Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' inaugural Throwback Game turned into a coming-out party for Josh Freeman, the first-round quarterback who earned his first NFL start and first NFL victory on that day. Freeman threw three touchdown passes as the Buccaneers mounted a huge fourth-quarter rally to beat the playoff-bound Green Bay Packers, 38-28.
The orange throwback jerseys will reappear today at Raymond James Stadium, and the Bucs have another first-round rookie they'd love to see a big game from. Thing is, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy didn't want to wait until Week 13 for his own breakout.
McCoy and a once-dormant Tampa Bay pass rush have awoken big time over the last three weeks. After recording just six sacks through the first eight games of the season, the Buccaneers have dropped opposing QBs 12 times in the last three outings. McCoy has been at the center of that charge, with three sacks, but it has most definitely been a group effort.
"These guys are getting better," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "They're young. They're growing together, led by Gerald McCoy up there as a young rookie. Then they've got Stylez White coming off the edge, doing some good things for us this year, creating a little bit of outside pressure. And now the new guys are rolling with the Roy Millers, the Al Woods, the Tim Crowders, the Alex Magees. The D-Line is really helping us."
With the exception of Miller, all of the above have figured into the recent sack explosion, and Miller's stout play in the middle has certainly helped the rest of his gang. The Bucs had not been displeased with the play of McCoy or his linemates during the first half of the season, but they certainly appreciate how hard that unit has worked to improve for the stretch run.
"It's not 'keep doing what you've been doing,' it's getting better, and these guys have been getting better every week," said Morris. "They go out there and rely on technique and the things we do. These guys are all buying into it, and they're playing together and playing well."
The Buccaneers would love to pressure the difficult-to-rattle Matt Ryan, the third-year quarterback emerging as a star for the Falcons. In Atlanta's narrow 27-21 victory in the Georgia Dome four weeks ago, Ryan completed 66.7% of his passes, converted eight of 14 third-down tries and threw for 235 yards. He was not sacked.
However, Morris says the number-one goal for the Bucs' defensive front is the same as it is every week: Stop the run. This week, that means Michael Turner, who comes into this game riding a hot streak.
"The key is just slowing down their run game because they have such a good run game," said Morris. "It's getting off on third downs and limiting the amount of possessions. We've got to play well on third down in order to get off so they can't have as many opportunities to run the football with their powerful running attack."
They will have to do so without a young player who had been emerging as one of their better run-support players behind the front line, rookie S Cody Grimm. Grimm suffered a season-ending leg injury last weekend in Baltimore, opening the door for third-year man Corey Lynch to make his first NFL start. Lynch will play free safety and join dependable strong safety Sean Jones in the deep secondary.
The Buccaneers looked at Lynch and first-year player Vince Anderson during the week to determine Grimm's replacement, and chose to go with the more experienced player.
"Corey Lynch will be out there for us; hopefully he'll be productive," said Morris. "If we need Vince he'll be able to step in there and do some things for us, and we also have Ronde Barber who can contribute back there at safety as well. We've got a plan for all these guys. We look forward to these guys making big-time moves and going out there and playing like starters. I can't wait to see them play.
"We've been able to move some guys up from our practice squad that have been preparing and we were able to grab [safety] Larry Asante. All these guys have been getting acclimated to our team, and it's been fun. We've had some new energy. We prepared for this game with some big-time urgency."
The practice-squad promotions also included guard Brandon Carter, who won't be active for Sunday's game but does give the Bucs yet another young offensive lineman to build around. The front line also will get something of a makeover in Week 13, as starting right guard Davin Joseph was also lost to season-ending injury (foot) last weekend. Jeremy Zuttah, who has already started four games this season at center, will take over for Joseph.
"I'm feeling really good about Zuttah going back in there and assuming a starting role," said Morris. "He's been able to do a bunch of different things for us. We feel good about his versatility and how well he plays, how detailed he is when he's locked in. We feel great about where those guys are going."
Grimm, Joseph and defensive end Kyle Moore were placed on injured reserve this week, so most of the Buccaneers' inactive decisions for Sunday's game were based on strategy and not injuries. The exception is LB Dekoda Watson, who is out with a hamstring injury and will be inactive. Tampa Bay's other seven inactives are Asante, G Brandon Carter, T Will Barker, WR Preston Parker, WR Dezmon Briscoe, DT Frank Okam and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
Atlanta's eight inactives are CB Dominique Franks, RB Antone Smith, RB Jason Snelling, T Garrett Reynolds, G Mike Johnson, DE Lawrence Sidbury, DT Trey Lewis and designated third quarterback John Parker Wilson. Smith and Snelling were out due to injury.
There are plenty of exciting things to watch on Sunday, as the Bucs try to climb a game closer to the NFC South leaders while showing off their orange-and-white unis once again. Hopefully, the results will be similar to the last time the Buccaneers put on their Throwback garb.
"We're undefeated in orange uniforms from a year ago," said Morris with a laugh. "It was our first win. There were a lot of good things that happened that day as far as starting Josh and us getting our first win against a very good opponent in Green Bay. Now we've got another great, quality opponent in Atlanta and it should be another fun game and another fun experience for our fans."
The Bucs and Falcons kick off at 4:15 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.