and-9 from their own nine-yard line. Prior to the snap, Atlanta's win probability sat at 50.2 percent and the expected points added on the play a minor 0.10. The game was essentially a toss-up as the Falcons faced a long field to try and take the lead.
Atlanta lined up in the pistol with Huntley behind Mariota, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Drake London out wide on either side of the formation, and both Keith Smith and Parker Hesse at tight end, tight to the formation. The Browns lined up with eight defenders in the box, including safety Grant Delpit, and a single high safety in John Johnson. Atlanta's success running the ball earlier in the third and fourth quarters forced the Browns into this one-high look, opening the door for an explosive play.
At the snap, Mariota faked the handoff to Huntley, which got the defense flowing toward the run and Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah coming downhill in a hurry. As Mariota surveyed the field he would have seen London carrying two defenders on his deep route, Owusu-Koramoah rapidly retreating and Delpit and linebacker Jacob Phillips dropping to cover their zones at the sticks.
Scrambling to his left and covering 13.9 yards, Mariota sees that London has cleared things out and makes a difficult throw across his body at a wide-open Zaccheaus. The throw traveled 31.8 yards in the air and 22.6 air yards from the line of scrimmage. Zaccheaus had 11.8 yards of separation from the nearest defender when the ball arrived which he took advantage of by adding 19.4 yards after the catch.
Tack on a 15-yard penalty for a facemask by Denzel Ward and Atlanta went from second-and-9 from its own 9-yard line to first-and-10 from the Cleveland 34-yard line with just over three minutes to play. According to Next Gen Stats win-probability model, the Falcons post-play win probability jumped 23.2 percent to 73.4 percent after that single play.
Admittedly, win probability is a volatile statistic. This is a great illustration of that fact, and it shows how the Falcons dominant rushing performance put the team in an advantageous position to exploit the defense in a critical situation. Despite struggling to find their footing in the passing game, Mariota and Atlanta's offense made the crucial play when it mattered most.
Crunching QBs in Crunch Time
In each of the past two games, Falcons defensive lineman Grady Jarrett has brought down opposing quarterbacks on the final drive of the game, putting the opposing offense behind the sticks.
In Seattle, the Seahawks had the ball on Atlanta's 28 yard-line with 2:00 remaining trailing 27-23 when Jarrett beat center Austin Blythe and brought down Geno Smith for a 10-yard sack, leading to a 4th-and-18. The following play, Smith forced a ball downfield that was intercepted by Richie Grant, sealing the Falcons victory.
Fast forward one week. Cleveland had a 2nd-and-15 from Atlanta's 46 yard-line with 1:24 remaining, trailing 23-20. Jarrett beat Browns All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio, bringing down Jacoby Brissett for an eight-yard loss. On 3rd-and-23, Brissett was intercepted by Dee Alford, ending the game for a second consecutive win.
Per TruMedia, Jarrett is the only player this year to record sacks in the fourth quarter of multiple games while his team is leading by one possession.
Jarrett leads the Falcons with 3.5 sacks this season, which also leads all interior defensive linemen in the NFL and is tied for the fourth-most in the NFC entering Week 5. Only Nick Bosa (6.0), Rashan Gary (5.0) and Micah Parsons (4.0) has more sacks than Jarrett in the conference through four games this year. Not bad company to be in.
Jarrett's sack last week marked the 30th of his career, tying Roderick Coleman for the eighth-most sacks in franchise history. With 1.0 sack on Sunday, the eighth-year defensive lineman would tie Lester Archambeau for the seventh-most in team history – and with two sacks, he would tie Brady Smith for the sixth-most.
After notching 1.5 sacks in Week 1 and adding a sack in each of the past two, Jarrett could also become the fourth Falcon to have at least 1.0 sack in four of the first five games of a season since 1982, when the individual sack became an official NFL statistic, with 1.0 sack on Sunday.
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, presented by Gatorade.