Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Back in Form

The Bucs, believing that Falcon RB Jamal Anderson is a serious threat, are geared up to stop him

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LB Jamie Duncan says the Falcons' offense begins with Jamal Anderson

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who travel to Atlanta this weekend, have really missed Jamal Anderson.

No, the Bucs aren't an overly sentimental team. They literally missed Anderson, at least the Anderson that ranks among the NFL's best running backs.

Tampa Bay played Atlanta in all but two seasons of the 1990s, but one of those two years off was 1998, when Anderson exploded onto the NFL scene with 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards a tote. The Bucs and Falcons hooked up in 1999, like usual, but Anderson had long since been sidelined by an early-season knee injury.

The Bucs' only experience was Anderson was in 1997, up in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Was it a true test? Well, Anderson was certainly a productive back that year, with 1,002 yards, but he and the Falcons' offense hadn't yet broken his game wide open, as evidenced by his 3.5 yards per carry. Plus, the Bucs jumped out to a big lead and won going away, 31-10. That left Anderson's rushing contributions at just 49 yards.

So now it's 2000 and it's Bucs-Falcons time again, and Anderson is back. But is he all the way back? That's the lingering question for the back who carried the ball more times in one season than any player in NFL history in 1998, then got just 19 rushes for 59 yards in '99 before his severe knee injury. Anderson won't get 410 carries again this season, as he did in '98, but he's got the rock in his hands more and more each week.

Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy thinks the steady increase in work is bringing back the Anderson of '98.

"Jamal Anderson is actually running, I think, better the last three or four weeks than he was early in the year, which is probably to be expected," said Dungy. They're playing pretty well. Last week, they beat a very good Carolina team, and did it with the running game, play-action passes and tough defense. We're going to have to be ready to go, ready to hit. We didn't face Anderson last year and they still gave us a very good ballgame."

The Falcons, in fact, led for 59 of the 60 minutes in last year's game, played at Raymond James Stadium, before a big Buc rally led to a 19-10 win for the home team. Atlanta, however, could muster just 77 rushing yards on 24 carries. The Falcons might have been able to put the game out of reach of a Buc comeback had their running game been stronger…that is, had Anderson been available.

"There whole offensive attack starts with him," said LB Jamie Duncan. "If they're able to run the ball, then Chris Chandler is able to throw a lot of play-action passes and go deep."

Anderson is indeed rounding back into form, if his game-by-game numbers are any indication. He had 312 rushing yards through the Falcons' first six games but has 229 in just the last three contests. Since October 15, Anderson has averaged 19 carries and 76 yards per game, picking up almost exactly four yards a pop. He also has half of his four touchdowns in that span.

"He just looks more fluid, more like he was in the '98 season," said Dungy. "It's probably just getting more carries and getting more confidence in his knee. But he looks closer to me to what he was in '98 these last couple of weeks."

Anderson's longest run so far is 42 yards, put up against Carolina six weeks ago, but Buc defenders are wary of what he can do to a game in a hurry. They think he's still the kind of back who can break a long run at any time.

"I believe he is, after watching some film," said DE Marcus Jones. "You could see at the beginning of the season that he was a little bit hesitant making some moves. But now, he'll spin right off of somebody and cut it up. He's a great back.

"You know he can break it open at any time, and we've got to be there to stop it."

Words to live by, because the Buccaneers believe stopping Anderson is the key to victory on Sunday.

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