To get their first intra-divisional win of 2013, the Buccaneers will need to follow their recent formula of succeeding in the ground game on offense and limiting big plays on defense, but that will be more difficult with the anticipated return of LB Sean Weatherspoon and the improving health of WR Roddy White. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons visit Raymond James Stadium.
HEAD COACH: When Mike Smith arrived in Atlanta in 2008 after five seasons as the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, the Falcons had gone four decades without once posting a winning record in consecutive seasons. Since Smith's hiring as the head coach, the Falcons have been one of the NFL's most consistently successful teams, posting a winning record in five straight seasons, taking home two division titles and missing the playoffs only once. Last year, the Falcons advanced to the NFC title game before falling to the San Francisco 49ers in a game that wasn't decided until the final seconds. Smith, who has twice been voted as the NFL's Coach of the Year by his peers through The Sporting News, is credited with a keen eye for personnel and for establishing a very even keel at the Falcons' headquarters. The Falcons will have to run the table to post a sixth straight winning season, but one unsuccessful season isn't going to lead to Smith's departure. When Atlanta's most recent losing streak lengthened and a report mentioned a potential link between Jon Gruden and the Falcons, General Manager Thomas Dimitroff emphatically made it clear that Smith wasn't going anywhere.
The other problem for Atlanta is that its rushing attack has been increasingly unproductive as the season has progressed. Much of that can likely be linked to injuries to RB Steven Jackson and several Falcon linemen, but Jackson is back in the lineup and Atlanta very much needs to restore some balance to its offense in order to get Ryan back into more favorable passing situations. Atlanta hasn't topped 78 rushing yards in any of its last five games (including an 18-carry, 18-yard performance against the Buccaneers last time), and has dropped into last place in the league rankings in that category.
The Falcons are getting production out of their trio of backs in the passing game, at least. Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling have combined for 72 catches for 466 yards and five touchdowns. Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano pointed out on Wednesday that the Falcons are very adept at the screen pass, and that option might become even more important to the Atlanta attack this weekend if Gonzalez – one of the best quarterback security blankets ever – is unable to play.
DEFENSE: Unfortunately for the Falcons, their opponents have also been very good at converting third downs, doing so at a 47.5% clip that ranks second-to-last in the NFL, defensively. This has been a weekly problem throughout the season, not the product of one or two bad outings. Atlanta's opponents have been 40% or better in converting third downs in six of nine games, but never better than 54%.
The Falcons might get off the field more often with a more effective pass rush; they rank 23rd in the league in sacks per pass play on defense. DE Osi Umenyiora leads the way with 4.5 sacks but has just 0.5 in the last four games. Joplu Bartu, one of two undrafted rookies starting for the Falcons at linebacker, has picked up some of the pass-rush slack with 3.5 sacks, including 2.0 in the last four games. The Falcons other surprise rookie linebacker contributor, Paul Worrilow, has quickly become a fan favorite, especially after he joined team legend Jesse Tuggle as the only Falcons to record 15 or more tackles twice in one season since 1994. Worrilow had 19 stops each against Carolina and Seattle in Atlanta's last two outings.
Of course, one of those two is likely to lose some playing time now that LB Sean Weatherspoon, one of Atlanta's defensive leaders, is coming off the injured reserve/designated for return list. Weatherspoon, a Falcons captain, was a first-round pick in 2010 who produced 210 tackles, seven sacks and 12 passes defensed over the 2011-12 seasons. His return should help an Atlanta defense that has allowed 378.8 yards and 27.9 points per game. The Falcons rank 25th in overall defense, 27th against the run and 25th against the pass.
Despite allowing 19 touchdown passes (tied for fourth most in the NFL), the Atlanta secondary is loaded with talent and experience. The back of the defense is patrolled by the safety duo of William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, the latter of whom returned a fumble 30 yards for a touchdown against the Buccaneers in Week Seven. Strangely, that is one of just two fumble recoveries the Falcons have managed this season. As for Moore, he leads the team with 81 tackles and, since the start of the 2010 season, has 12 interceptions, which is tied for fourth in the NFL among all safeties. CB Asante Samuel is a veteran leader who ranks fourth among active players with 51 career interceptions, but the future of the position in Atlanta belongs to the team's first two draft picks this year: Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Trufant has started every game this season at right cornerback and has a team-high 10 passes defensed, while Alford is the team leader with two picks.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Falcons have a reliable pair of kickers in punter Matt Bosher and placekicker Matt Bryant, the former Buccaneer, and of course advantageous indoor conditions in which to kick for half of the schedule. Bosher ranks sixth in the NFL gross punting average (47.8) and fifth in net punting (42.2), both of which are just a tick higher than the last time the Bucs and Falcons met. Over the last four years, Bryant has made 90.2% of his field goal tries (101 of 112), including 13 of 14 this season.