Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Falcons Schedule Preview (Weeks 1-4)

By David Schiele

Atlanta Falcons Training Camp is underway. Expectations are high for Dan Quinn’s squad. However, the Dirty Bird’s 2016 opponents combined for a .555 winning percentage last year, giving them the hardest schedule in the NFL.

DBN Fanatics will be previewing Atlanta’s schedule (four games per article) over the next few days.

Week 1 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sept. 11 / 1 p.m. ET / FOX)

Jameis Winston's forgettable 3rd & 19 Run in Tampa Bay's win last season

This game serves as the final home opener at the Georgia Dome. The Bucs swept Atlanta in 2015 with two close victories (23-20 and 23-19). 

Former Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is now the Tampa Bay head coach after serving as their offensive coordinator last year. Joining Koetter on the sidelines will be former Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who takes over defensive coordinating duties in 2016.

Expect a much improved quarterback in Jameis Winston now that his rookie year is behind him. Winston possesses a strong arm and shows it off in the deep passing game. Wide receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are viable deep threats and will test the Falcons’ secondary. Not to be overlooked is tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who's a reliable weapon over the middle.

Tampa Bay’s offense also features a power running game, headed by running back Doug Martin. The fifth-year veteran ran for 1,402 yards in 2015—second most in the NFL. Martin tallied 166 yards on 48 carries against the Falcons last year.

The Buccaneers defense looks a little different on the outside with Brent Grimes and rookie Vernon Hargreaves becoming the new cornerback tandem. Both men are under 6 feet tall, giving Falcons receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu Sr. the height advantage in this match-up.

Tampa’s defensive front-seven will still be solid with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy as the captain. Linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David return along with newcomer Daryl Smith from Baltimore.

Watch for the game plan Mike Smith employs on his former team as it'll determine who wins this game.

Week 2 @ Oakland Raiders (Sept. 18 / 4:25 p.m. ET / CBS)

The last time the Falcons visited the Raiders, Matt Ryan led his team to a 24-0 spanking over the silver and black. But that was 2008 and both teams have immensely changed since then.

Many consider the Raiders a dark horse in the AFC, with quarterback Derek Carr on the verge on stardom. Running back Latavius Murray and wide receiver Amari Cooper are the weapons surrounding Carr.

Cooper eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in his rookie year of 2015, while Murray finished sixth in rushing with 1,066 yards and six touchdowns. Both will draw heavy attention from the Atlanta defense.

Speaking of Atlanta’s defense...In May 2015, linebacker Bruce Irvin said that he wanted to play for the Falcons. In March 2016, ESPN reported that Irvin would likely sign with the Falcons. In the end, Irvin signed with the Oakland Raiders. Along with Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin should give the Raiders’ pass rush a big boost.

The Raiders also boosted their secondary, drafting strong safety Karl Joseph out of West Virginia and adding former Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson in free agency.

Week 3 @ New Orleans Saints (Sept. 26 / 8:30 p.m. ET / ESPN)

On Sept. 25, 2006, the Saints made their anticipated return to the Super Dome after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans. That night, they beat the Atlanta Falcons 23-3. Many consider that game to be one of the most memorable Monday Night Football moments in NFL history.

On Sept. 26, 2016, the Saints will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their return to the Super Dome with another Monday Night Football game against the Atlanta Falcons.

The Saints swept the Falcons last season and will look for a third straight victory over their fiercest rival. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is 18-5 (16 of the last 18) when playing a primetime game at home. He also has 12 career 300+ yard games on MNF.

The Falcons are 1-5 in primetime and 0-3 on MNF against the Saints since 2008. The odds are heavily stacked against the Falcons come week three.

Week 4 vs. Carolina Panthers (Oct. 2 / 1 p.m. ET / FOX)

The Panthers lost only to the Falcons in the 2015 regular season. Cam Newton and co. seek retribution when they make their final trip to the Georgia Dome in week four.  

Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin returns to the Panthers’ lineup after missing the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL, giving Newton back one of his best outside weapons.

Julio Jones vs Josh Norman was once a point of interest in Falcons-Panthers games. Take note of how Carolina elects to defend Jones now that Norman is in Washington. The rest of the Panthers' defense still presents a difficult challenge.

Coming off of a short week only makes this game tougher for the Dirty Birds.

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