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BUCS’ OPPONENT: Atlanta Falcons

WHERE: Raymond James Stadium

SPREAD: Bucs by 1.5

WHERE THE FALCONS STAND: The Falcons are 9-2 and in first place in the NFC South Division.





OVERALL: 22nd (309.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 28th (92.5 ypg)
PASSING: 15th (216.9 ypg)

OVERALL: 5th (285.8 ypg)
RUSHING: 19th (119.7 ypg)
PASSING: 2nd (166.1 ypg)

OVERALL: 18th (320.5 ypg)
RUSHING: 1st (167.5 ypg)
PASSING: 29th (157.8 ypg)

OVERALL: 19th (333.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 6th (T) (101.3 ypg)
PASSING: 26th (232.1 ypg)

…Atlanta ranks tied for third in the NFL in sacks recorded with 32 and Tampa Bay ranks 6th in the league in sacks allowed with 30?

The strength of Atlanta’s offense is its running game, which is led by quarterback Michael Vick, who leads the team in rushing with 709 yards (7.2 avg.) and has scored two touchdowns.

Tampa Bay’s defense had held Vick to under 50 yards rushing in three meetings, but that was before the Bucs went to Atlanta a few weeks ago. In that contest, Vick rushed nine times for 73 yards (8.1 avg.), including a 41-yarder he had in the first quarter. Falcons offensive coordinator Greg Knapp has designed running plays for Vick, who was effective on play-action and misdirection plays in Week 10. While Tampa Bay’s defense prides itself on speed, its players will have to do a better job of containing and not overpursuing Vick on Sunday.

Because Vick is not the most accurate passer (57.7 completion percentage), Knapp likes to stick to his running game, which is ranked No. 1 in the NFL. He uses Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett to keep defenses off balance because of their two different running styles.

Dunn, who is an elusive and speedy back, has rushed 158 times for 642 yards (4.1 avg.) and seven touchdowns. He’s also hauled in 17 passes for 168 yards. In Week 10, the Bucs had trouble containing Dunn, who rushed 17 times for 76 yards (4.5 avg.).

The 253-pound Duckett is a bruising-type back. He’s carried the ball 77 times for 360 yards (4.7 avg.) and four touchdowns. Duckett also had success against Tampa Bay in Week 10, rushing 12 times for 53 yards (4.4 avg.) and two touchdowns in goal line situations. Knapp will likely try to run Dunn and Duckett in-between Tampa Bay defensive tackles Chartric Darby and Chidi Ahanotu.

The Bucs must halt the Falcons’ running game in order to make Vick less effective on play action. Vick, who has been sacked a whopping 34 times in 11 games, has thrown 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season and tends to make mistakes with the ball when he’s without a potent ground attack.

In Week 10, the Bucs sacked Vick five times, but two of those were notched on blitzes from middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, whom the Bucs will need to drop back and defend the deep middle part of the field, where Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler killed the Bucs in Week 10 by catching four passes for 118 yards and one touchdown. Crumpler leads the Falcons in receptions with 43 for 709 yards and six touchdowns, and Quarles, strongside LB Ian Gold and strong safety Dwight Smith will likely be called on to limit his production Sunday.

Because of the fact that Crumpler is Vick’s only reliable target in the passing game, where wide receivers Peerless Price and Dez White have been inconsistent, the Falcons are only converting 29 percent of their third down tries. The Bucs only allowed the Falcons to convert 25 percent of their third down attempts in Week 10 and will need a similar effort on Sunday.

Tampa Bay’s offensive line must do a better job of protecting quarterback Brian Griese if the Bucs are going to have a chance of winning this contest. In Week 10, Atlanta’s defense sacked Griese seven times, and several of those quarterback takedowns put the Bucs in long down-and-distance situations and/or killed drives.

Bucs left guard Matt Stinchcomb and right guard Cosey Coleman will be faced with the difficult task of holding off Falcons defensive tackle Rod Coleman, who has eight sacks and three forced fumbles this season. Coleman, who has the ability to play both under and nose tackle, brought down Griese twice in their first meeting.

Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker will also have his hands full. He’ll line up against Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney, who leads his team in sacks with 8.5. Kerney notched a sack in Week 10 and is one of the league’s best pass rushers.

Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman and fullback Mike Alstott will likely have to account for Atlanta strongside linebacker Matt Stewart in the passing game, where he sacked Griese twice on blitzes in Week 10.

Part of the reason Atlanta’s pass rush was so potent vs. Tampa Bay in Week 10 was because of the penalties committed by the Bucs, which put them in long down-and-distance situations. That allowed the Falcons to blitz linebackers and send their pass rushers in without them having to worry about defending the run. The Bucs had a total of 13 penalties called on them in that contest, and six of those infractions were on the offensive line. Those types of mistakes must be avoided in the Bucs are to have a chance of downing the Falcons on Sunday.

Falcons weakside LB Keith Brooking leads the team in tackles and has one sack, two interceptions and five passes defensed this season. He’s one of the reasons why Pittman could only produce 62 yards on 20 carries in Week 10. But with the Falcons blitzing Stewart often, the Bucs were able to get tight end Ken Dilger involved more in the passing game, where he caught five passes for 51 yards and a touchdown. Dilger could be a factor again on Sunday.

Look for Bucs rookie wide receiver Michael Clayton to have another productive game against the Falcons. Cornerback Kevin Mathis, who has intercepted two passes and returned both of them for touchdowns this season, had trouble covering Clayton, who hauled in a team-high six passes for 90 yards and scored a touchdown in Week 10. Clayton will likely be one of Griese’s go-to guys on third down, where the Falcons are allowing opposing offenses to convert 36.3 percent of their tries this season.

Atlanta kicker Jay Feely has drilled 12-of-15 (80 percent) field goal attempts this season. His only two misses were in the 40-49-yard range.

Falcons punter Chris Mohr is averaging 41.4 yards per attempt and has pinned 14 of his 57 attempts inside the 20-yard line.

Cornerback Allen Rossum handles Atlanta’s return duties. Although he’s considered one of the NFL’s best return men because of his speed, Rossum is averaging just 21 yards per kickoff return this season and the Bucs were able to contain him in Week 10. He is, however, averaging a respectable 12.4 yards per punt return and has scored a touchdown.

If Tampa Bay can avoid untimely penalties and can find a way to get off to a quick start Sunday, the Buccaneers could pull off the upset at Raymond James Stadium.

In Week 10, the Bucs fell behind 17-0 early in the second quarter. Although the Bucs had a chance to actually tie the game in the fourth quarter, that hole was simply too deep to dig out of. Not only will a Falcons win earn them their first-ever NFC South division, it will hand the Bucs a loss that would all but end the Pewter Pirates’ playoff hopes.

Tampa Bay is counting on its home crowd to give the Bucs the type of advantage Atlanta had in Wek 10 at the Georgia Dome, where the raucous crowd caused the Bucs’ offensive line to commit several penalties and contributed to the Falcons’ relentless pass rush, which produced seven sacks.

Both the Bucs and Falcons have plenty to play for, and this great rivalry shouldn’t disappoint on Sunday. The formula for a win is simple. The team that creates turnovers and limits penalties will likely leave Ray-Jay with a victory. That’s a formula the Bucs have had a tough time executing lately, but their luck should change in this huge home contest.

FLYNN’S PICK: Buccaneers 20 Falcons 16
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