The Buccaneers sacked Atlanta QB Matt Ryan five times in two games last season
So you're a Tampa Bay Buccaneers ticketholder, and it's mid-November, 2009, approaching Thanksgiving.
So far, on a month of Sundays at Raymond James Stadium, you've seen the Buccaneers' defense take on such hard-charging runners as Brandon Jacobs, Marion Barber and DeAngelo Williams. You've seen Tampa Bay's emerging offensive line try to keep DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers, Osi Umenyiora and Aaron Kampman off the Buccaneers' new starting quarterback. And you've seen that quarterback – Luke McCown? Byron Leftwich? Josh Freeman? – try his hand against Terence Newman and Charles Woodson and the new rookie corner in Carolina, Sherrod Martin.
Basically, you've seen one half of what may be the most challenging and yet thrilling home slates the Buccaneers have drawn in years. And the fun is just getting started.
Earlier this week, we broke down the first half of the Coming Attractions for the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium this fall. Now let's take a look at the challenges the team will face down the stretch, as they hopefully battle for a postseason berth. Turns, out, November and December promise to be just as exciting as September and October.
Oh, and if you're not a Buccaneer season ticketholder, but the above rogue's gallery of opponents sounds too good to pass up, you can still get in on the action. In fact, if you come by RJS this weekend for the Pick A Seat event on Saturday or Sunday you can even pick the exact seat from which to watch the season unfold.
Fans who come to Pick A Seat can enjoy all-day entertainment on the stadium's enormous videoboards and map out exactly where to find all the amenities at RJS from their potential seats. It will almost feel like being at a game…without, of course, the actual game action taking place on the field. Still, it's not hard to imagine the hard hits and breakaway runs that will be taking place on the stadium grass in just a few short months, especially considering the fascinating Buccaneer schedule that was released four weeks ago.
NOTE: We defined the "first half" of the Bucs' home slate as the first four games at Raymond James Stadium in the regular season. Before the fourth of those contests, Tampa Bay will also play what is technically a home game in London against the New England Patriots on October 25. Thus, there are only three home games on what we are terming the "second half."
So now let's continue our visit-by-visit look at the teams that will be coming to Raymond James Stadium in the regular season this fall, and what subplots might be particularly interesting in each case. Here are the Bucs' final three home games of the 2009 regular season.
November 22: New Orleans Saints, 1:00 p.m.
As the Saints' division mates since 2002, the Buccaneers have had an up-close look as New Orleans has developed one of the league's most explosive offenses in recent years.
Tampa Bay has long enjoyed the challenge of facing the likes of Deuce McAllister and Joe Horn and Aaron Brooks. However, that challenge has gone to a different level since the arrival of quarterback Drew Brees in 2006. With running back Reggie Bush and wide receiver Marques Colston also coming on board that year, Brees has had all the targets he has needed to throw for over 4,000 years in each of his three Saints seasons.
In fact, Brees has averaged a stunning 4,637 passing yards and 29 touchdowns over those years; for comparison's sake, the Buccaneers' single-season records in those two categories are 3,811 and 26. Brees threw for over 5,000 yards last year even with Colston unavailable due to injury for much of the campaign. Colston should be healthy again, and the team also re-signed deep threat Devery Henderson. There seems to be no reason to believe that the Saints' passing attack will be any less explosive in 2009.
With McAllister no longer around, many analysts expected the Saints to draft a power-running back in the first round to pair with the diminutive but dangerous Bush. Instead, the Saints used a limited number of draft picks to concentrate on the defense, which has lagged well behind the offense in recent years. The Saints got good use out of Pierre Thomas last year but still finished 28th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (they were, of course, first in passing).
Still, addressing the defense made sense, since the Saints ranked 23rd in yards allowed per game and 26th in points allowed per game in 2008. Thus the selection of Ohio State defensive back Malcolm Jenkins with the first overall pick; Jenkins was a cornerback with the Buckeyes but could project to either that position or safety in New Orleans, perhaps depending upon where the Saints end up with the greatest need in their secondary. New Orleans also used two fourth-round picks on a safety and a linebacker and a fifth-rounder on a punter, but that was the extent of their '09 draft class.
Perhaps that's why the Saints were the most active of the four NFC South teams when it came to free agency. The biggest move was the re-signing of LB Jonathan Vilma, a player that surely would have drawn significant interest on the open market. The Saints also let S Josh Bullocks depart for Chicago but added two new players at his position in Darren Sharper and Pierson Prioleau. New Orleans also nabbed one of the top cornerbacks on the market, former Buffalo Bill Jabari Greer. All considered, the Saints should have a drastically different secondary in 2009.
The Saints also parted ways with defensive tackle Brian Young, a long-time stalwart in their defense, as well as defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, but brought in former Atlanta Falcon DT Rod Coleman. The Saints' have gotten much of their pass rush off the edges in recent years but could have a whole new look up front in 2009.
By late November, it should be obvious whether or not the Saints' efforts to revamp their defense have taken hold. It will also be clear whether or not New Orleans and/or Tampa Bay is in the thick of the NFC South title hunt. Given the high hopes in both cities, this could be one of the games on which the Bucs' season hinges as the stretch drive begins.
December 13: New York Jets, 1:00 p.m.
After two weeks on the road, the Bucs will return home to face what could be one of the most fascinating visitors on the schedule in 2009. The Jets have a new head coach in Rex Ryan but most of the focus is on the team's quarterback position. After taking a chance on Brett Favre in 2009, and missing the playoffs in Eric Mangini's final year at the helm, New York made the boldest move of the day during the draft's first round, trading all the way up to pick #5 to get USC quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Will Sanchez be the starter in his rookie season? The chances of the rookie being under center are obviously higher in the season's final month, and it's unlikely that New York wants to wait too long to get their prized rookie on the field. Often, a rookie starter at quarterback is an indication of a rebuilding season without playoff hope, but the Atlanta Falcons and Matt Ryan demonstrated the possibility of quite different results just last year.
Like the Saints, the Jets had a very small draft class in 2009 thanks to a variety of aggressive trades such as the move up for Sanchez. Still, the team may have found its running back of the future in Iowa's Shonn Greene in the third round. Greene really had only one year as the feature back for the Hawkeyes, but he made the most of it with 1,850 yards, 20 touchdowns and the Doak Walker Award in 2008. Whether or not Greene develops as the Jets main ballcarrier, and how quickly he does so, may depend on the Jets ability to work with a pair of disgruntled runners in Thomas Jones and Leon Washington. One way or another, it's likely that New York will try to establish a strong running attack this fall in order to take the heat off of Sanchez.
The Bucs hope to have a well-established running attack by that point, too, with Earnest Graham, Derrick Ward and possibly Cadillac Williams sharing the load. If they are relying on the ground game in December, they could face a stiff challenge in the Jets' defense, which ranked seventh against the run last year. New York lost leading tackler Eric Barton to Cleveland (and Mangini) in free agency but isn't worried after grabbing one of the top defensive players available in former Baltimore linebacker Bart Scott. Scott had 82 tackles and two sacks for the Ravens last year and is expected to be a big-time playmaker in New York.
For the Jets, pressure on the opposing passer comes off the edges, with well-established veterans Shaun Ellis, Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas leading the charge. The three combined for 21 sacks last season and will be expected to increase that number in 2009 under the very aggressive Ryan. Still, the excitement regarding the Jets, this season and for years to come, begins with Sanchez.
January 3: Atlanta Falcons, 1:00 p.m.
The Falcons will bring several marquee players to Raymond James Stadium a few days into the new year, but this one might be much bigger than any one or two names on either sideline.
The Buccaneers won the NFC South in 2007 and were in the thick of the race last year before a shocking 0-4 finish. The Falcons were expected to suffer through a difficult rebuilding year in '08 before stunningly posting an 11-5 record and making the playoffs as a Wild Card team.
Considering the obvious strengths of the Saints and Carolina Panthers, it appears as if the NFC South – statistically the NFL's most accomplished division since the realignment of 2002 – will be an all-out war again in 2009. If the Bucs and the Falcons are still in that war in the season's final days, this came could be one of the most exciting contests ever played in Raymond James Stadium.
Of course, the built-in enmity between the Bucs and Falcons would likely have made this a heated contest no matter what is at stake. The two teams split last year, each winning at home, and Atlanta's victory in the Georgia Dome in December was one of the killer blows to the Bucs' playoff hopes.
That said, the Falcons bring some of the league's rising stars to Raymond James Stadium, too. That begins, obviously, with Ryan, the second-year passer who turned in one of the greatest rookie seasons ever in 2008. Atlanta was sure Ryan was their QB of the future when they made him the fourth overall choice in the '08 draft, but it's doubtful that they expected him to lead the team to the playoffs as a rookie.
The Buccaneers fared well against Ryan in 2008; in two games, the rookie passer completed 28 of 56 passes (50.0%) for 364 yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions, while taking five sacks. Will they be able to contain the former Boston College star again in '09? The answer may depend on how well the Bucs handle Atlanta's rushing attack.
There's a star in that arena, too. Or perhaps two stars. Former LaDainian Tomlinson backup Michael Turner was one of the best free agency acquisitions of the year in 2008, rushing for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns for the league's second-best running squad. Turner was spelled by supersub Jerious Norwood, who added 489 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per tote. Those two helped Atlanta gain a whopping 152.7 rushing yards per game; there is little doubt the Falcons will emphasize the running attack again in 2009.
With the offense healed by the additions of Ryan and Turner, Atlanta clearly headed into 2009 hoping to address their defense, which ranked 24th in yards allowed last year, 21st against the pass and 25th against the run. That focus was reflected in the Falcons' draft, which began with five straight defensive players, and seven of eight overall. Atlanta has had difficulty pumping up its pass rush in the draft – 2007 first-rounder Jamaal Anderson has two sacks in 31 starts so far – but that may change with the addition of Mississippi DT Peria Jerry, the team's '09 first-round choice. If Perry is the type of up-the-middle penetrator the Falcons expect him to be, that defense will become much more difficult to handle. Second-round pick William Moore, a hard-hitting safety from Missouri, could make an instant impact as well.