Key 1: Continue Running Game Momentum
After waking from a six-quarter slumber, the Buccaneers running game finally snapped out of it's funk in the second half in Minnesota. LeGarrette Blount’s 27-yard, third-quarter touchdown run was the pot hitting the kitchen floor that seemed to jolt the Buccaneers from their running game nightmare. With the running game a legitimate threat again, Tampa Bay was able to keep the Vikings defense somewhat off balance, and it opened up the play-action passing game.
Plain and simple; the Tampa Bay offense works only when the team establishes a running game. Safeties sneak up, linebackers hesitate when dropping in coverage and defensive linemen can no longer pin their ears back and rush with reckless abandon.
But maybe the most important factor the running game brings is confidence. There is something primal about beating an opponent physically that can’t be duplicated by the passing game. A bruising 20-yard run can juice a sideline even more than an 80-yard bomb completion.
The Falcons can be run on, as they surrendered 132 yards on the ground to the Eagles last Sunday night. But Greg Olson and crew must stick with the game plan if things don’t go well initially. If Blount gets 20 touches, it greatly enhances the chance of a Tampa Bay victory.
Key 2: Don't Let Tony Gonzalez Beat You
Future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez is coming off a seven-catch, 83-yard, two TD performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in Sunday night’s win, and while much of the talk has been about keeping Roddy White in check, Gonzalez seems to always be productive when playing Tampa Bay. The sure-handed tight end amassed 11 catches for 110 yards in 2010, 12 catches for 113 yards in 2009 and seven catches for 62 yards in one meeting after trade in 2008, averaging six catches for 57 yards per game against the Bucs).
Somewhat surprisingly Tampa Bay has managed to keep Gonzalez out of the end zone in their meetings with the Falcons, and it looks like veteran cornerback Ronde Barber will draw the short straw and be the lucky one who will match up with the All-Pro tight end and try to keep the non-touchdown streak alive.
Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris mentioned Gonzalez this past week during a couple of his press conferences and knows how important it will be slow him down. With Barber on Gonzalez and Aqib Talib more than likely shadowing Roddy White Sunday, E.J. Biggers, Myron Lewis and Elbert Mack will be left to battle rookie wide receiver Julio Jones. The former Alabama star is the Falcons vertical threat and his size and speed poses a challenge for Tampa Bay’s corners for whoever gets the assignment.
Key 3: Finally Get A Sack From The Front Four
If Atlanta has a chink in their armor it is in the offensive line. Center Todd McClure missed the Eagles game last week and left tackle Sam Baker struggled with Philadelphia’s Trent Cole. Cole dominated Baker collecting one sack, four tackles for loss and two hits on Matt Ryan. While Adrian Clayborn is no Cole at this point, the success of the Eagles' stud pass rusher should give the Buccaneers’ defensive line a glimmer of hope that this group might pick up their first sack of the season.
The Eagles collected five sacks at Atlanta last Sunday night, but could have had nearly that many more, as Ryan was constantly harassed throughout the game. Add in the fact Ryan likes to get big pass plays, it means he drops deeper than Matthew Stafford or Donovan McNabb, which if the secondary can play tight coverage should result in more time for the Buccaneers’ defensive line to get penetration.
I spoke with Adrian Clayborn this week in the locker room and he agreed that he and his defensive line should have a better chance to rush the passer and get the unit’s first sack but he added they can’t allow Michael Turner to get loose, and they must not forget about the Falcon’s running abilities.
Key 4: Score A First Quarter Touchdown On Offense
Futility isn’t even the proper word to describe the Buccaneers’ efforts to score more than seven first-quarter points. Bad play, bad schemes or maybe just bad luck, whatever the reason, Tampa Bay has been unable to generate enough offense to stake their defense any kind of lead over the last 56 games.
Fortunately for Raheem Morris, quarterback Josh Freeman is a master at late-game heroics and has led his team to eight come-from-behind wins since taking over midway through the 2009 season.
I, along with every coach, player and fan would love to see how this team plays after jumping ahead early in the first quarter. What would Tampa Bay’s pass rush look like then? Does Greg Olson keep pounding the ball with Blount or does he stay aggressive and try and pile up points? These are questions we may never know, especially if we are going by recent history.
The Buccaneers aren’t a quick-strike, chuck-it-down the field type offense, so I seriously doubt we will see any 21-0 first quarter leads in the near future. But is it too much to ask for that the offense puts at least 10 points up before the first quarter end?
Hopefully this is the week the streak ends. And if so, it will go a long way in ensuring Tampa Bay’s second win and at least a share of the NFC South lead.
Key 5: Use Koenen As A Weapon
Through the first two games of the 2011 season, punter and kickoff specialist Michael Koenen looks like the steal of this year’s free agency period. With booming kickoffs and punts and above average hang time, Koenen has silenced most critics who questioned general manager Mark Dominik’s decision to sign him to a 6-year, $19-million contract.
Buccaneers fans, coaches and players all remember the December Falcons game in which after scoring an early fourth-quarter touchdown, Tampa Bay had a 10-point lead and all the momentum. But on the ensuing kickoff, Eric Weems took Conner Barth’s kick back 102 yards and sucked the air from Raymond James Stadium. The Falcons ended up with the win and the Buccaneers were home watching the Packers march to Dallas and then a Super Bowl title.
Special team’s coach Dwayne Stukes was quick to point out there were four missed tackles on that run back but did acknowledge that had Koenen been a part of that team, the entire 2010 season may have been rewritten.
Koenen is a part of this team now, and must continue to do what he has done over the first two games, including allowing an NFL-best 8.5 yards per kickoff return. And if the Buccaneers do go three-and-out, they need their golden-footed, $19 million dollar punter to boom one deep. The Buccaneers won't win Sunday if the Falcons have many short fields to work with.
Cook’s Final Analysis: Until Tampa Bay can get over the hump and beat the Atlanta Falcons I agree with Raheem Morris who said this week that it can't be called a rivalry. Atlanta appears to be slightly ahead of the Buccaneers in most aspects of their team and because of that, I believe the Falcons make it six in a row in a tight game similar to the last five meetings.
Cook’s Prediction: Falcons 24, Buccaneers 21