TAMPA — A month into the season, if you had the Bucs playing the Atlanta Falcons Sunday for the undisputed share of first place in the NFC South, congratulations.
As Atlanta head coach Arthur Smith said a couple of weeks ago, most people already had written the Falcons’ obituary. But their season has a pulse, and it is the result of a strong running game.
Unfortunately, the Falcons top tailback, Cordarrelle Patterson, went on injured reserve this week. That means a bigger role for Tyler Allgeier, a fifth-round pick from BYU who is coming off his best game as a pro.
He ran for a team-high 84 yards on 10 carries Sunday in Atlanta’s 23-20 win over the Cleveland Browns, including a 42-yarder in the fourth quarter that set up a game-tying field goal.
The Bucs couldn’t stop the run last Sunday in a 41-31 loss to the Chiefs, allowing 189 rushing yards.
This is an important stretch for the Bucs, whose next three opponents — the Falcons (2-2), Steelers (1-3) and Panthers (1-3) — have a combined 4-8 record.
Before the NFL expanded the regular season to 17 games, this would be the end of the first quarter of the season.
Here is a look at how the NFC South race is shaping up.
Atlanta dealt Matt Ryan to the Colts in the offseason, and Marcus Mariota isn’t exactly lighting it up at quarterback.
In fact, Mariota only completed seven passes in 19 attempts for 139 yards and an interception against the Browns.
Patterson had been the Falcons’ biggest weapon, having rushed for 340 yards and three touchdowns for an impressive 5.9 yards per carry average.
In addition to Allgeier, the Falcons signed running back Caleb Huntley from their practice squad. He ripped off 56 yards and a touchdown Sunday. Running back Avery Williams also adder a 21-yard run.
“I think they’ve done a great job,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “Their run schemes are outstanding. Probably one of the tops in the league. Their defense is playing very well. They do a good job keeping you off-balance. Mariota does a good job of running the offense.
“They have a lot of pieces. Obviously, the tight end (Kyle Pitts), is great and they’ve got a first-round receiver (Drake London). They’ve got a lot of pieces and their offensive line is very tough, so they’ve been running the ball on everybody. Considering how they played Sunday, it’s going to be a tough task.”
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Over the next four weeks, the Falcons play the Bucs, San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers.
If you had predicted the Bucs might go .500 after the gantlet of games to start the season — at Dallas, at New Orleans and home vs. the Packers and Chiefs — that sounded about right. But the fact they won both road games and lost twice at home seems odd.
The fact is, the Bucs are struggling to find an identity on offense and defense, which looked elite in the first three games.
They can’t run the football. Leonard Fournette’s 127-yard rushing effort against the Cowboys seems like it happened 100 years ago. They had three net rushing yards vs. the Chiefs.
As Bowles said, the offensive line isn’t moving people.
But even in defeat, maybe the Bucs found something against the Chiefs. Tom Brady had his best game statistically, passing for 385 yards and three touchdowns.
What he does best is throw the football to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. If they can stay on the field for the next three games, the Bucs could go on a run.
Defensively, the Bucs just need to regroup. They only allowed 27 points through the first three games before the Chiefs outplayed them.
“Missed tackles, blocking assignments,” Bowles said. “(The Chiefs) played tougher than us, and they played better than us.”
Eventually, the Bucs need to be able to run the football, and it would help if they could play with lead.
“It’s not where we want to be,” Bowles said. “Obviously, we’ve got to move the line of scrimmage. We’re still working on that, and it’s a work in progress.”
New Orleans was a popular preseason pick to not only win the NFC South, but the conference.
They lost a heartbreaker in London last Sunday to the Vikings when a potential game-tying 61-yard field goal attempt by Will Lutz double-doinked off the upright and then the cross bar and was no good.
Quarterback Jameis Winston missed his first game with a back injury. The Saints may stick with Andy Dalton because he played better.
That’s something to watch.
Even so, their biggest problem is getting healthy. Both running back Alvin Kamara and receiver Michael Thomas didn’t play against the Vikings. Latavius Murray had a strong game in London with 57 yards rushing on 11 carries. Unfortunately, he was signed off the practice squad by the Denver Broncos.
No head-coaching seat in the NFL is hotter than the one belonging to Carolina’s Matt Rhule.
The Panthers’ performance Sunday in a loss to the Cardinals did nothing to douse those flames.
Arizona outgained Carolina in total yards (338-220) and the Panthers converted only 2 of 10 third-down chances.
Is it time to pull Baker Mayfield at quarterback?
Rhule has tried everything and everybody at that position, from Teddy Bridgewater to Sam Darnold.
Panthers fans booed Mayfield relentlessly when he posted his worst passer rating of the season of 75. This despite a decent cast that includes running back Christian McCaffrey and receiver D.J. Moore.
“They want to see good offense and be entertained, and it’s not happening,” Rhule said after the game. “I get it.”
Darnold hasn’t been cleared to play yet, and Rhule has vowed to stick with Mayfield for now.
The next three games are daunting. After hosting the 49ers and traveling to the Rams, they get the Bucs in Charlotte, North Carolina on Oct. 23. By then, they could have a different head coach and quarterback.
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