With NFC South rival Atlanta coming to town this Sunday, the Buccaneers defensive backfield is tasked with facing an opponent viewed as being as potent on the ground as it can be through the air.
Week 1 predominantly featured the challenges of Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions’ passing attack. In Week 2, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was game-prep focus No. 1.
Now it’s time to welcome the familiar faces of running back Michael Turner, quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Roddy White, tight end Tony Gonzalez to Raymond James Stadium for Week 3. Joining that crew of offensive weapons is first-round draft pick, wide receiver Julio Jones.
“Yeah, it’s a big challenge,” said Tampa Bay defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake. “They’re a good football team and they’ve got a lot of weapons – they can run the football, they can throw the football. They have times where they’re just going to want to beat you up and hand the ball off to Turner and then they’re going to have times where Matt Ryan’s going to want to throw it and show off that arm and show off his weapons he has outside. They’re definitely a tough, tough objective to overcome.”
Through two weeks, Atlanta [1-1] comes into Tampa Bay ranked 17th overall in terms of total yardage per game , 21st in passing  and ninth in rushing . The Falcons went to the air 47 times out of 61 total plays in Week 1’s loss at Chicago, but that ratio was likely skewed because of being down 16-3 at halftime and 30-6 entering the fourth quarter. Although down 31-21 with a quarter left to play last Sunday night against Philadelphia – a game Atlanta eventually won 35-31 – the Falcons displayed more balance: 29 rushing attempts to 28 passing attempts.
Dealing with Atlanta's offensive options will be a Bucs defense that, statistically speaking, has not exactly been stout up to this point. Tampa Bay ranks 28th in total defense [414.5 yards per game], 19th in passing defense [258.5] and 31st in rushing defense .
Lake, cornerback Aqib Talib and free safety Cody Grimm each separately acknowledged the multiple threats last year’s division champs present, but Talib said Wednesday he isn’t concerned with what offensive element – run or pass – the Falcons ultimately try to lean on Sunday afternoon.
“Don’t matter how they come in, really,” the fourth-year corner said. “We’re going to come in, play our rules ball and we’ll be straight. We’re just as good. They didn’t come out and beat us too bad [last year].”
Those pair of 2010 losses to Atlanta came in Week 9 in the Georgia Dome [27-21] and Week 13 in Tampa Bay [28-24].
“It comes down to the fourth quarter [and] situational football,” said Talib, whose 2010 season ended during the Week 13 loss after suffering a hip injury. “We do a couple things differently in those games; we come out with two victories last year. But like I said before, this ain’t last year. Two different teams are going to come out and see what’s up.”
Talib and fellow corner Ronde Barber will act as the first line of defense against White [17 targets and 11 catches for 84 yards and one touchdown] and Jones [14 targets and seven catches for 100 yards and no scores]. Likely future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez [16 targets and 12 catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns] completes the three-headed aerial attack.
As for who’s assigned to who on the outside edges Sunday, neither Lake nor Talib confirmed that detail. “They’ve got Julio, they’ve got Roddy, so you guys will see at 4:15 on Sunday which one [Talib] called out,” Lake said, referencing Talib’s game-week fondness for speaking out about who he’s to be locked in on.
White, the Falcons' seventh-year former first-round draft pick, has plenty of head-to-head experience with Talib and said during a conference call Wednesday that the matchup is one he looks forward to. "Your respect every guy you go against week in and week out. Anytime you get a guy that's as competitive as he is and as competitive as I am, it's going to be a battle. You get yourself geared up and ready to go for games like this."
From Lake’s perspective, Jones has stepped straight into Atlanta’s offensive scheme after the team cut ties with former WR Michael Jenkins. “They had Jenkins line up in a tight end position to kind of try to mess you up [with your formations]. Well, you bring in Julio Jones, he’s about 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, and they really use him in the same mold. They put him in, they kind of line him up at a tight end position and try to mess up your close calls. He’s a big receiver, and they run the skinny post to a big wideout. It’s an easy ball for Matt Ryan to complete. So really, he’s stepped in for Jenkins and he’s obviously a very talented receiver.”
Other than who Talib and Barber will primarily line up across from, another question circulating the halls of One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday afternoon was in regard to indefinitely suspended free safety Tanard Jackson. The fifth-year DB out of Syracuse was suspended last September for running afoul of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, but becomes eligible to apply for reinstatement tomorrow.
When asked of Jackson’s status, head coach Raheem Morris declined to comment, simply saying, “I would love to talk to you about the Atlanta Falcons, to be honest with you.”
Morris, along with Lake and Talib, did offer to speak about the man currently standing in as the Bucs’ free safety, Grimm, and how the second-year pro’s developing.
“Cody’s going back out there again,” Morris said. “Last year he took this game his first time; had a big play given up on him. Everybody was looking to blame Cody Grimm, pointing fingers, and he did nothing but respond. Since that time he’s become Mr. Reliable.”
“His instincts and his toughness,” Lake said about Grimm when asked of what he brings to the secondary. “He’s one of the tougher guys I’ve been around. Ronde Barber is number one and Cody’s right there now. He’s a tough, tough football player. He’s instinctive and I’ll take that everyday rather than somebody who looks like a football player.”
“Cody got a lot of the right kind of experience you need, which is game experience,” Talib said. “He got a lot of that last year. There ain’t no Pampers, ain’t no more babying now, he’s Cody Grimm, starting free safety for the Bucs.”
Even White got in on the action speaking about what he sees in Tampa Bay's young free safety.
“Oh man, he’s always in the right position. Smart, intelligent guy and he knows the defense, moves around back there pretty good. He’s kind of like the guy that puts them together on the back end. He knows what he’s doing back there. You just never see the guy out of position and guys like that you can always count on. I think he’s doing a good job of that and he’s tackling well, too. He’s going to continue to get better so anytime you have a guy like that back there, you’re pretty much sound on your back end.”
Grimm and SS Sean Jones, who finished third and second, respectively, in total tackles last week at Minnesota, will again be expected to play a large role in containing Turner from breaking off big runs. Turner [107 yards per game] is averaging 6.9 yards per carry and has already gotten loose for runs of 53 [against Chicago] and 61 [against Philadelphia]. Faced with another game-changing running back last week in Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Morris said his safety tandem stepped up to the challenge.
“We call those guys back there the wolves after that performance last week,” the head coach said. “It’s kind of like Pulp Fiction – if you’ve got to clean up a mess, you call ‘The Wolf.’ They sent the wolf and I was excited. We missed some run gaps on Adrian Peterson, missed some tackles, and the wolves just didn’t let him break out to 60-yard touchdown runs. They sawed them down in the middle of the field, got them on the grass and gave us another opportunity to get the ball back for Free.”
Lake, who said Jones’ performance against the Vikings was “probably his most productive game since he’s been a Tampa Bay Buccaneer,” added that Talib has begun to become a positive factor against the run, as well.
“He’s doing a great job with run support. That was one of his problems with a couple years ago and really last year into this year, he’s been one of our better run-support corners.”
If Atlanta decides to come out with a run-heavy approach, Talib said he and the rest of the secondary is ready. “They’re ain’t no chumps in this secondary. We’re about that task. If Rah [Morris] wants to put it on us, we’ll take it."