The Tampa Bay Buccaneers surrendered a big first-half lead in a Week Seven loss at Washington, and that's a turn of events they'll look to avoid in Week Eight in Atlanta. Getting that first-half lead, however, is definitely part of the plan.
The Buccaneers have played three road games already this season, and in each case they've done a good job of keeping the opposing crowd from having an early impact. Tampa Bay has taken a lead into halftime in each of those three games and allowed their opponents exactly seven points in each outing. Unfortunately, they've only finished off the victory in one of those three games so far.
The Buccaneers head to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in Week 8.
"It's always about starting fast and not letting the crowd get into it early on," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "We have done a good job of starting fast and that will definitely be the case. Another dome – we know about the noise and all that but we just need to take care of business. We've been in these situations before."
The explosive running of RB Doug Martin has been a key part of those quick starts. Martin's 291 first-half rushing yards this season rank fourth in the NFL and he's got 183 of those in Tampa Bay's last three games. With the Buccaneers relying on a rookie quarterback – albeit one who has turned in two straight magnificent performances – Martin has faced a lot of stacked defensive fronts and has still found a way to break free. He should see more of the same against a Falcons defense that ranks second in rushing defense and has clearly made that a priority. The Buccaneers actually want the Falcons to feel like they have to commit more defenders to stop their rushing attack.
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"That's why it's so important to get the running game going, where you have to gang up on the run to stop it," said Smith. "Wide receivers normally end up being man-to-man on the outside and we'll have some good matchups today with Mike [Evans] and we'll need to win those."
While the Buccaneers are dealing with a fresh batch of injuries just a week after their bye (more on that later), the offensive line has actually gotten healthier in recent weeks. Veterans Logan Mankins and Evan Smith have returned to action, giving the team admirable depth up front. Mankins has stepped back in at left guard while Smith joins Kevin Pamphile as reserves, with Joe Hawley retaining the starting center spot. Those five need to maintain the momentum that has made the O-Line Tampa Bay's most pleasant surprise of 2015.
"You have to first talk about the offensive line," said Smith. "They're getting Doug past that first wave of defenders, and from there Doug Martin has been outstanding. He's made people miss in the hole, made people miss in the open field and he's just having an outstanding year. But we want to have balance and running the football is allowing us to do that."
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That balance is particularly important this week because of the unpredictability in play-calling it would maintain for a Buccaneers offense against a Falcon defense that wants to make their opponent one-dimensional. Not only do the Bucs have a rookie passer in Jameis Winston but they also have a reshuffled receiving corps in the wake of knee injuries to Louis Murphy and Vincent Jackson. Murphy's season is over and Jackson won't play this week, so the Bucs will rely on rookies Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries to complement Evans.
"It's never a good thing when you lose a player like Louis Murphy, but the other side of it is that you have an opportunity, knowing he'll be out for a while, to get Donteea Dye [involved], Adam Humphries moved up," said Smith. "Those guys got all the work this week. Vincent Jackson is getting better each day but he won't be available today, so we've had a chance to get some of the younger players reps this week."
The Bucs will also have third-year wideout Russell Shepard, who has gradually developed as a wide receiver while excelling on special teams.
"He'll be very involved in the rotation for the wide receiver position," said Smith of Shepard, who was more of a jack-of-all-trades at LSU. "He's good to go, so receiver-wise today we'll have Mike Evans, Adam Humphries, Donteea Dye and Russell Shepard."
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's defense will be dealing with one of only two NFL rushers who have piled up more yards this season than Freeman. Second-year man Devonta Freeman leads the NFL in both rushing yards (621) and total yards from scrimmage (931) and has already scored 10 total touchdowns. The Falcons, who were 24th in the NFL in rushing yards a year ago, are all the way up to fifth this year, and that has fleshed out an offense that knew it was going to get huge contributions from QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones.
"Scheme-wise, there's probably more of a commitment to the run in what they've done," said Smith of the Falcons' offense. "Of course, that's opened up [other things] quite a bit. That's the difference, the commitment to the run, which is making their pass a lot more dangerous.
"[Freeman] played against us last year so we've had a chance to see him. This year, a lot like Doug Martin, they've really played at the top of their game throughout. He runs with power outside, can make you miss in the open field and catch the ball out of the backfield. We're going to have at least two very good running backs on the field. And of course ball protection and all that will be important."
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In addition to Jackson, the Buccaneers will be without TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, S Major Wright and DTs Clinton McDonald and Tony McDaniel, all out due to injury. That's five of the team's seven game-day inactives; the other two are QB Ryan Griffin and CB Tim Jennings.
Atlanta's seven inactive players are WR Nick Williams, CB Dezmen Southward, S William Moore, C Gino Gradkowski, T Bryce Harris, WR Leonard Hankerson and DE Malliciah Goodwin. Moore, one of the two starting safeties, and Hankerson, the team's second-leading pass-catcher among wideouts, are out due to injury.
Atlanta will have Ryan, Jones, Freeman and a whole cast of standout players with whom the Buccaneers are quite familiar. Smith knows the Buccaneers have an equally dangerous array of weapons for the Falcons to contend with, and thinks the game could come down to a battle of wills.
"We know them, they're a division opponent," he said. "We know each other well and it will definitely be about execution. Who wants it more today?"
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The Buccaneers take on the Falcons on Sunday afternoon with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played in the Georgia Dome and will be broadcast by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.