The Falcons played like anything but the NFC’s top seed in Sunday’s 22-17 loss to the Buccaneers. The offensive line struggled to limit Tampa Bay’s pass rush, the defense couldn’t contain rookie RB Doug Martin and even the special teams, which has been extremely reliable this year, had a punt blocked.
None of this would’ve been particularly concerning had coach Mike Smith elected to rest his starters with virtually nothing to play for and an eye toward the postseason. But he didn’t. All the regulars played until the final whistle, and the Falcons paid the price with two potentially significant injuries to starters DB Dunta Robinson and DE John Abraham.
The offensive line struggled mightily against the Bucs, and it set the basis for the rest of the offense. Matt Ryan, sacked twice and hit six times, was pressured endlessly and never had time to deliver to his playmakers Roddy White and Julio Jones. RB Michael Turner had six carries for 18 yards, 17 of which came on a touchdown run. The line lost so badly that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter began dialing up numerous screen plays that flushed the Bucs’ front four into the pocket just as Ryan was flipping the ball to combo-back Jacquizz Rodgers. With Turner struggling, Rodgers became the Falcons’ best option. He finished with eight catches for 50 yards and five rushes for 28 yards. Previous game’s grade: A-
The defense, which held the Bucs' Martin to 50 yards in their first meeting, was nowhere to be found Sunday. Martin isn’t a particularly big back, but he’s extremely physical and wore down Atlanta’s front seven, finishing with 142 yards and a touchdown. His 40-yard touchdown run ended all the momentum from Asante Samuels’ interception that the Falcons eventually turned into a touchdown. With nothing to play for, the only player who noticeably gave an outstanding effort was Sean Weatherspoon, who led the team with eight tackles. Previous game’s grade: B
Special teams: B+
Punter Matt Bosher had six punts that averaged 50.8 yards, including a long of 60. Three of his kicks landed inside Tampa Bay’s 20-yard line and only one was a touchback. The lone miscue was when TE Michael Palmer got shoved backward during a Bosher punt and the ball deflected off his helmet. The Bucs took over at Atlanta’s 25-yard line, but that was the only stain on an otherwise outstanding day. Matt Bryant hit a 28-yard field goal on his only attempt. Also, the Falcons yanked regular PR Dominique Franks and replaced him with third-string WR Harry Douglas, who finished with an average of 10.5 yards per return on four attempts. Previous game's grade: A
Smith played Sunday’s “meaningless” game to win. It was an effort to prevent a postseason letdown, which is totally defensible. But at some point -- whether it was after the abysmal first half, after Ryan had taken one of his six QB hits or when the Falcons faced a 12-point deficit early in the fourth quarter -- Smith should’ve pulled the plug on the starters. Robinson’s injury wasn’t a result of Smith’s decision -- it happened in the first quarter and was mostly due to poor form. But Abraham shouldn’t have been in the game in the fourth quarter when he was pressed down onto his ankle, which was tucked underneath him. And Ryan certainly shouldn’t have been in the game on the ensuing drive (he was sacked on the second play). It doesn’t matter that the Falcons had a chance to win. In Week 17, with a seed already clinched, you get your players a few series to stay competitive (the same as in the fourth preseason game), and even if it doesn’t go well, you cut your losses. At this point, it’s about priorities. No one had the Week 17 matchup against Tampa Bay circled on their calendars. But the postseason, that’s another story. Previous game’s grade: A
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