Last week’s bye gave the 1-4 Atlanta Falcons a chance to reflect on their problems and correct their mistakes. As they prepared to take on the winless Buccaneers (0-5), the biggest issue is how Matt Ryan will compensate for the loss of his two top receivers. Julio Jones is out for the season following foot surgery while Roddy White will miss the first game of his NFL career due to hamstring and ankle injuries.
Regardless, the Falcons firmly believe they still have a chance to make the playoffs.
What to watch for:
1) Catching on: Without Jones or White, Ryan might have to be as accurate as ever against a capable Buccaneers secondary, led by Darrelle Revis. Jones and White gave Ryan a margin for error because, when healthy, they’d go up and get the ball or use their strength to overcome defenders. Now, the only player really sure to win his one-on-one battles is tight end Tony Gonzalez. Slot receiver Harry Douglas has a competitive fire and could emerge as a threat. The wild card is newly signed Brian Robiskie, who has the size (6-foot-4, 212) to make an impact but has struggled to catch on in the league thus far.
2) Double coverage: Speaking of receivers, Gonzalez instantly becomes Ryan’s No. 1 option, although Ryan has looked to the veteran tight end plenty the last two games. It will be interesting to see how the Bucs defend Gonzalez after the Falcons obviously took issue with the manner in which both the Jets and Patriots jammed Gonzalez with two defenders in red zone situations. The Bucs are sure to try and get a few hits in on Gonzalez with their physical safeties. But in a narrow Week 2 loss to the New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay surrendered 179 receiving yards to tight end Jimmy Graham.
3) On the line: All the attention devoted to injuries this past week made people forget about how the Falcons' offensive line got abused the last time out against the New York Jets. Right guard Garrett Reynolds got blown up a few times and was man enough to admit it afterward. There are no quick fixes for the line, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff already dismissed the idea of making a trade before the Oct. 29 deadline. In other words, the five guys up front simply have to play better, particularly in goal-line situations when the Falcons need to punch the ball into the end zone. Passing the ball in those situations won’t work as well without Jones and White.
4) Third-down misery: Safety William Moore said it's time for the defense to shoulder the load and win some ballgames. That’s a bold statement considering the Falcons have allowed opponents to convert 50 percent of third downs, the worst third-down defense in the league. Not only do the Falcons have to get after Bucs rookie quarterback Mike Glennon with a solid pass rush in third-and-long situations, they also need to hold up in coverage against two big, physical receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. The Falcons have surrendered eight plays of 40-plus yards.
5) In a corner: Although he's had some struggles as of late, keep an eye on nickelback Robert McClain. He enters Sunday’s game with a little added motivation. Friday was the four-year anniversary of the murder of his good friend and college teammate Jasper Howard, who was stabbed to death on the University of Connecticut campus in 2009. McClain wears a tattoo of Howard's No. 6 on the left side of his rib cage. ``That’s was one of my best friends at UConn; went through a lot of ups and downs with him,’’ McClain said. ``It still hurts thinking about it. What I do on the field, a lot of it is for him and my family. I’ll never forget him.’’