The Buccaneers needed all hands on deck in order to beat the Cowboys last week. The same goes this week for the Falcons, even if they lost to the Eagles by almost four touchdowns.
The landscape has shifted a bit since last week, so who will need to step up this week in order for the Bucs to go 2-0?
5. LB Lavonte David
David's coverage skills are going to be needed in a big way on Sunday and that's because Arthur Smith loves to use play-action in order to target the middle of the field.
The Cowboys had a decent amount of success using this strategy outside of Dak Prescott's terrible decision to throw into quadruple-coverage. Per Sports Info Solutions, Prescott completed 7-of-8 passes on eight dropbacks for 75 yards and the interception to Carlton Davis III. One would think a veteran quarterback like Matt Ryan isn't likely to make that type of decision, so the Bucs shouldn't count on that, but instead count on executing and hitting their landmarks/sticking to assignments.
That all starts with David, who is one of the league's best coverage linebackers.
4. WR Antonio Brown
How could Brown not be on this list after his opening week performance?
The 33-year-old receiver looked as good as ever against the Cowboys, finishing with a 5-121-1 line to lead the team in receiving yards. Per SIS, he is the NFL's sixth-most efficient receiver with at least seven targets, registering a mark of 0.82 EPA/tgt.
A.J. Terrell and Fabian Moreau will both see a healthy does of Brown. Terrell is an up-and-comer, but still young. A vet like AB could easily have his way with him on a snap or two and will likely be singled at various points throughout the game. Plus, defensive coordinator Dean Pees loves to use exotic pressure schemes, so the Bucs will likely use a lot of screens and quick passes, which suits AB's game.
It's pick-your-poison with this Bucs offense and the Cowboys chose AB last week. If the Falcons choose him this week, then expect similar results a la the season opener.
3. G Ali Marpet
Marpet will be going up against Grady Jarrett often, who is one of the league's best interior defensive linemen. Jarrett's interior push will be key when it comes to collapsing the pocket and crashing the edges. Pressure in Tom Brady's face is always something to account for on defense.
The Falcons pass rush begins and ends with Jarrett, who would've had two sacks against the Eagles if it weren't for the legs of Jalen Hurts. Brady is obviously nowhere near the runner that Hurts is, so it's key that Jarrett is kept out of the backfield and out of Brady's face. If Marpet and the Bucs offensive line can stymie Jarrett, then that will force Pees to rely even more on scheme, which in turn can lead to the Bucs offense finding the weak spots for big plays.
2. OLB Shaquil Barrett
The Falcons offensive line is not good. Per Pro Football Focus, the offensive line is dead-last in pass blocking efficiency. Matt Ryan was pressured on 16 of 39 dropbacks and sacked three times. Right tackle Kaleb McGary gave up team-highs in total pressures (5), pressures out of a true pass set (2), and quarterback hits (2).
Then there's the following thread of stats that sums up how dreadful McGary and the other linemen were (mainly McGary and Mayfield) when it came to protecting their quarterback:
Enter Shaquil Barrett.
Barrett recorded a team-high six pressures and the only sack against the Cowboys, so he's already out for blood and likely looking at this matchup with McGary and seeing nothing but raw meat.
Atlanta is going to run a ton of play-action, misdirection, and whatever else it needs to keep Barrett off rhythm, but those might turn out to be useless tactics at the end of the day. Especially if Barrett is on his game and McGary and Co. have a repeat performance of last week.
1. CB Ross Cockrell
Cockrell will replace Sean Murphy-Bunting more often than not when the Bucs move to their nickel defense. He's coming off an outstanding camp, but he played reserve safety instead of his natural slot position.
Cockrell did not fare well against the Cowboys. It's important to remember he was constantly matched up on two of the league's better receivers, but it's never good when you are at the top of negative statistics. Per PFF, Cockrell has currently allowed the most receptions (7), third-most yards (74), and is one of nine slot corners to allow a touchdown.
Prescott went after him often: Per PFF, Cockrell averaged just under four snaps per target (3.9), which was the fifth-most often amount during Week 1. His rate of 4.4 snaps per reception is currently the fifth-highest rate, as well. Who's to say Ryan won't do the same?
I say all this to say Cockrell's play will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game. The Falcons offense abused the Bucs defense from the slot in 2020. Russell Gage -the Falcons' primary slot receiver- caught 14 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns in two meetings against the Bucs last year. Per SIS, Eight of those receptions, 104 yards, and both touchdowns came when Gage was lined up in the slot.
It gets worse when you add in Calvin Ridley's seven receptions for 106 yards and the fact that Kyle Pitts lined up in the slot for 23 snaps and saw six targets in Week 1. Even though it's more likely Pitts sees David or a safety, one has to wonder how the Bucs defend the slot position, especially with Cockrell in the mix.
The good news is the Falcons are 19th when targeting the slot position after one week. But regardless, Cockrell needs to be on point Sunday or else the Bucs secondary could be in for another long day.
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