FLOWERY BRANCH —
One of the Falcons’ major offseason projects is paying dividends on defense.
The Falcons poorly covered tight ends last season and needed to improve. When not in zone coverage, the Falcons have turned to lanky and athletic linebacker De’Vondre Campbell to aid strong safety Keanu Neal in different coverage packages.
Campbell will have another challenge when the Falcons (6-4) play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-6) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in an important NFC South contest.
The Bucs have started two tight ends in their past two games in Cameron Brate and emerging rookie O.J. Howard.
“Let’s face it, we didn’t cover tight ends very well last year,” said Campbell, who’s 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. “ I took it upon myself to change that.”
In 2016, the Falcons’ opposition targeted the tight end 144 times. They had 87 completions for 998 yards and eight touchdowns, which ranked 25th, 24th and 26th in the league.
Through 10 games in 2017, the opposition has targeted tight ends 79 times. The opponents have 49 receptions for 505 yards and just two touchdowns, which ranks 21st, 16th and fourth in the league.
Campbell, who was a fourth-round pick out of Minnesota in 2016, has been part of the improvement.
“That’s a part of Dre that, in my opinion, has had a big tick (upward) this year in terms of his ability to guard tight ends man-to-man,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “ He did it some last year, for sure, but his awareness, his ability to do that more has been a real factor.”
Campbell’s versatility — he also rushes the passer at times and blitzes from either the weakside or strongside spots — allows the Falcons to disguise their coverages of tight ends.
“When you play a guy like (Seattle’s Jimmy) Graham it’s not just one guy’s job where he’s going to play that for the (entire) day,” Quinn said. “You’d better have a couple guys who are up for the task who can do that. Fortunately for us, we’re in that world where we have at least two players that have that kind of size and length that are able to guard the bigger, longer receiving type players.”
Campbell played against players with a combined 14 trips to the Pro Bowl (Dallas’ Jason Witten 10, Graham four) in his past two games. He plans to be ready for the athletic Howard, who’s 6-5, 250, and the crafty Brate, who’s 6-5 235.
“It’s a challenge every week,” Cambpell said. “I think I’ve been prepared for it the past couple of weeks going against a couple of really good Hall of Famers, potentially. So, O.J. Howard is really good. He’s young and fast. He’s a physical specimen. Brate is really underrated. He doesn’t get a lot of credit. They both are good football players. It’s another good challenge.”
Most observers applauded the Bucs’ drafting of Howard, the former Alabama star, with the 19th pick in the NFL draft. But so far, his play has been underwhelming.
Howard has 17 catches for 279 yards and four touchdowns, including a 58-yarder. He had a big game against Buffalo, when he caught six passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
Howard caught three of four targets for 52 yards and a touchdown in the Bucs 30-20 win over the Dolphins last Sunday. He wasn’t targeted the previous week in a win over the N.J. Jets.
Brate, a four-year veteran from Harvard, is good at beating jams at the line of scrimmage. He had 405 yards and four touchdowns over the Bucs’ first seven games.
Brates had just one catch in each of the past two games.
The Bucs’ third tight end, Luke Stocker, also has a touchdown, but he was inactive last week against the Dolphins.
“Our first-round pick, O.J. Howard has definitely shown … he’s doing fine,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. “He’s made some spectacular plays. He’s learning the difference between college football and pro football. Above average rookie progression, and he’s loaded with talent. He’s going to be a really good player.”
Buffalo’s Charles Clay had five catches for 112 yards against the Falcons in a 23-17 loss Oct. 1.
Graham has seven catches for 58 yards and a touchdown in the Falcons’ 34-31 win over Seattle. Witten had seven catches for 59 yards in the 27-7 win over Dallas.
Campbell said better technique and studying tight ends’ strengths and weaknesses has been key to the improvement.