Behind Enemy Lines is a look at Tampa Bay’s NFC South foes every week. Let’s spy on the Bucs’ division rivals, shall we?
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• Tampa Bay’s next opponent, the Falcons, are reeling after losing to the lowly Chargers (now 4-9) last Sunday, 20-17, in overtime. Atlanta is 4-9 with no hopes of the postseason, and part of their demise this season had to do with injuries early, but as of late, quarterback Matt Ryan has been the Falcons’ own worst enemy. On Sunday against Los Angeles, Ryan tossed three second half interceptions, including one with less that a minute to go, just needing to get into field goal range to win the game.
Ryan has been one of the best fourth quarter quarterbacks over the last decade, but has seen the shine and magic wear off in two of Atlanta’s last three games when he had a chance to pull out the win. Ryan knows his play has been a problem, particularly last week.
“I have to be better with the football,” Ryan said following the loss. “Too much air and not enough space. Too far inside. Not a good combination. … It was just a poor throw.”
Interim head coach Raheem Morris, who has watched his chances to become the full-time coach after taking over for Dan Quinn, slip along with Ryan’s play, defended his quarterback – somewhat.
“He made a mistake,” Morris said. “It is tell-the-truth Monday. We expect him to make these plays and he expects to make these plays. Matt’s a high-character guy and I’m sure he’ll tell you just that.
“There are not a lot of things that would cause me to lose confidence in Matt Ryan. Ryan has all of the backing you can have from me as a coach.”
• Star Falcons receiver Julio Jones missed his fourth game of the season on Sunday against the Chargers with a hamstring injury, and his status for Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers is still up in the air. Tampa Bay wouldn’t mind seeing Jones sit out another week as historically Jones has has numerous career games against the Buccaneers secondary.
But even if Jones can’t go, although most feel he will, the Bucs will still have their hands full with wide receivers Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, who have combined for 121 receptions for 1,633 yards and 10 touchdowns.
• While Ryan is signed through 2023, there are rumbles that he may not be back in 2021 and the team could be tempted to dip into the quarterback draft pool next spring. Parting ways with Ryan could be difficult with the amount of guaranteed money, but his eight interceptions over the last six games and back-to-back losing seasons combined with a new general manager coming and likely a new head coach could spell the end for Ryan’s time in Atlanta.
The 2021 draft class at quarterback is solid, highlighted likely by Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields. But the two quarterbacks playing in this weekend’s SEC Championship game could be intriguing to Atlanta. Mac Jones of Alabama and Kyle Trask of Florida would be available when the Falcons pick in the first round, which is projected to be somewhere between the No.7 and No. 10 selections.
• Christian McCaffrey isn’t expected to play this week, after suffering a quad injury last week that kept him off the field in a loss to the Broncos last Sunday. The NFL’s top paid running back and leader in yards from scrimmage in 2019 has already missed 10 of 13 games so far in 2020.
Matt Rhule said he does not think Christian McCaffrey will play Saturday night against Green Bay. He said that could change if he’s able to practice Wednesday but that right now he does not expect the RB to play.
• Despite being a disappointing 4-9 in is first season at the helm as the head coach of the Panthers, Rhule said he wants to win as many times as he can over the next three weeks to help build momentum into 2021.
“I’m going to go try to win the last three games, so I’m going to put the guys that earned the right to start or play in,” Rhule said. “I just don’t think it’s a great message to the team to start making this a tryout. The question earlier about how to keep guys’ eyes from glossing over, if we learn one thing this year with a young team, if we learn how to finish a season with 28 days of focus in December, if we have a chance to be a playoff team next year, our ability to focus around Christmas, to focus around Thanksgiving, to go win games at the end of the year when you’re beat up, when practices are shorter, that’s a skill.
“Who can be great at the end of the season when you’re dealing with all these things? How do you handle making sure you have a Christmas present for your wife and also making sure you know the third-down game plan? I’m dead serious. It’s the ability to eliminate distractions and stay focused.”
New Orleans Saints
• The Saints are human after all. After not missing a beat in two years without Drew Brees under center, New Orleans was shocked by a struggling Eagles team (4-8-1) on Sunday, losing 24-21 at Philadelphia with rookie Jalen Hurts starting in place of Carson Wentz. The Saints went 5-0 last season with Teddy Bridgewater and were undefeated with Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston under center this year until Sunday.
Many in the Saints organization feel Brees is close to a return but New Orleans doesn’t want to rush their future Hall of Famer back too soon with the playoffs coming up. Head coach Sean Payton was asked about Brees’ status this week.
Saints coach Sean Payton asked if Drew Brees could return to practice this week: “We’ll see.”
• Hurts got his first carer NFL start against the Saints and sparked an Eagles offense that rushed for over 250 yards on the day. Payton talked about where things went wrong.
“I felt like [Hurts] played well. He played exceptionally well,” Payton said. “He hurt us. We’ll take a look at the tape. Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job of slowing [Hurts] down. When a team rushes for 250 yards, not a lot of good can happen. I’ll say this — he was impressive just watching him. I thought he played with poise, made some throws, and was smart. He did a good job.”
• The Saints are still clearly in the driver’s seat to win the NFC South and would have to lose their last three games and the Bucs would have to win their last three games for Tampa Bay to take the division title. New Orleans will face the Chiefs this weekend and also have games with the Vikings and Panthers to close out the regular season.