Welcome to another installment of Enemy on the Ship, a series of articles where I am graciously given the time and effort of a writer or blogger for the teams the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face in 2013, and they share their thoughts on the team they cover, and how they’ll do against the Bucs in 2013.
As we take a look at another divisional opponent, we’re joined by Mike Foster, who writes about the Falcons for Bleacher Report. You can find Mike on Twitter here. Here is what he had to say about the Falcons and their matchups with the Bucs in 2013.
Leo Howell – The Falcons a formidable opponent in 2012, despite a pair of relatively disappointing performances against the Buccaneers. What will be different about the 2013 version of the Falcons? What has changed, and have they benefited from these changes?
Mike Foster – Well, first off, I wasn’t disappointed in the two games against Tampa Bay. Every NFC South team went 3-3 in the division last year. That is an absolutely unbelievable statistic. There’s no doubt the NFC South is always taking care of preseason business behind closed doors, in the sense that you really never know how it can play it, and Tampa’s potential is no exception.
The Falcons will mostly be different in the fact their offense will finally be able to continually function as a complete and dynamic entity. With Michael Turner being a slow-to-the-hole runner and essentially a liability as a receiver, the Falcons usually found trouble in the fact packages would tip defenses on the incoming plays. With Steven Jackson, who is undoubtedly still in great shape despite people complaining about his age hitting an arbitrary tipping point (30), the team can do a much better job of keeping defenses on their toes. You’re not going to be able to predict the plays as easily by doing personnel checks. Jackson is a violent runner and a dynamic pass receiver–which, despite uneducated rhetoric–was something Michael Turner wasn’t in his last three seasons with the team. Also, the offensive line will look a little bit different with the loss of Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo. But, Clabo’s release was based on the fact our coaches knew it was time for Lamar Holmes and Mike Johnson to hit the field. Both of those guys were big investments in talent, but are both much easier on the cap. Defensively, the Falcons have a lot of youth as well as four former Pro Bowlers (Moore and DeCoud just this past season). There’s a lot of rising talent that needs to finally see the field, and GM Thomas Dimitroff has always wanted to sprinkle some veterans on top of his core, but the core is usually composed of younger, less prominent names. That’s how Dimitroff has built the team since 2008, so fans rarely question our roster even if the names don’t light up media guides.
LH – Tony Gonzalez returns to the team in 2013 after what was supposed to be his final season. He’ll rejoin Roddy White and Julio Jones as a part of the Falcons’ incredible passing attack. But can this passing unit be any better than they were in 2012? Or is it possible the team might take a step back?
MF – The passing unit can be better. As referred to already, the addition of Steven Jackson will make this offense more wide open. There’s going to be a lot of space on the field for these guys to make plays. I actually believe the passing numbers could dip just a tad simply because the Falcons were always in throw-or-die mode, whether they were holding a lead or desperately trying to comeback against someone. That’s been the story of the team for the past few seasons. This has not been a team that can chug clock with a run game, but if the addition of Jackson goes as planned then you might see Ryan’s pass attempts drop, which will obviously effect each receiver’s production.
LH – The Falcons have a decent defense, but there’s certainly nothing special about the team on that side of the ball. How will the defense look for the Dirty Birds in 2013? Will they be able to cope with the loss of John Abraham?
MF – Firstly, if you don’t think William Moore is special you’re out of the loop. He and Sean Weatherspoon are definitely special players and the leaders of this defense (Editors’ note: I do like both of those players! Just commenting on the Falcons’ middle of the pack ratings on defense, especially according to Football Outsiders. Carry on!) . This defense is going to play fast and rely on causing confusion. The pass rush has never been quit good enough with the front four, and with the loss of Abraham it may not be any better this season. Osi Umenyiora is a decent fill, but this team needed an added pass rusher even before the surprising release of Abe. If guys like Jonathan Massaquoi and Malliciah Goodman come around like Dimitroff’s time-table would project, then you will see a more athletic pass rush, but production will rely on maturity. Thomas DeCoud is a Pro Bowl safety because of his ball-hawking ability, but the honest trush is that he and Asante Samuel aren’t the best tacklers in the world–in fact, they are both pretty bad at it. I believe that’s a real reason Dimitroff went after two cornerbacks in the draft, and he got two thumpin’ good ones. I don’t think this defense will necessarily be significantly better from a pure attacking standpoint, but they finished top-5 in turnovers forced and scoring allowed last season. I can say that if the offense is finally able to actually control clock, which it has never done since 2008, that the defense’s statistical numbers shouldn’t appear as bad simply because they won’t be constantly thrown on the field.
LH – What is holding the Falcons back from winning the Lombardi Trophy? With the plethora of talent in Atlanta, it seems like they’re due to win it all eventually, but they never seem to put it all together. What needs to happen for the Falcons to win a title in 2013?
MF – Well, the first thing is to realize it’s definitely not Matt Ryan. The first thing the Falcons need to do is get him a contract extension. He simply has it; he just hasn’t gotten there yet. He has that same presence, maturity, learning ability, work ethic, and frankly talent that all Super Bowl winning quarterbacks have (sans Trent Dilfer, but I digress…and I’ll spare the Brad Johnson joke there too). This team just simply hasn’t been able to finish games. In my opinion, the reason it hasn’t has been because of a useless threat on the ground and a defense that doesn’t have enough big guns. Truthfully, Super Bowl caliber teams these days have two things: An elite quarterback, and a defense that can create players when it matters. Frankly, the Falcons had an elite quarterback and a defense that was top-5 in scoring and turnovers, so one would think they fit the mold. Too many times they’ve had to rely on Matt Ryan’s heroics, and in the NFC Championship the law of averages finally caught up with them and his pass was broken up. This team has got to be able to finish teams by putting its foot on its opponent’s throat.
So really the answer is simple: It has to be able to run the ball with authority in the second half. Hopefully Jackson can do that. That really is all the team has been missing, and it’s why Dimitroff and everyone else knew Turner’s days in Atlanta were over.
LH – How do you believe the Falcons will do against the Bucs in the upcoming season? The Bucs competed very well against their rivals from Atlanta in 2012, so will we see more of the same, or do you think one team will have an advantage this year? Give us your (admittedly way too early) prediction.
MF – Again, I never have confidence with the way the Falcons will compete against the NFC South. New Orleans was our easiest opponent from the division last year. We almost beat them in the Superdome (a last-second Hail Mary had Roddy White wide open and Ryan barely overthrew him). Carolina has Cam Newton, so anytime you face that spread option offense you are in for a heap of trouble…the game can get away from you.
As long as Josh Freeman can escalate, which I think he can, the Buccaneers are just as scary as anyone else in the division. I always knew Doug Martin was going to be a stellar tailback at the next level and I cringed when I heard Tampa Bay took him. He’s an ideal running back in my book. Having Dashon Goldson and Darelle Revis means all eyes will be on our receiver-secondary matchups when we play. Just remember that Julio absolutely toasted Goldson in the NFC title game.
Really though, whenever it comes to NFC South games in 2013 you might as well flip a coin or ask some trivia questions, because the result will not be set in stone before kickoff.