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Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Playing for pride: Bucs, Falcons try to avoid cellar

ATLANTA — When the 2013 NFL season began seven weeks ago, the Buccaneers and Falcons had 17 Pro Bowlers between them — enough to field a team with an all-star caliber player at virtually every position.

Since then, the Bucs and Falcons have combined to win one of 10 games.

In his 15th season in the NFL and sixth in Atlanta, Falcons coach Mike Smith long ago reached the point where nothing that happens in this league surprises him.

But that combined 1-9 record should.

Coming off a 13-3 regular season, an NFC South Division title and a trip to the NFC championship game, the Falcons were chosen by many to at least match, if not better, their 2012 success.

The Bucs started the year with similar expectations. No one had them winning the NFC South, but after they added two Pro Bowlers to the secondary, many expected them to improve on their 7-9 finish a year ago and contend for a playoff berth.

But as the Bucs and Falcons prepare to face one another today at the Georgia Dome, the playoffs are one of the furthest things from the players' and coaches' minds.

“Right now we're just taking things one day at a time, one game at a time and trying to prepare ourselves during the course of the week so that we can have a chance to play well on Sunday,'' Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said.

So, how did it get to this point? The Bucs and Falcons will tell you there are a multitude of reasons for their early-season struggles. And, as odd as it might seem, both teams have many of the same problems.

Let's start with scoring points. The Bucs, who have not scored an offensive touchdown in the second half of a game this year, are last in the league in that critical department with a paltry 64 points.

The Falcons have been nearly twice as proficient as the Bucs. But after ranking seventh in the league with 419 points a year ago, they go into today's game ranked a disappointing 19th with 122.

“I think we've moved the ball pretty well and done some good things,'' Ryan said of the Falcons' offense. “But we haven't put up the points we need to put up. We've got to find a way to do better with that.''

Being better in the red zone might do the trick. The Falcons have reached the red zone 23 times this year, more than any team in the league except Denver, which has reached the opponent's 20-yard line 28 times.

But after ranking fifth in red-zone efficiency through five games last year, the Falcons have scored only 11 red-zone touchdowns this year, for a 47.8 percentage that ranks 24th.

Even the Bucs have had more red-zone success. Their red-zone touchdown percentage is 55.6, 12th best in the league, which seems impressive until you realize it's based on five touchdowns in a league-worst nine red-zone possessions.

“The word that sums it all up for us is inconsistent,'' Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. “Overall as a group, we've played well at times and we've played not well at times. That may sound like a wishy-washy answer, but it's the truth.''

Here's another truth. In a league in which turnovers often decide games, the Bucs and Falcons have failed to take the ball away from their opponents more than they've given it up.

The Bucs enter today's game tied for 16th in the league with a zero turnover ratio (nine takeaways, nine giveaways), while the Falcons are ranked 25th with a minus-two ratio (four takeaways, six giveaways).

And both teams have had trouble finishing games. Each lost three games in the final two minutes this year, and their matching inabilities to score in the fourth quarter is a big part of that.

The Bucs have been outscored 35-13 in the fourth quarter, when their only touchdown came on an 85-yard Mason Foster interception return. The Falcons have been outscored 51-37 in the final 15 minutes of play.

“They're a lot like us,'' Bucs Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said of the Falcons. “They're just not pulling games out in the end. They're not getting blown out. They're just having issues finishing — the same issues we're having. So (today's) game is probably going to come down to who finishes best.''

Or it might come down to who runs the ball best. That has been an issue for both teams, as well, with the Bucs ranking 20th in the league in rushing, while the Falcons rank 26th.

Of course, injuries might have something to do with those rankings. The absence of Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks, who will miss his fourth game of the year because of a MRSA infection, has caused the Bucs to rework their offensive line. That seems to have limited the line's ability to open holes for second-year Pro Bowl back Doug Martin, who has run 116 times for 409 yards, or 3.5 yards per carry.

The Falcons, meanwhile, have been without Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson, who missed the previous three games with a hamstring injury. That Atlanta lost each of those shouldn't come as a surprise.

When the Falcons lost the NFC title game to the 49ers in January, it was largely because their running game, then led by Michael Turner, was limited to 81 yards on 23 carries, a 3.5-yard average.

With Jackson out, the Falcons have relied mostly on Jacquizz Rodgers, but Rodgers has averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and that has made life harder on Ryan and the passing game.

“We've been inconsistent with our special teams, too,'' Smith said. “We had a blocked punt in one game that was costly and we fumbled a return, so we've all contributed to it. And we haven't done a good job coaching.''

The same has been said of the Bucs. Schiano has said repeatedly that, “It's not just one area'' that is breaking down and has pinned a lot of that on himself and his staff. But the players aren't buying it.

From McCoy to left tackle Donald Penn, Bucs players say the 0-5 start, surprising or not, is on them. They also believe the responsibility for turning the season around is on them.

“It's up to us to get it fixed,'' Penn said. “And we're plugging away every day trying to do that. So, this is going to be a clash of two teams trying to dig their way out of a hole.

“And I think it's going to be a good matchup. But if you had asked me at the beginning of the year or even after Week 1 or Week 2 or Week 3 that this is what it would be, I would have said no way. I didn't expect this at all.''

Neither did anyone else.


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