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BUCS’ OPPONENT: Atlanta Falcons

WHERE: The Georgia Dome

SPREAD: Falcons by 3.5

WHERE THE FALCONS STAND: The Falcons are 6-2 and in first place in the NFC South Division.





OVERALL: 23rd (307.5 ypg)
RUSHING: 28th (91.0 ypg)
PASSING: 17th (216.5 ypg)

OVERALL: 6th (290.6 ypg)
RUSHING: 16th (116.0 ypg)
PASSING: 4th (174.3 ypg)

OVERALL:21st (313.3 ypg)
RUSHING: 3rd (149.6 ypg)
PASSING: 28th (163.6 ypg)

OVERALL:29th (361.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 6th (98.3 ypg)
PASSING: 30th (263.1 ypg)

…Tampa Bay has won six of its past seven meetings with Atlanta?

As usual, Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, who is in the process of digesting the Falcons’ version of the West Coast offense, is giving opposing defenses problems by using his arm and feet to move the chains and score points. Vick has rushed 65 times for 463 yards (7.1 avg.) and one touchdown in eight games. The good news for the Bucs defense, which prides itself on speed, is it has done a good job of containing Vick, who has rushed 19 times for just 49 yards (3.8 avg.) in three games vs. Tampa Bay over the past two years. The bad news is that word out of Atlanta this week had the Falcons using Vick in the shotgun formation in an effort to run some draw and even some option plays.

While he’s effective as a scrambler, Vick is far from perfecting the quarterback position, evidenced by his 58.6 percent completion percentage. Vick’s offensive line, which features left tackle Kevin Shaffer, left guard Roberto Garza, center Todd McClure, right guard Kynan Forney and right tackle Todd Weiner, has allowed 25 sacks through eight games, but some of those quarterback takedowns can be attributed to No. 7’s inability to get rid of the ball in a timely manner. The matchups to watch in the trenches will be Bucs left defensive end Simeon Rice vs. Shaffer and right defensive end Greg Spires vs. Weiner. Both defensive ends and Bucs weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks will be charged with the difficult task of applying pressure on Vick while not allowing him to break containment.

Vick has thrown for 1,390 yards and tossed six touchdowns and six interceptions. His inconsistency as a passer is one of the main reasons why the Falcons are converting just 26.1 percent of their third down attempts this season.

Atlanta offensive coordinator Greg Knapp’s unit is led by the ground attack, which features Vick and running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. Dunn, who is quick back with great hands, has rushed 118 times for 438 yards (3.7 avg.) and seven touchdowns. He’s added 11 receptions for 131 yards. Duckett, who has given defenses, especially ones that are undersized up front like Tampa Bay’s, has used his 6-foot, 253-pound frame to rush for 219 yards (4.7 avg.) and two touchdowns. In their last meeting, Duckett rushed 27 times for 93 yards (3.4 avg.). With the Bucs possibly playing Sunday’s game without under tackle Anthony McFarland, look for Duckett and Dunn to get a plethora of carries.

With wide receivers Peerless Price (21 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns) and Dez White (13 receptions for 171 yards and one touchdown) turning in some inconsistent performances, Vick has relied on tight end Alge Crumpler in the passing game. Crumpler has hauled in a team-leading 31 passes for 441 yards and scored two touchdowns.

Despite switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive scheme during the offseason, the Falcons, who finished the 2003 season ranked dead last in total defense, are ranked near the bottom in that category this season. In fact, the 6-2 Falcons are allowing an average of 20.3 points while scoring an average of 16.1 points per game.

Atlanta’s defensive woes start in the secondary, where the Falcons are allowing opposing offenses to pass for an average of 229.4 yards per game. This bodes well for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, whose offense is pass-oriented and carried by quarterback Brian Griese and wide receiver Michael Clayton.

Although they’re struggling to defend the pass, the Falcons, who are giving up 332 yards per game, should receive some help when rookie cornerback DeAngelo Hall returns to action for this contest. Should Hall return in time for the Bucs’ visit, he’ll be matched up against Clayton, who leads the Pewter Pirates in receptions with 37. Hall’s replacement, Kevin Mathis, has picked off two passes and has six passes defensed. The Falcons’ best cornerback, Aaron Beasley, also has two interceptions. Safeties Bryan Scott and Cory Hall have been suspect against the pass and are liabilities on play-action plays. The Falcons are allowing opponents to convert 37 percent of their third down tries this season.

Atlanta’s front seven has been outstanding this season. The Falcons currently rank in the top five in run defense and are allowing offenses to rush for an average of 102.6 yards per contest. Weakside linebacker Keith Brooking has played a big part in helping to halt opposing teams’ ground attacks. He leads the Falcons in tackles and has notched two interceptions.

The Falcons are producing one heckuva pass rush, and it’s led by left DE Patrick Kerney, who has recorded a team-leading seven sacks. Kerney is solid against the run and in pressuring the quarterback, and he’ll line up against Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker, who unseated Todd Steussie as the team’s starter a few weeks ago.

Bucs left tackle Derrick Deese will also have his work cut out for him. He’ll go up against Falcons RDE Brady Smith, who has notched four sacks and two forced fumbles. Tampa Bay right guard Cosey Coleman will have to be on top of his game as he could face Atlanta under tackle Rod Coleman, who has also recorded four sacks but has been sidelined several weeks with a injury. Tampa Bay’s offensive line will have to give Griese time to throw in order to take advantage of Atlanta’s suspect secondary. Of course, establishing some sort of ground game with running back Michael Pittman will go a long way in helping the Bucs do that.

Falcons kicker Jay Feely has drilled 10-of-11(91 percent) field goal attempts. Five of those attempts have come inside the 29-yard line.

Punter Chris Mohr is averaging 42.5 yards per punt and has landed 12 of his 36 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Falcons cornerback Allen Rossum handles return duties. He is averaging 20.4 yards per kickoff return, which is way off from his previous years’ averages. However, his punt return average, which is 15.4 yards per attempt, is one of the league’s best.

If Tampa Bay has any chance of sneaking back into the NFC South division race, it will have to defeat Atlanta in both meetings this season. Of course, the first one comes this Sunday when the 3-5 Bucs travel to Atlanta to take on the 6-2 Falcons.

The secret to Tampa Bay’s success is no secret at all — contain quarterback Michael Vick and the Bucs will likely down the Falcons on Sunday. Although Atlanta has a new head coach in Jim Mora Jr. and a new offensive scheme, Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will prepare just the same for the scrambling Vick.

The white towel will hit the floor Sunday if the Bucs lose to the Falcons. However, if Tampa Bay can find a way to beat first-place Atlanta, the Bucs’ playoff hopes will be very much alive.

FLYNN’S PICK: Bucs 20 Falcons 10
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