One realistic way the Bucs could mirror the Super Bowl-bound Falcons in 2017

The Falcons claimed receiver Taylor Gabriel a week before the season started. He gained 16.4 yards per catch this season, seventh most in the NFL. [Associated Press]
The Falcons claimed receiver Taylor Gabriel a week before the season started. He gained 16.4 yards per catch this season, seventh most in the NFL. [Associated Press]
Published January 30 2017
Updated February 1 2017

Taylor Gabriel raced to the pylon and then angled to the middle of the field. As he crossed the 25, he looked back at Matt Ryan.

The ball was in the air.

Nearing the goal line, Gabriel extended his arms, secured the pass and fell into the end zone like a golf ball into a cup.

Touchdown.

Four days later, Gabriel charged toward Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes. Twenty yards into his route, he cut to the sideline. Grimes slipped, allowing Gabriel to separate and make the 26-yard catch. He went on to cap the drive with a 9-yard rushing touchdown off a jet sweep.

Taylor Gabriel. Blink, and you might miss him.

The Browns certainly do. They released him Sept. 3.

The Falcons claimed him the next day, and his exceptional speed has helped elevate the offense from dangerous to flat-out unstoppable. Atlanta scored 540 points this season, by far the most in the NFL and 200 more than it scored last season.

No wonder the Falcons are playing the Patriots in Super Bowl LI on Sunday.

How do you game plan for them?

You don't. You grab a paper bag and breathe into it a half dozen times.

The key to their offensive surge: a league-high 150 explosive plays. Passes of at least 16 yards. Runs of at least 12 yards. Plays that instantly flip the field and — most of the time — lead to points. On 82.6 percent of the Falcons' scoring drives, they executed at least one explosive play.

There's no official definition for explosive plays. The standard we are using here is Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter's.

So how about the Bucs?

They executed 139 explosive plays in 2015, tied with the Cardinals for most in the league. In 2016, though, a fifth of those plays vanished like Russian dissidents. Poof!

Only the Giants, Rams and Vikings experienced larger drops.

There's no shortage of explanations: Injuries to Vincent Jackson, Doug Martin, Charles Sims and Cecil Shorts. An offensive line that didn't push around defenders as much as expected. Blame an ineffective ground game. All had an impact; Tampa Bay executed 12 fewer explosive passes and 17 fewer explosive runs.

Reversing that decline might be the Bucs' ticket to next January's tournament. Of the eight teams to make the largest gains in explosive plays this season, five reached the playoffs, including the Falcons.

Largest increase in explosive plays, 2016

TeamPercent increaseRecord
1. Bears29.33-13
2. Falcons*27.111-5
3. Colts25.88-8
4. Washington23.68-7-1
5. Steelers*23.611-5
6. Seahawks*21.210-5-1
7. Cowboys*18.913-3
8. Patriots*13.314-2
9. Saints8.67-9
10. Titans8.59-7
29. Bucs-20.99-7
*playoff team

Yes, it's tempting to look at a Super Bowl contestant, play general manager and think with a move here or a decision there that another team could follow a similar path.

The Bucs truly could. They're a season removed from leading the league in explosive plays, and their core — Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Cameron Brate, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet — remains.

In 2014, the Falcons featured one of the NFL's better pass offenses. In 2015 — offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's first season in Atlanta — they cratered. Ryan, uncomfortable in the play-action and rollout-heavy system, threw the second-fewest touchdowns and second-most interceptions in his career.

He bounced back this season and built a convincing case for MVP. You can attribute some of that success to his embrace of Shanahan's offense. Whatever differences existed between the two, they "worked it out over a couple of beers," Ryan recently told NFL.com's Michael Silver.

But there's more. The Falcons solidified their offensive line by signing center Alex Mack. They replaced Roddy White with Mohamed Sanu. They plucked Gabriel off the waiver wire a week before the season opener.

Gabriel's 16.4 yards per reception trailed only six receivers. One of those receivers: teammate Julio Jones (16.9 yards per reception).

Armed with two supremely efficient weapons, Ryan not only cut his interception rate in half but also became one of the league's better deep passers.

Winston regressed in both areas. His overall interception rate of 3.2 percent ranked fourth highest. On deep passes, it jumped to 8.7 percent, more than five times higher than his 2015 rate.

The Bucs don't need an overhaul on offense. In Winston and Evans, they have their answer to Ryan and Jones.

Still to do: Bolster the offensive line, settle on a dynamic running back and acquire a receiver who — like Gabriel — can blow the top off defenses.

Even if Tampa Bay fills those needs, the offense's production hinges on Winston's decision-making and execution. Sometimes a player's greatest strength can be his understanding of his limitations. You can't lead an explosive offense if the other team has the ball.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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