QB Josh Freeman wants to finish his impressive rookie season on a high note
The end comes on Sunday, but for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers it feels more like a beginning.
The Buccaneers may close out the 2009
on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium, but they already turned the page on the '09 calendar year a week earlier in New Orleans. Tampa Bay's stirring win over the NFC's #1 seed accomplished the goal of putting a positive cap on a disappointing year. Now the '09 season finale gives them a chance to get a head start on 2010 success.
This week, Head Coach Raheem Morris helped his team put the New Orleans win in the rear view mirror, along with all of 2009, and focus on the Falcons and the future. With the Bucs' two-game winning streak coming on the road, Sunday's season-ender also gives the team a chance to give the home crowd a taste of what's to come.
"It was a nice job closing out the year," said Morris. "Now we've got a chance to go out and start this new one. It's who we're going to be in 2010. It starts today and we just can't wait to get going. It's always fun to get back home. Let's give them something to remember for this 2010 season coming up."
The Bucs' consecutive wins didn't get them any closer to the playoffs, but they did pump up the team's confidence and give Morris an opportunity to drive home some important lessons. As a result, the team had a strong week of practice despite the "last week before summer vacation" feel to the season.
"I was able to bring up very good suggestions and things of that nature to show them why we emphasize practice so hard and why we still have pads on," said Morris. "The reasons are on tape, and they got a chance to go out there and see it, and it shows up in practice."
Indeed, the Bucs played a physical game in New Orleans and it paid off. The team stuck with its running game even after digging a 17-point hole in the game's first 25 minutes, and the resulting offensive balance was critical in the team's 20-point comeback. In a way, it was a very late manifestation of what the Buccaneers had wanted to do all season…but better late than never.
"It's a lot of fun to see your vision come alive right now; your physical play from your O-line; your physical play from your backs; not going down with arm tackles; your line playing as hard as they can and winning at the line of scrimmage," said Morris. "Those things are the things that are starting to come out. Those are the things you wanted to happen right from the beginning, and those are the things we're going to build on.
If the Bucs are to duplicate their rushing success today, they'll have to rely heavily on last week's star back, Cadillac Williams. The team's three-headed tailback monster lost a pair of heads this week when Earnest Graham was placed on injured reserve and Derrick Ward was deactivated on Sunday due to knee and thigh injuries. Rookie Kareem Huggins, recently promoted from the practice squad, is the Bucs' only other tailback for the season's final outing.
Fortunately, Williams has saved his best for last this season, a wonderful accomplishment for a player who saw the previous two seasons end in major knee injuries.
"You're talking about a special guy in a special place at a special time," said Morris. "Good things happen to good people. He's out here doing good things, and that's why we're successful, because of guys like him."
Williams will be running against a Falcons front line that is missing a pair of usual starters in defensive tackle Thomas Johnson and defensive end Jamaal Anderson. Rookie Vance Walker will step in at nose tackle for Johnson and fifth-year man Chauncey Davis will get the call at left end for Anderson.
The Falcons will also be without star running back Michael Turner, but that's nothing new for Atlanta down the stretch. Since aggravating an ankle injury in the first Bucs-Falcons meeting, in Week 12, Turner has carried the ball just once, leaving most of the ground duties to Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood. Norwood will start in Turner's place on Sunday.
QB Matt Ryan, who was also injured in that Week 12 game,
been cleared to play and will try to build on his strong performance (four touchdowns, no picks) over the past two weeks. Ryan has led the Falcons to consecutive wins to match the Bucs, and while his team was eliminated from the playoff race they can still meet their goal of the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.
Thus, the Bucs know they're facing a visiting team that is not only playing well at season's end, but playing for something.
"It's the beauty of the NFL, it's who you are, it's what you're made of as men," said Morris. "All of us know that, and they're trying to do the same thing up there that we're trying to do in Tampa. You go out there every day and you fight. If you're not prepared to fight in this league, it shows up quickly and it shows up in a bad way. We're going out there and fighting, and they're fighting in the same way."
In addition to Ward, the Bucs' declared the following seven players inactive: WR Mark Bradley, WR Mario Urrutia, S De'von Hall, TE Ryan Purvis, T James Lee, WR Terrence Nunn and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
Atlanta deactivated Turner, Anderson and Johnson as well as K Steve Hauschka, WR Troy Bergeron, FB Verron Haynes, S Charlie Peprah and designated third quarterback John Parker Wilson.
The Bucs and Falcons will kick off the season finale at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will provide a halftime update and a final game story after the conclusion of the action. You can also receive in-game updates through the Buccaneers' official Twitter feed, tbbuccaneers.