(Limited web connectivity this week at the in-laws beach house, gang, so I can't do my usual research and review. Consider this the cliff's notes version.)
Overview: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers invade the Georgia Dome Sunday to take on the enigmatic Atlanta Falcons, who sit at 5-5 and on the edge of the playoff bubble. As the college basketball analysts say, this could be a bubble game for the Falcons to get back in wild card contention. A win would put them at 6-5 and keeping pace with Green Bay for a wild card spot. A loss would probably burst their bubble. The Falcons come into Sunday's game on the heels of a hard-fought 34-31 OT loss to the Giants in the Meadowlands. As most teams have done this season, the struggling NY offense found its groove against the beleaguered Falcon secondary, which ranks 29th in the NFL in YPGA through the air. Meanwhile, the Bucs come into Sunday's tilt in total upheaval mode...coming off an embarassing home thrashing at the hands of the undefeated Saints, which exhibited the warts of breaking in a young QB, led to the removal of Jim Bates as defensive coordinator, and led to a return to the Tampa 2 defense from Jim Bates' ineffective 2-gap scheme.
The Buccaneers will win IF....
Their offense can sustain drives and keep the defense off the field. Sounds like your typical cliche, but the Bucs are going to have to show that offensive continuity from the 2nd half of the Miami game if they want to stay on the field with the Falcons, who will get their points. As the Giants showed last week, the Buccaneers can have some opportunities in the passing game. The Falcons may not be as aggressive as their aviary brethren Philadelphia, but they'll take some chances and blitz some, leaving man coverage opportunities if Freeman can get some time. The Buccaneers again should come out in one-back and shotgun spread sets, setting up one-on-one opportunities. Kellen Winslow vs. any Falcon is a mismatch, and Antonio Bryant should have some opportunities deep against CB Chris Houston. Can Josh Freeman bounce back from his first truly rough game and show the short-term memory of a successful NFL QB? I think he can and he'll go for over 200 yards and 2 scores. However, can he avoid the misfires and misreads that have killed drives over the past couple of games?
The Falcons will win IF... they have continued success running the football out of their power sets. The Falcons like to run the ball between the tackles with their big interior trio of lineman leading the way - Harvey Dahl, Justin Blalock, and Todd McClure. Although RB Michael Turner is a game-time decision and will be limited in touches and ability due to a high-ankle sprain, the Falcons are in good hands with Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood running the ball. Snelling went for 76 yds on the ground and two scores against the Giants' big front four despite the Falcons being in passing mode the entire game. Even though the Falcons boast a solid passing attack with Matt Ryan, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons love to line up in 2-TE, 2-back formations and just pound you into submission. When you bring up your LBs and SS into the box or run blitz, Ryan will play fake and either hit Roddy White in single coverage, find Tony Gonzalez sprinting up the seam, hit FB Ovie Mughelli on a streak out of the backfield in the space where the WR/CB just cleared out, or hit the tailback. The Falcons can do so much out of that formation. Switching back to the one-gap Tampa 2, the Buccaneer defensive linemen will have to be a step quicker off the ball and try to get into the backfield, disrupt the running game at the point of attack, and set up more obvious passing downs. As we know, the Tampa 2 requires big, fast, and strong defensive tackles that can fire in between the offensive linemen and collapse the pocket themselves. Do the Bucs have that in Ryan Sims and Chris Hovan? Hovan fits the scheme a lot more than Sims in my opinion, but Hovan couldn't cut in Monte's scheme at the end of the year. Was it because of fatigue/injury or has he lost a step? If it's the latter, he's going to have a hard time Sunday and the rest of the season. Roy Miller has shown surprising explosiveness and it wouldn't shock me if he worked his way into the starting lineup alongside Hovan by the end of the season. As for Sunday, it appears to be, on paper, an advantage for the Falcon offensive line against the Buccaneer front 7.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Buccaneers 17. The Atlanta running backs will find some running room early, setting up some mid-range play-action passes to Tony Gonzalez and the Atlanta WRs. Josh Freeman and the Buccaneer passing game will get going after a slow start, but the worn-down Buccaneer defense will be on the field too long in the 2nd half, as the Falcons control the time of possession in the fourth quarter with a time-consuming drive to put away the game late.