WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. WHERE THE FALCONS STAND: The Falcons are 1-0 and tied with Carolina and New Orleans for first place in the NFC South division. FALCONS HEAD COACH: Mike Smith
FALCONS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Mularkey
FALCONS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Smith FALCONS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Keith Armstrong
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE OVERALL: 10th (352 ypg) RUSHING: 9th (146 ypg) PASSING: 12th (206 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE OVERALL: 28th (438 ypg) RUSHING: 11th (101 ypg) PASSING: 31st (337 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … the Buccaneers have won five of the last seven meetings with the Falcons, who were 1-7 on the road in 2007?
SCOUTING THE FALCONS
Quarterbacks The face of Atlanta's franchise is Matt Ryan, the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Some questioned whether Ryan should have been pick for the Falcons, but that move looked like a good one in Week 1 when the rookie signal caller completed 9-of-13 (69.2 percent) of his passes for 161 yards and tossed a touchdown en route to a 34-31 win over the Lions. The first pass of Ryan's pro career was a 62-yard TD strike to wide receiver Michael Jenkins. While Ryan has already established himself as a leader and capable passer, Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is unlikely to put this game in his hands. Tampa Bay swept Atlanta in two contests last year, and the Bucs had three interceptions in those games. Ryan will have to play turnover-free football in order for the Falcons to escape Raymond James Stadium with a win.
Running Backs The strength of Atlanta's offense is its running game, which is led by Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood. Turner was signed in the offseason and has already delivered on his six-year, $34.5 million contract. In his Falcons debut, the former San Diego Charger broke the franchise single-game rushing record with 220 yards on 22 carries (10.0 avg.) and two touchdowns. Turner has the speed to break off a long run on any given play, evidenced by his two runs of 66 yards vs. the Lions last week.
Norwood is also a strong and speedy runner. He carried the ball 14 times for 93 yards (6.6 avg.) last week and has averaged 6.2 yards per carry throughout his career.
The Falcons have one of the best running back duos in the NFL, but they also have one of the league's best blocking fullbacks in Ovie Mughelli, who was also signed in the offseason. Shedding blocks from Mughelli will be critical for Tampa Bay's front four and linebacking corps, which could be without Derrick Brooks (hamstring).
Tampa Bay allowed Atlanta to rush for just 155 yards total in two meetings last year, but this ground game is much more physical and talented. The Bucs allowed the Saints to rush for 101 yards (3.7 avg.) last week, but the defense allowed runs of 18 and 26 yards. Atlanta will give Tampa Bay a healthy dose of the ground game on Sunday, and the Bucs cannot afford to let Turner and Norwood get loose.
Receivers Atlanta has two former first-round draft picks invested in wide receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. They have underachieved, but the Falcons hope better quarterback play will help both receivers live up to expectations.
White, who is the team's split-end (X) receiver, hauled in 83 passes for 1,202 yards (14.5 avg.) and six touchdowns despite having inconsistent play from the quarterback position in 2007. He likely will be Ryan's primary target in the passing game. While will be covered mostly by Bucs cornerback Phillip Buchanon, who intercepted a pass from QB Drew Brees and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown last week.
Jenkins caught a total of 10 passes vs. the Bucs last year. He was also on the receiving end of Ryan's 62-yard touchdown pass last week. He will be covered mostly by Bucs CB Ronde Barber, who is quite familiar with Jenkins from previous meetings.
The Falcons will use either Lorent Robinson or speedy rookie WR Harry Douglas as the No. 3 receiver. Those situations will call for Bucs rookie CB Aqib Talib to come onto the field. Talib is a tremendous athlete, but he mistimed a jump on a pass last week that resulted in a 39-yard touchdown.
Tight end Ben Harstock doesn't figure to be a huge part of the passing game. He will be used more as a blocker, but has the ability to make plays through the air. Last week, Harstock was on the receiving end of a 17-yard pass from Ryan.
While Atlanta likely will run the ball often vs. Tampa Bay, the Falcons could be tempted to test the Bucs' secondary deep since it allowed the Saints to pass for 343 yards and produce touchdown strikes of 39 and 84 yards last Sunday.
The Falcons could also elect to have Ryan use Turner and Norwood as receivers on screen and swing passes. Saints RB Reggie Bush hauled in eight passes for 112 yards vs. the Bucs, including a 42-yard touchdown that came when 10-time Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks was out of the lineup due to a hamstring injury. Should Brooks not be able to play this Sunday, the Bucs could use Cato June on the weakside and play second-year LB Quincy Black at the strongside linebacker spot. Turner only has 12 career receptions, but Norwood has 42 career grabs.
Offensive Line While there were plenty of changes made to the Atlanta roster during the offseason, its offensive line remains relatively intact. Left tackle Wayne Gandy is the only player that did not return. He has been replaced by rookie first-round draft pick Sam Baker. The rookie will face Bucs second-year defensive end Gaines Adams, who was held in check by Saints LT Jamaal Brown last week. Adams, who notched three of his six regular season sacks vs. the Falcons last year, must get after Ryan when the rookie signal caller drops back to throw. The Bucs' pass rush was lacking last week and must improve.
Atlanta's offensive line is full of maulers, for the most part, which supports the physical running game Falcons head coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey wanted to implement on offense. Two of the starting offensive linemen — left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo — are over 320 pounds, but this group is not as athletic. Blalock and Clabo played integral roles in helping to open massive running lanes for Turner and Norwood last week, so Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan and defensive ends Greg White and Kevin Carter will have to be on top of their game in the trenches. Falcons center Todd McClure likely will help Blalock double team Hovan, which means under tackle Jovan Haye must win his one-on-one matchups with right guard Harvey Dahl.
Defensive Line With quarterback Jeff Garcia questionable for Sunday's game with a sore ankle, and the strength of Tampa Bay's offense being its ground game, expect the Buccaneers to come out pounding the rock quite often vs. the Falcons.
Tampa Bay had quite a bit of success running the ball vs. Atlanta last year, producing 149 and 190 yards rushing, respectively, in two wins.
The Falcons defensive line still features left end Jamaal Anderson, right end John Abraham and under tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who will face rookie right guard Jeremy Zuttah. Newcomer Grady Jackson is 35, but his 6-foot-2, 345-pound frame at nose tackle will make it difficult for Bucs left guard Arron Sears, who struggled with penalties and blocking vs. the Saints last week, and center Jeff Faine to blow him off of the ball. Jackson played a big role in holding the Detroit Lions to just 62 yards rushing last week.
Anderson, a 2007 first-round draft pick, did not record a sack in his rookie season, and he's still looking for his first quarterback takedown. He'll face Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who was inconsistent vs. the Saints last week.
The player the Bucs will have to account for is Abraham, who notched 10 sacks in 2007 and recorded three quarterback takedowns on Lions QB Jon Kitna last week. Tampa Bay left tackle Donald Penn did not fare well vs. New Orleans RE Will Smith, and he'll have his hands full with Abraham on Sunday. Penn must do a better job of protecting the blindside of the Garcia or QB Brian Griese.
Linebackers Atlanta's linebackers might be considered a strength of the team now. Strongside linebacker Michael Boley notched a career-high 109 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions in 2007. He was one of the team's best defensive players in '07 and is looking to impress in a contract year.
Five-time Pro Bowl LB Keith Brooking has been moved back to the weakside spot, which bodes well for Falcons since it is his more natural position. Brooking is solid against the run, but he's also dangerous in coverage, where he's notched 12 career interceptions. Brooking likely will find himself matched up with former teammate and current Bucs RB Warrick Dunn, whom head coach Jon Gruden likes to use as a runner, blocker and pass catcher.
One of the biggest surprises for the Falcons has been rookie middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Atlanta invested a second-round draft pick in Lofton back in April, and he has already worked his way into the starting rotation. However, Tampa Bay likely will attempt to test the rookie with RB Earnest Graham and Dunn, who combined for 20 carries for 145 yards rushing (7.2 avg.) last week. In addition to Dunn and Graham, tight ends Alex Smith, Ben Troupe and John Gilmore could also be called on to test Lofton's coverage skills in the passing game.
Secondary Although they only allowed Detroit to convert 2-of-9 third downs and produce 246 yards of offense through the air, the Falcons' secondary still is considered the weakest area on their defense.
The Bucs appear to have a favorable matchup in the secondary, where WR Joey Galloway will be matched up with first-year cornerback Brent Grimes, who played collegiately at Shippensburg. However, Galloway missed all of training camp and preseason with a groin injury and clearly wasn't the same player vs. the Saints last week. In 2007, Galloway caught just three passes vs. the Falcons, who likely will call on safeties Erik Coleman, who was signed during the offseason, and Lawyer Milloy, who had an interception last week, to help cover Galloway.
Tampa Bay started WR Antonio Bryant at the Z (flanker) spot vs. New Orleans, but he caught just three passes for 43 yards in that game. He will be matched up with second-year CB Chris Houston, who still is looking for his first career interception. The Falcons could also elect to have the more experienced Houston cover Galloway and have Grimes be responsible for Bryant.
The Bucs used Ike Hilliard and Maurice Stovall as the No. 3 receiver last week, but Stovall is questionable with a neck injury. If he can't play, Michael Clayton likely would be activated. Hilliard, who is considered a go-to receiver on third downs, caught six passes for 45 yards and a touchdown in the regular season opener. Tampa Bay's No. 3 receiver likely will face either Von Hutchins or David Irons.
Special Teams Falcons kicker Jason Elam, who is Denver's all-time leading scorer, made 2-of-2 field goals in his Atlanta debut last week. At 38, Elam still is displaying a strong leg, evidenced by his 50-yard field goal vs. the Lions in the regular season opener. Punter Michael Koenen averaged 43 yards per punt last year and is off to a decent start in 2008.
Atlanta's coverage units will have to be sound in its assignments as the Falcons allowed the Bucs to return a 90-yard kickoff for a touchdown in December of 2007. Bucs rookie WR Dexter Jackson will handle those duties, but he's got to be more aggressive and stay on his feet in order use his speed to make big plays in the return game.
Tampa Bay K Matt Bryant left his shaky preseason behind him by making 2-of-2 field goals in Week 1. He likely will be kicking to Jerious Norwood, who has averaged 25.4 yards per return throughout his career and has a long of 76.
Bucs punter Josh Bidwell was arguably was Tampa Bay's MVP last week. He pinned four punts inside the 20-yard line and got off a 61-yarder. He'll be punting to Adam Jennings, who averaged just 3.0 yards per return on five attempts last week. FLYNN'S FORECAST: Buccaneers 24 Falcons 13