Chances are if you weren’t born before 1975, you’re recollection of running back Eric Dickerson is faint.

His 2,105 total yards rushing in 1984 shattered O.J. Simpson’s previous NFL record of 2,003 yards rushing in a single season. To date, no one has rushed for more yards in a single season.

He set the mark with the Rams. Back when they were in Los Angeles and their uniforms sported the bright yellow rather than gold trimming.

In the 13th game of that 1984 season, Dickerson and the Rams made a visit to Tampa and touched up the creamsicle-clad Bucs defense for 299 rushing yards in a 34-33 victory. One hundred ninety-one of those yards came courtesy of the now Hall-of-Famer, ultimately contributing to his historical season.

Dickerson’s 2,105 yards that season is a record that stands to this day. The 299 total rushing yards by the Rams that game represented an all-time high, or should we say low, for a Buccaneer defense that stood 22 years. And that’s how Eric Dickerson ties into Sunday’s game against the Falcons.

In their previous meeting, in Atlanta on Sept. 17, the Falcons broke their own team record for rushing yards gained while setting a new standard of futility for the Bucs defense — 306 yards.

For more than two decades no team had torched Tampa Bay as Dickerson and the Rams had. That stings. Even more so considering the distaste the Bucs and Falcons harbour toward one another. So, is payback on the minds of Buccaneer defenders?
“We put ourselves in a situation and they gained whatever they gained on us,” defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. “Payback? Yeah, you know there is a little bit of payback, but there’s a rivalry between these two teams above and beyond other teams in the South [division]. We just don’t like each other.”

In that last go-round, Monte Kiffin’s defense embarrassed itself, allowing not one, but two 100-yard rushers as Warrick Dunn ran for 134 yards and quarterback Michael Vick added 127 of his own. At that point, it was only the third time in NFL history a quarterback and a running back each rushed for over 100 yards in the same game.

And following that game, Dunn said that the holes he ran through were so big that he felt like he was in practice.

When it comes to rushing the football, Tampa Bay and Atlanta are trains headed in separate directions. The Falcons have laid claim as the NFL’s top rushing offense for last two seasons. A year ago, they led the league in rushing, averaging 159.1 yards per game. This year, Atlanta is the only team to average more than 200 yards per game (202.6), an astonishing feat considering the second-best rushing team, San Diego, averages 50 yards less per game.

In a conference call with the media on Wednesday, Dunn said the team’s success in the rushing game comes from the scheme and having the right type of athletes to run it.

“It’s a good zone scheme,” he said. “But then you have an athlete at the quarterback and an athlete at running back position that puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses. It’s a lot of things for defenses to think about, but it’s guys just really playing together- all 11 guys on the same page on each play.”

Like any good strategy, the Falcons implemented the element of surprise to their advantage the last time out, unveiling an option package that caught the unsuspecting Bucs defense off-guard and helped Vick and Dunn run roughshod through the line.

Horrible tacking on both a team and individual basis certainly aided to the 306 yards by Atlanta rushers. But the film on that game should be worn out. Kiffin has played it over and over and the defense appears fairly confident that there won’t be any reruns on Sunday.

“The option is not a problem for us anymore, I don’t think,” defensive end Dewayne White said. “[The coaches] did a good job on that, we got it squared away, who goes where and all that good stuff.”

“It was the first time that they ran that sort of option against any other team and we didn’t have an answer from the beginning,” Hovan said. “But as the game wore on, we had a answer for it. I believe were going to have an answer for it this week and I think, or I know, that the holes are going to be smaller.”

New faces await the elusive Vick this time around. Gone are defensive tackle Anthony McFarland and defensive end Simeon Rice. White, Rice’s replacement,  played in the Atlanta game in September but takes on a greater role as a starter.

Defensive linemen Julian Jenkins, Jovan Haye and Jon Bradley step into the fray in a greater capacity this time around. The game plan, according to White, hasn’t changed though. Apparently no need to be specific or name names when talking to anyone of the Bucs defense about that game plan, keeping “him” contained is still top priority.

“Ever since I’ve been here, the rules have been the same, try to contain [Michael Vick] first,” White said. “In our first meeting, we didn’t do that and he got outside the boundaries.

“Towards the end of the season we know Vick likes to put the ball in his hands. With the playoffs on the line, he wants to win the game, so he’s going to take it and run it.”

White agrees with popular opinion, that Atlanta’s dual threat quarterback is the ultimate challenge for a defender because he can do it all. Vick can escape the rush then stop on a dime and hit a receiver down field.  

When he’s on, when he’s in his zone, he’s almost impossible to stop. But when he is harassed, pushed around a little bit or contained, Vick’s been known to implode somewhat, accumulating sacks and interceptions in bunches.

Vick has been sacked at least once in each of the Falcons’ 12 games this season. In eight of them, he’s been put on the ground multiple times, including five sacks against both New Orleans and Baltimore and seven against the Giants.

He has passed for 200 or more yards only twice, but balances out that statistic by producing only two games in which he rushed for less than 50 yards.

“If you’re dropping into coverage, you’re not worried about the quarterback, usually,” Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said. “And with him, you really have to take into account that because he scrambles so much that you have to have a guy who is responsible for him.”

With 15 touchdown passes, Vick is on pace to break his single season best of 16. He’s also yards away from eclipsing his most productive year running the football, needing just 71 yards to produce his first 1,000-yard rushing season and 40 more to break QB Bobby Douglas’ 1972 record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season (968), which he did with the Bears.

Containing Vick, who leads all NFL players in yards per carry (8.8) and in rushes of 10 or more yards (39), is essential to any hopes Tampa Bay has of winning as well as an opportunity for a young nucleus of defensive players to improve their game, according to Bucs head coach Jon Gruden.

“Well it’s the Falcons we’re playing but it all starts with Vick,” Gruden said. “The style which Atlanta plays is a lot different than most teams, we have to work hard on our contain and do an much better job understanding the potential of their offense.

“They have a lot of things they can do with this quarterback and this running game that sets up a real good opportunity for them in the passing game.  These guys have to get familiar with the style Atlanta plays because if you have any error at all, they’re going to rip you real bad.”

With the team trying to replicate as many game situations as they can, Gruden jokingly said that he has incorporated a “secret weapon” to act as Michael Vick in practice.

In his 10th season, Warrick Dunn is proving he is still among the elite running backs in the NFL. He’s on the verge of his third consecutive 1,000-yard season, and last year became one of only five players to rush for more than 1,400 yards in a season after reaching 30 years of age.

Dunn was drafted by the Tampa Bay in 1997, playing for the Bucs for five years before signing as a free agent with Atlanta in 2002, just missing out on the Bucs’ Super Bowl season.

“You know what, when I left and they went to the Super Bowl, it was a little disappointing, but I was happy for the guys that I played with because I was there fighting with them to try to get there,” Dunn said.

“I don’t regret anything. I wish I would have won a Super Bowl, but life goes on.”

Dunn says it would have been great to play his whole career with his good friend Derrick Brooks and ride off into the sunset together at the end.  The two still remain close and look forward to seeing one another twice a year on the field.

He holds no ill will towards the Buccaneer organization for letting him go, but continues to keep a slight chip on his shoulder, not simply to prove Tampa Bay wrong, but the entire league.

“Being in your 10th year, you have to play at a high level, have that chip and want to prove to people that, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m in my 10th season. This is not a fluke,’” Dunn said.

“[As for the Buccaneers] well of course. You always want to say they made a mistake, but sometimes things happen for a reason. I felt like I was talented enough. I thought I’d have fit in well in [Jon] Gruden’s offense, but things happen for a reason.

“By any means, I’m going to give myself credit and say, “Yeah, they should have kept me.”

It became evident some time ago that Tampa Bay would not be able to successfully defend its NFC South crown. But at 6-6, Atlanta is two games behind New Orleans (8-4) in the South standings and fighting for a playoff spot.

The Falcons snapped a four-game losing streak last week, defeating the Washington Redskins 24-14. Vick passed for 122 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 59 yards. The Bucs role now turns to spoiler and considering the rivalry between the two teams, it’s foolish to think Tampa Bay would roll over Sunday in hopes of getting a good draft pick.

“We’re not going to try to play for next year or position ourselves in the draft,” Gruden said. “We’re trying to win this game and that’s all I can say. I feel terrible about being where we but I also say that I’m proud of the effort that these guys have given and at the end of the day that’s something that’s hard to get out of people.”

There were no changes to the Bucs’ injury report on Thursday. Cornerback Juran Bolden (quadricep), TE Alex Smith (ankle), LB Shelton Quarles (knee/ankle) and DT Ellis Wyms (ankle) all remain questionable for Sunday.

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