REPORT CARD: Offense is top-shelf, defense has strides to make

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (18) runs past Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Brent Grimes, right, for a 9-yard touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game in Tampa, Fla., Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (18) runs past Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Brent Grimes, right, for a 9-yard touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game in Tampa, Fla., Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

TAMPA — The Falcons blew the game open by scoring on three consecutive drives in the second half on  the way to a 43-28 thrashing of the Buccaneers on Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium.

After a bumpy start, quarterback Matt Ryan caught fire and shredded the Bucs’ secondary.

The defense stood firm for a couple of series and that was all that was needed to give the offense time to turn a 20-14 game into a 40-14 rout.

Here are the grades:

Game balls: Quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Taylor Gabriel.

Quarterbacks, A-plus. Matt Ryan was magical as he completed 25 of 34 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns to four different receivers. He completed passes to seven different receivers before being replaced by backup Matt Schaub. He had a season-high passer rating of 144.7. Schaub just had to kneel down twice in some mop-up duty. The Falcons offense recorded 461 total yards, which was the third-highest of the season and the fourth time they’ve recorded 400-plus yards in 2016. The offense also went 6-of-10 on third downs. Their 60-percent third down conversion percentage was also the second-highest of the season. Ryan now has 23 passing touchdowns, which is two more than he had all last season.

Running backs, B.  Devonta Freeman churned out 77 yards on 17 carries for a strong 4.5 yards per carry average. The dependable Terron Ward had eight rushes for 30 yards and Stevan Ridley made his debut for the Falcons with three carries for 7 yards.  Tevin Coleman is expected back against the Eagles next week. Overall, the Falcons rushed 34 times for 136 yards and 4.0 yards per carry average. The Bucs held the Falcons’ running backs to 42 yards on 19 carries in the season-opening loss. With the running game as a threat, Ryan was able to used play-action to find his wide open receivers in the second half.

Wide receivers/tight ends, B-plus.  With the Falcons looking for a spark, they turned to All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones and he delivered against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Falcons held a 20-14 halftime lead, but had the ball to open the second half. On third-and-5 at Atlanta’s 35, Ryan threw a low strike to Jones, who went down and dug out the pass for an 11-yard gain. The Bucs challenged the play, but the catch was upheld and that seemed to ignite the Falcons. Ryan went back to Jones on the next three plays for gains of 21, 16 and 11 yards to move the ball down to Tampa Bay’s 8-yard line. Five plays later, Ryan tossed a one-yard touchdown pass to fullback Pat Dimarco and the fuse was lit. “It felt great,” Jones said about sparking the offense. “The talent that we have out there. Any guy can take over at any moment.” Gabriel caught five passes for 52 yards, he ran the ball twice on jet sweeps and scored on a 9-yard run to give the Falcons a 20-14 lead with 3:56 left in the second quarter. Tight ends Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper both caught touchdown passes. Tight end Joshua Perkins had a TD pass, but dropped it.

Offensive line, A-minus. The offensive line had a strong day in the run game, but gave up two sacks and eight quarterback hits against the Bucs.

Defensive line, B.   Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett led the way with two sacks. Adrian Clayborn also added a sack. With the three sacks, the Falcons have 21 on the season, surpassing last season’s total of 19, which was last in the league. In addition to the three sacks, the Falcons had eight quarterback hits. In the season opening 31-24 loss to the Bucs, the Falcons didn’t record a sack and had six quarterback hits. “It felt good getting pressure, most definitely,” Jarrett said. “(That was) one of our objectives as a unit. We got that done.” The Falcons have recorded 17 sacks over the past four games. “We’re just kind of finding our stride working as a whole versus working as four different individuals,” Jarrett said.

Linebackers, B: Rookie De’Vondre Campbell led the Falcons in tackles with nine, including a forced fumble. He’s appears to be healthy again and over his high-ankle sprain that slowed him in previous games. Middle linebacker Deion Jones added six tackles and strongside linebacker Vic Beasley had three tackles and one quarterback hit. The Falcons defense held the Buccaneers to only 73 yards rushing on 3.8 yards per carry. The Falcons defense held the Buccaneers to only 73 yards rushing on 3.8 yards per carry.

Defensive backs, C-plus. Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant, who is in his fourth season, left the game in the second quarter with a left shoulder/pectoral injury and did not return. He’s scheduled to have a MRI on Friday. Players believe he may miss the next game against Philadelphia and cold possibly return after the bye week.  He was battling Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans early in the game. With Trufant out, second-year cornerback Jalen Collins entered the game and played well. Also, cornerback Robert Alford had a rough first half. He was called for his sixth defensive pass interference call of the season and gave up a touchdown catch to Evans. Alford contended that Evans pushed off on the play. Collins, who has been working his way back into the lineup after missing the first four games of the season because of a suspension for using performance enhancement drugs, had a nice break-up of a pass intended for Bucs wide receiver Cecil Shorts on third-and-2 on their first possession of the third quarter. He also put a big hit on Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston that knocked him out of the game.

Special teams, A.  Kicker Matt Bryant made field goals from 29, 41 and 50 yards. Matt Bosher had a partial night off. He never had to punt, but he still had to complete his kickoff duties. He booted the ball deep into the end zone for nine touchbacks. Returner Eric Weems averaged 27 yards on two punt returns.

Coaching, B-plus. The coaches would have received an A if the defense didn’t let the Bucs score two late meaningless touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, nine games into the season, continues to come up with wrinkles that end up with receivers streaking down the field wide open. He got all three of the tight ends open for touchdowns, but Perkins dropped his opportunity. The defense continues to find a spurt or two to play well. It had to be disappointing to allow the Bucs two late garbage-time touchdowns after opening the 40-14 lead. The Falcons had just six penalties for 34 yards.

NEXT UP: The Falcons (6-3-1) face the Philadelphia Eagles (4-3) at 1 p.m. on Nov. 13 at Lincoln Financial Field. With Thursday night game out of the way, the Falcons will get a chance to television-scout the Eagles who play the New York Giants (4-3) on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The Falcons defeated the Eagles last season, but they are working under first-year coach Doug Pederson and the roster has been overhauled.

GAME NINE: Falcons 43, Buccaneers 28

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GAME SEVEN: Chargers 33, Falcons 30 in OT

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GAME SIX: Seahawks 26, Falcons 24

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GAME FIVE: Falcons 23, Broncos 16

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GAME FOUR: Falcons 48, Panthers 33

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GAME THREE: Falcons 45, Saints 32

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GAME TWO: Falcons 35, Raiders 28

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GAME ONE: Buccaneers 31, Falcons 24

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