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OPPONENT: Atlanta Falcons
WHERE: The Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia
WHERE THE FALCONS STAND: The Falcons are 3-6 and in last place in the NFC South division. FALCONS HEAD COACH: Bobby Petrino FALCONS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Hue Jackson FALCONS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Zimmer FALCONS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Jerry Rosburg
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE OVERALL: 15th (327 ypg) RUSHING: 15th (113 ypg) PASSING: 16th (214 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE OVERALL: 6th (286 ypg) RUSHING: 18th (113 ypg) PASSING: 3rd (173 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has a 6-3 record following a bye week in his 10 seasons as a head coach in the NFL?
SCOUTING THE FALCONS
Quarterbacks Not only is the face of the franchise and the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons not playing this season, Michael Vick is on his way to jail after pleading guilty to felony dog-fighting charges.
That seemed to be the beginning of the end for the Falcons, who are off to a 3-6 start and in last place in the NFC South division.
However, the Falcons have remained competitive, losing three games by one score. They're also on a two-game winning streak and just two games out of first place in the NFC South division heading into Sunday's game vs. the 5-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The quarterback position has been unsettled ever since Vick was suspended for the season just before training camp began. Atlanta signed former first-round draft pick Joey Harrington during the offseason with the idea of having him back up Vick. Instead, he's been the team's starter for most of the year.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Harrington, who is with his third team in as many seasons, has completed 168-of-264 pass attempts (63.6 percent) for 1,737 yards and tossed five touchdowns and five interceptions in head coach Bobby Petrino's offense.
With Atlanta struggling out of the gate, the Falcons signed former Jacksonville QB Byron Leftwich (6-5, 250) in October. He replaced Harrington as the starting signal caller vs. New Orleans on Oct. 21, but his starting stint was short-lived as Leftwich suffered an ankle injury vs. the Saints, which put Harrington back in the starting lineup.
Harrington has played better since Leftwich suffered the ankle injury and he's one of the main reasons why the Falcons have a plus-9 turnover ratio and have won two straight games since starting the season 1-6.
Running Backs Atlanta's ground game hasn't been the same without Vick, who helped the Falcons rank No. 1 overall in rushing yards (183 yards per game) in 2006.
Vick's absence has had a domino effect on the offense, particularly the running game, where veteran running back Warrick Dunn has rushed 148 times for just 481 yards (3.3 avg.) and three touchdowns.
The Falcons use Jerious Norwood as a change-of-pace and big-play back, but he's had trouble staying healthy. When Norwood plays he's dangerous, evidenced by his 311 rushing yards on 53 carries (5.9 avg.) and one touchdown.
Both Dunn and Norwood are dangerous receivers out of the backfield. Norwood has caught 17 passes for 143 yards and Dunn has hauled in 21 passes for 129 yards.
The Bucs defense, which ranks 6th overall in the NFL, must account for Dunn and Norwood on screen and swing passes. They are two of the main reasons why the Falcons have been able to convert a respectable 39.6 percent of their third down tries this season.
Tampa Bay's defense has had some mixed outings against the run, but completely shut down Arizona's ground attack two weeks ago. The Bucs currently rank 18th vs. the run and must contain Dunn and Norwood and force Harrington to throw in this contest. The Bucs simply cannot afford to allow the Falcons offense to be two-dimensional on Sunday.
Wide Receivers Injuries have plagued Atlanta's wide receiving corps. Veteran Joe Horn, who was signed from New Orleans during the offseason, is sidelined with a hamstring injury and Brian Finneran is on injured reserve.
That leaves the Falcons with former first-round pick Roddy White and rookie Laurent Robinson as the starting wide receivers.
White (6-0, 208) is Harrington's favorite target in the passing game. He's hauled in 42 passes for 642 yards (15.3 avg.) and two touchdowns. Although he has big-play ability, White hasn't been a consistent playmaker during his career with Atlanta. He'll likely be covered by Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who is part of a Tampa Bay defense that currently ranks No. 3 against the pass. Barber still is looking for his first interception of the season and could get it in this contest.
Robinson (6-2, 195), a third-round draft pick in April, has caught 21 passes for 193 yards (9.2 avg.). He's been held out of the end zone thus far. Although cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) will play vs. Atlanta and should be healthier thanks to the bye week, CB Phillip Buchanon might remain in the starting lineup since he's played well in Kelly's place. Both veteran cornerbacks appear to have an advantage over Robinson, who is experienced.
One target Tampa Bay's defense, particularly linebackers Cato June and Derrick Brooks, and safeties Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson must account for is Atlanta tight end Alge Crumpler. The Falcons have been forced to use Crumpler more as a blocker due to key injuries along the offensive line, but he's still a threat to stretch the field and find soft spots in zone coverage. Crumpler (6-2, 262) has hauled in 21 passes for 42 yards and two touchdowns.
Offensive Line The injury bug hasn't been kind to Atlanta's offensive line. In fact, its two starting tackles, Wayne Gandy and rookie Renardo Foster, are out for the season due to their respective injuries.
Those key injuries are the main reasons why the Falcons are struggling in the running game and allowing Harrington to get pressured too often. Atlanta's offense, which ranks 27th overall, has surrendered 28 sacks through nine regular season games, averaging out to three sacks per contest.
The Falcons replaced Gandy with Quinn Ojinnaka (6-5, 292), who likely will face Bucs rookie defensive end Gaines Adams and Patrick Chukwurah, who has missed several games this season due to injury.
The most physical player along Atlanta's otherwise undersized offensive line is left guard Justin Blalock. His 6-foot-4, 329-pound frame and center Todd McClure (6-1, 286) will be tough for Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan to handle, especially in the running game.
Tampa Bay under tackle Jovan Haye, who has notched four sacks this season, will need to take advantage of the double teams Hovan takes on and win some one-on-one matchups with Atlanta right guard Kynan Forney (6-3, 307). Forney excels as a run blocker but is inconsistent in pass protection.
Falcons right tackle Todd Weiner (6-5, 300) is a tough player, but the 10th-year veteran is getting up there in age and has showed it at times this season. He will go up against veteran DE Kevin Carter, who has 99.5 career sacks, including two quarterback takedowns in 2007.
Tampa Bay's defense has notched 16 sacks through nine regular season games. The Bucs must shut down the Falcons' ground attack and put pressure on Harrington early and often in order to create some much-needed turnovers in this contest.
Defensive Line Atlanta has had trouble stopping the run and getting after the quarterback, which isn't a good combination in the NFL. The Falcons are surrendering 121 yards rushing per game and have notched just 13 sacks through nine games this season.
Atlanta's defensive line is led by right defensive end John Abraham (6-4, 258). The speed rusher has recorded a team-high six sacks, but he's been inconsistent vs. the run. Abraham will go up against Bucs left tackle Donald Penn, who has performed fairly well in place of Luke Petitgout (knee). Penn is at his best as a pass blocker, which bodes well for the Bucs in this contest as he'll have his hands full with Abraham.
The Falcons surprised many around the league by releasing nose tackle Grady Jackson several weeks ago. That opened the door for Trey Lewis, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound rookie, to gain some experience. Lewis likely will field some double teams from Bucs center John Wade and rookie left guard Arron Sears, who will also be called on to pull on some running plays.
That will leave Bucs second-year right guard Davin Joseph, who has been inconsistent this season, in some one-on-one matchups with Falcons under tackle Rod Coleman. The 6-foot-2, 285-pound Coleman is extremely quick off the ball, but he's also undersized, which sometimes leads to him getting pushed around in the trenches. That's exactly what Joseph must do to Coleman, who has two sacks, in this contest.
Tampa Bay right tackle Jeremy Trueblood will look to take out some aggression for the $15,000 fine that was laid down by the NFL during the Bucs' bye week as a result of Trueblood accidentally bumping an official in an altercation with some Arizona players two weeks ago. He will face Falcons rookie DE Jamaal Anderson (6-6, 280), who is still looking for his first NFL sack. Trueblood could also find himself in situations where he goes up against Abraham, whom the Falcons use at both the right and left end positions during games.
Linebackers The Falcons have two of the faster outside linebackers in the NFL in Michael Boley and Demorrio Williams. Boley leads the Falcons in tackles and is excellent in pass coverage.
In fact, Boley and Williams each have two interceptions and are two of the main reasons why the Falcons defense is allowing opposing offenses to convert just 33.3 percent of their third downs this season. These two players will make it difficult for the Bucs to get tight end Alex Smith, who still is nursing an ankle injury, involved in the passing game.
Atlanta's lack of a pass rush has prompted the Falcons to blitz its linebackers some, which can leave the secondary vulnerable. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden likely will look to get Falcons middle linebacker Keith Brooking (6-2, 245) in some one-on-one matchups with his running backs, particularly Michael Pittman, likely will returnfrom an ankle injury, in this game. Pittman should be able to help if the Falcons do decide to blitz as he's an excellent blocker. Although Pittman probably is returning, Earnest Graham, who is averaging 3.9 yards per carry, will receive the majority of carries in the running game while Pittman and Michael Bennett are mixed in on some plays.
Secondary Tampa Bay probably will attempt to run the ball early and often vs. Atlanta, but Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia will have plenty of opportunities to throw the ball on Sunday.
Garcia, who is completing 66 percent of his passes, will need to continue to be careful with the football as Atlanta's secondary is made up of cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a former first-round pick and 2006 Pro Bowler, and strong safety Lawyer Milloy, who is a seasoned veteran.
Hall, who has recorded a team-leading three interceptions, will be responsible for covering Bucs wide receiver Joey Galloway, who has hauled in 38 passes for 648 yards and five touchdowns. While he's considered an excellent cover corner, Hall does tend to have some trouble defending the deep ball, which is where Galloway thrives. If Atlanta can defend Tampa Bay's running game with its front seven, Milloy should be in a position to help Hall cover Galloway. However, if the Bucs get the ground game going early, Milloy will have to come up in the box to help defend the run, which should give Garcia and Galloway several opportunities to connect in the passing game.
Garcia will also attempt to get WR Ike Hilliard involved early, just as he has all season long. Hilliard leads the Bucs in receptions with 46 for 548 yards and one touchdown. He appears to have a favorable matchup with Falcons rookie CB Chris Houston, who will count on first-year free safety Chris Crocker for some help in the passing game.
Special Teams The Falcons are scoring an average of just 15 points per game, and their kicker, 47-year-old Morten Anderson, accounts for most of them. Despite his age, Anderson has made 16-of-19 (84.2 percent) of his field goal attempts this season. His long, however, is just 47.
Atlanta punter Matt Koenen has had a busy season. He's punted 50 times and averaged 43.4 yards per attempt. The Bucs could use several players to return punts, including wide receivers Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway and cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Keiwan Ratliff, who was signed this week. Tampa Bay has been averaging less than 7 yards per punt return since Mark Jones was lost for the season several weeks ago. The Bucs offense needs the special teams unit to generate better starting field position in this contest.
Tampa Bay's special teams coverage units will have to be on top of their game in terms of tackling and taking the proper angles in this contest, especially if Norwood plays. Norwood is averaging 25.9 yards per kickoff return. He has a long of 76 this season. The Bucs are one of the best in terms of covering kickoffs, although injuries have started to take their toll on this unit. If Norwood can't play in this contest, WR Adam Jennings will return kicks and punts for the Falcons. He's averaging 22.1 yards per kickoff return and just 6.7 yards per punt return.
FLYNN'S FORECAST: Buccaneers 20 Falcons 16
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