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OPPONENT: Atlanta Falcons

WHERE: Raymond James Stadium

WHERE THE FALCONS STAND: The Falcons are 8-6 and in third place in the NFC South division.





OVERALL: 25th (284.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 17th (107.4 ypg)
PASSING: 25th (177.4 ypg)

OVERALL: 2nd (275.5 ypg)
RUSHING: 5th (92.1 ypg)
PASSING: 8th (183.4 ypg)

OVERALL: 11th (338.1 ypg)
RUSHING: 1st (169.0 ypg)
PASSING: 28th (169.1 ypg)

OVERALL: 14th (310.9 ypg)
RUSHING: 22nd (118.6 ypg)
PASSING: 12th (192.4 ypg)

…the Bucs have won eight of their last 10 games vs. the Falcons?


Atlanta QB Michael Vick is one of the league’s most exciting players, but his shortcomings as a passer have hindered his team’s offensive production at times this season.

The left-handed signal caller has thrown for 2,136 yards and tossed 13 touchdowns while carrying the ball 90 times for 534 yards (5.9 avg.) and six touchdowns.

While he’s extremely dangerous when he escapes the pocket, Vick is not that effective when forced to throw from it. Vick has completed just 54.3 percent of his passes and tossed 12 interceptions this season. His passing accuracy, or lack thereof, has been the norm for Vick, who has completed just 53.8 of his career passes since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in 2001.

Tampa Bay’s defense has the discipline, speed and sound tackling technique to contain Vick, but getting pressure on him is critical. He’s fumbled four times and been sacked 26 times in 14 games this season. Although they notched three sacks in the last meeting vs. the Falcons, the Bucs allowed Vick to complete 21-of-38 (55.2 percent) passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns. Vick was particularly effective on third down, where Atlanta converted 11-of-17 (64.4 percent) of its attempts vs. Tampa Bay. The Bucs defense must rattle Vick early in order to halt the Falcons’ offense on Saturday.

Running Backs
Vick used to be Atlanta’s biggest running threat, but not anymore. Falcons RB Warrick Dunn, who played with the Bucs from 1997-01, is having a career-type year. He’s rushed for 1,328 yards (5.1 avg.) and three touchdowns while hauling in 26 passes for 205 yards and one score.

Dunn, who is quite elusive, has been extremely effective on first down and screen plays, which is one of the main reasons why the Falcons are converting 43.8 percent of their third down attempts this season.

The Falcons have made a habit of using Dunn and Vick to get the offense within striking distance. From there, they turn to 260-pound RB T.J. Duckett near the goal line, where he’s scored seven times this season. Duckett has also rushed for 352 yards (3.4 avg.).

Tampa Bay’s defense, which ranks 5th against the run, allowed Dunn to rush for 82 yards on 18 carries while Duckett rushed for 51 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in the last meeting. Although Dunn is having a great season, don’t be surprised if Atlanta features Duckett more on Saturday in an effort to establish the run early against Tampa Bay’s fast but undersized defense.

The Bucs won’t win this game if they can’t stop the Falcons’ ground game, which is averaging 169 yards per game and ranks No. 1 in the NFL. That said, the Bucs defense, particularly linebackers Derrick Brooks, who forced a fumble and notched a sack in the last meeting, Shelton Quarles and Ryan Nece, must be on their game in terms of hitting the right gaps and tackling.

Wide Receivers
Vick doesn’t have the greatest receivers to work with. His favorite target in the passing game is tight end Alge Crumpler, who has hauled in a team-leading 58 passes for 793 yards (13.7 avg.) and five touchdowns. In its last trip to the Georgia Dome, Tampa Bay’s defense contained Crumpler, limiting him to just three catches. The Bucs will rely on strong safety Jermaine Phillips and LBs Nece and Brooks to cover Crumpler, who is one of the league’s best tight ends.

In their last meeting, Atlanta offensive coordinator Greg Knapp exploited Tampa Bay’s banged up secondary, which was without S Dexter Jackson. Backup S Kalvin Pearson started in his place, and Phillips had a subpar performance, which allowed the Falcons receivers to have some success via the passing game. This time around, Jackson will be in the starting lineup.

Falcons WR Brian Finneran uses his 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame to get open in the passing game. He’s caught 45 passes for 562 yards and two touchdowns this season. Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber will spend most of the game covering Finneran. Although he appears to be at a disadvantage with his 5-foot-8, 190-pound frame, Barber, who has notched a team-leading five interceptions, has the ball and coverage skills to limit Finneran’s production.

Bucs CB Brian Kelly will be matched up vs. Falcons second-year WR Michael Jenkins, who has caught 27 passes for 394 yards (14.6 avg.) and two touchdowns. Jenkins had some success in the last meeting by hauling in five passes for 69 yards and scoring a touchdown. Vick could attempt to test Kelly early, but the Bucs cornerback has the ball skills to make him pay for it.

Atlanta doesn’t normally deploy three-receiver sets, but it did vs. Tampa Bay back in Week 11. That turned out to be a good idea as Falcons WR Roddy White had a field day vs. Tampa Bay’s secondary, hauling in four passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. White did most of his damage on third downs, and neither Bucs CB Juran Bolden, who is coming off a rough outing vs. New England, nor Phillips can allow White to have that type of production again on Saturday.

Offensive Line
Atlanta’s offensive line deserves a lot of credit for the offense’s ability to establish the ground game on a consistent basis. Falcons left tackle Kevin Shaffer, left guard Matt Lehr, center Todd McClure, right guard Kynan Forney and right tackle Todd Weiner have each played a part in dominating defensive linemen and engaging defenders at the second level in an effort to open up holes for Dunn, Duckett and Vick.

Atlanta rushed 36 times for 150 yards (4.2 avg.) and a touchdown in the last meeting vs. Tampa Bay. Atlanta produced 76 yards on the ground vs. Tampa Bay in the first half of that contest, but the Falcons were extremely undisciplined, committing eight penalties for 67 yards. Those infractions kept Atlanta’s offense off balance in the first half of that game, which Tampa Bay went on to win, 30-27.

If the Bucs are going to halt the Falcons’ ground attack and sustain a potent pass rush, right defensive end Simeon Rice will need to lead the way. Rice, who has notched a team-leading 10 sacks and six forced fumbles this season, needs to get up for this game just as he has in years past. Rice has notched 6.5 sacks in his last seven meetings with the Falcons. He should win the battle in the trenches with Shaffer more often than not.

The Bucs might be without defensive tackle Anthony McFarland (hamstring) for the second straight game, which means Ellis Wyms could go up against Forney. McFarland had one of his better games vs. the Falcons, and if he doesn’t play, Wyms must be just as disruptive on Saturday. Bucs NT Chris Hovan is having a tremendous season and appears to have an advantage vs. Lehr, especially on passing downs. However, Hovan has yet to record a sack this season.

Bucs LE Greg Spires will be rushing Vick’s blindside. He hasn’t been the sack machine he was last year, but Spires is healthier now than he was the last time these two teams clashed. Spires will attempt to work his way around Weiner while anchoring the left side of the defensive line against the run.

If Tampa Bay’s front four can penetrate Atlanta’s offensive backfield, they must be careful not to over pursue or miss tackles on Vick, who has amazing escapability and is capable of breaking off a big run on any given play. The Bucs linebackers must play with great gap control in order to limit the production the Falcons have via the ground game.

Defensive Line
One year ago, Atlanta’s defensive line gave Tampa Bay’s offensive line fits in the Georgia Dome by sacking Bucs QB Brian Griese seven times and forcing the O-line to commit a good portion of the 13 penalties the Bucs were called for on that dreadful Sunday.

But a much different looking Bucs offensive line, which features LT Anthony Davis, LG Dan Buenning, C John Wade, RG Sean Mahan and RT Kenyatta Walker, did an outstanding job of winning the battle in the trenches in Week 11 by protecting QB Chris Simms and opening up holes for RB Cadillac Williams. In fact, the offensive line, which was aided by plenty of two-tight end sets, didn’t allow a single sack and helped Williams rush for 116 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.

The Falcons have a suspect run defense that is allowing an average of 117 yards per game in that department. Tampa Bay rushed for 140 yards on 27 carries (5.2 avg.) and two touchdowns en route to its 30-27 win over Atlanta. The Bucs will need that type of production in the running game again as the Falcons’ pass rushers are dangerous when opposing offenses are made one dimensional.

The Bucs can’t afford to fall behind early and/or be forced to throw the ball more often than not. That scenario would put Falcons DE Patrick Kerney in a position to get after Simms, who took a beating by getting sacked seven times last Saturday in New England.

Kerney has notched 5.5 sacks and two forced fumble this season. He’ll likely go up against Bucs RT Kenyatta Walker, who is nursing a shoulder injury he sustained vs. the Patriots. Should Walker be unable to go, Bucs backup T Todd Steussie will play in his place, which would give Kerney a huge advantage as Steussie has not shown the ability to anchor the right side of the offensive line. Regardless of who starts at right tackle for Tampa Bay, look for the Bucs to leave tight ends Anthony Becht and Alex Smith in to help hold off the dangerous pass rusher on Saturday.

The defender that poses the biggest threat to Simms is Falcons under tackle Rod Coleman, who has recorded a team-leading 9.5 sacks through 14 games. Mahan, Buenning and Wade each did a nice job of limiting Coleman’s production in Week 11.

Davis won’t be protecting Simms’ blindside, but he will probably be attempting to hold off another dangerous pass rusher in Falcons RE Brady Smith, who is recovering from a dislocated toe. Smith has notched three sacks this season. If he can’t play, backup DE Chauncey Davis will play in Smith’s place. Should Davis play, the Bucs will likely attempt to attack the right side of Atlanta’s defensive line with the running game.

With Wade likely to help Mahan double team Coleman, Buenning will have to win some one-on-one battles with Falcons NT Chad Lavalais, who has recorded 2.5 sacks this season. Buenning did an outstanding job vs. Lavalais in Week 11.

The Bucs must find a way to establish the running game in order to keep the chains moving on Saturday. The Falcons are allowing opposing offenses to convert just 27.7 percent of their third down attempts.

Atlanta defensive coordinator Ed Donatell doesn’t just rely on his defensive linemen to get to the quarterback. He uses a variety of blitz packages, too. In fact, the Falcons linebackers have notched 10.5 of the team’s 34 quarterback takedowns this season.

Right outside linebacker Demorrio Williams is the Derrick Brooks of Atlanta’s defense. He’s fast and a sure tackler. Williams has notched a team-leading 117 tackles and three sacks. He’s also dangerous in pass coverage, where Williams has recorded two interceptions and three passes defensed.

One of the reasons why the Falcons are struggling to defend the run is because they are playing without starting MLB Edgerton Hartwell, who suffered a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Hartwell didn’t play vs. the Bucs in Week 11 and won’t play on Saturday. Keith Brooking has replaced Hartwell in the starting lineup, and he’s done a decent job, notching 95 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Although he’s recorded three interceptions and nine passes defensed, Brooking tends to struggle in coverage, which might allow Bucs RBs Michael Pittman and Williams to make some plays.

Falcons WLB Michael Boley is a talented rookie who has been inconsistent thus far. Boley has recorded 42 tackles and one forced fumble, but he’s not great against the run or the pass. Look for Simms to look for Smith and Becht in the passing game if they get a one-on-one matchup with Boley on Saturday.

The Falcons have one of the best cover corners in the NFL in DeAngelo Hall. A first-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Hall has notched 62 tackles and a team-leading five interceptions this season. Bucs WR Michael Clayton, who caught three passes vs. the Falcons in Week 11, will go up against Hall in this contest.

With Clayton struggling, Atlanta was able to double team WR Joey Galloway throughout most of the Week 11 contest. As a result, Galloway, who has caught a team-leading 71 passes for 1,152 yards and eight touchdowns, didn’t catch a single pass vs. Falcons CB Jason Webster, who has just one interception this season.

Webster will get help from SS Keion Carpenter, who has recorded 50 tackles, two interceptions and seven passes defensed. Should the Bucs get the ground game going early, Carpenter will be forced to play closer to the line of scrimmage, which could leave Galloway in some favorable one-on-one matchups with Webster.

Falcons FS Bryan Scott has notched 55 tackles, one interception and seven passes defensed. He will probably play close to the line of scrimmage as Clayton’s play as of late wouldn’t warrant him drawing many double teams.

Bucs WR Ike Hilliard has emerged as Simms’ go-to receiver on third downs. That could bode well for the Bucs since the Falcons might be without nickel corner Allen Rossum, who is recovering from a knee injury. Should Rossum be unable to play, rookie CB Leigh Torrence will likely replace him in the defensive lineup.

Special Teams
For the most part, Atlanta has been sound on special teams. Kicker Todd Peterson is nearly perfect on the season, drilling 21-of-22 (95.5 percent) field goal attempts. Punter Michael Koenen is averaging 41.9 yards per punt and has pinned 20 of his 68 attempts inside the 20-yard line.

Bucs P Josh Bidwell is having a Pro Bowl-type season, averaging 45.7 yards per attempt. He’s pinned 20 of his 79 punts inside the 20-yard line this season. Kicker Matt Bryant, who has made 17-of-20 attempts this season, beat the Falcons in Week 11 with a field goal that came near the end of the fourth quarter.

Bucs PR Mark Jones is averaging a respectable 9.6 yards per return this season. However, Tampa Bay’s kickoff return game has been horrible. Bucs KR Edell Shepherd is averaging just 20.3 yards per return, and the team has the league’s worst average starting field position.

The Falcons rely on CB Allen Rossum to return punts and kickoffs. He’s extremely quick and capable of scoring in just seconds. Rossum is averaging 22.6 yards per kickoff return and 8.5 yards per punt return this season. Although he’s been in a slump, Rossum is a player that has the ability to give Tampa Bay’s special teams coverage units fits. However, there is a chance Rossum won’t play in this contest due to injury.

FLYNN’S FORECAST: Buccaneers 20 Falcons 16

This story is intended to be read by PewterInsider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers. Be sure to read the latest issue of Pewter Report on-line in PDF format on Buccaneers merchandise in the world.

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