There are six weeks left in the 2012 regular season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 6-4, in the thick of the NFC playoff race and about to take on the leader of their division and the NFC's top team overall, the 9-1 Atlanta Falcons.
Are the Buccaneers – one of the NFL's youngest teams – ready, both for Sunday's showdown against Atlanta and for the pressure-packed 2012 stretch drive? First-year Head Coach Greg Schiano is very encouraged by what he saw at team headquarters this week, particularly from an offense that has somewhat unexpectedly emerged as one of the league's most explosive groups. Schiano wasn't impressed so much by a particular run or pass on the practice field, but by the focus and maturity he witnessed around One Buccaneer Place.
"Great offenses score points," he said. "They want to be a great offense, so our players really set out to do that. They're talking about all the little things and they're not talking about anything else. That's what you want as a coach. You want them talking about football, you want them talking about their steps and about reading defenses, and that's what they've been doing. You hope that translates into them scoring points, and from my experience it usually does."
Since returning from their bye in Week Six, the Buccaneers have ranked second in the NFL in points per game (34.2) and first in yards per game (431.5). They have been both explosive and consistent over the last six weeks, putting up at least 27 points in every game and at least 400 yards in five of those six. Maintaining such consistency can be tough, because each week seems to offer its own possibilities for distraction. This particular week is a good example, though the potential distraction was certainly a positive one. Like every team in the league, the Bucs had to adjust a bit for the arrival of Thanksgiving on Thursday.
"It's right in the middle of week of preparation, but it went well," said Schiano. "We adjusted our schedule a little bit so guys could be with their families. They were incredibly focused while they were here and then we let them get out of here, and they came back ready to go on Friday, and since then we've been preparing."
The Bucs' defense has been on its details this week, too, which is essential against the NFL's third-ranked passing attack. Schiano says the Falcons' offense is too proficient to expect a complete shutdown, but the Bucs think they can keep them in check by playing their own game at top efficiency.
"We're going to do our thing," said Schiano. "We don't go wholesale change because of this or that. We're going to do our thing and it's going to be about our players – our players making sure they do all the little things right. They're going to get plays, they're going to score points. But, can we contain them, can we hold them? And can we offensively do our part to keep them off the field, as well?"
The Bucs will have a change to the starting lineup, as CB Eric Wright has been deactivated due to his ongoing struggle with an Achilles injury. Rookie Leonard Johnson will get the start at right cornerback and third-year CB Danny Gorrer will be active for the first time since signing with the team on October 31. In addition to Wright, the Bucs named the following players inactive: RB Michael Smith, S Cody Grimm, LB Najee Goode, C/G Cody Wallace, WR David Douglas and DT Matthew Masifilo. Grimm is also out due to injury.
Atlanta has one change to its starting lineup, as well, but it's not on the offensive side of the ball, where WR Julio Jones was a bit of a question mark throughout the week. Jones has been dealing with an ankle injury, but he is active on Sunday and will start as usual. The change is on defense, where DT Peria Jerry is unavailable and will be replaced by Corey Peters. In addition to Perry, the Falcons deactivated QB Dominique Davis, WR Tim Toone, S Charles Mitchell, G Phillipkeith Manley, G Harland Gunn and DE Lawrence Sidbury. Mitchell is also out due to injury.
The Bucs and Falcons will kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Buccaneers.com will post a running blog of all the action on Sunday, and will also provide coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.