The Atlanta Falcons might have seemed like a sideshow to the coronation of Drew Brees as the most prolific single-season passer in NFL history on Monday night, but it's worth noting that the visiting team actually put up more yards than the Saints in that game, 469-463.
Atlanta rang up 23 first downs, passed for 434 yards and didn't allow a single sack in 61 dropbacks by Matt Ryan and Chris Redman, and converted eight of 17 third-down tries. Yes, more than half of those 469 total yards came after the Saints had gone up 28-10 in the third quarter, but that doesn't change the fact that the Falcon offense has been on a roll of late.
Since coming off its bye week in late October, Atlanta has averaged 407 yards of offense per game over an eight-week span. The Falcons have vaulted to 10th in the league's offensive rankings and seventh in passing yards. Ryan has crossed the 4,000-yard passing mark and three of his targets – Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones – have at least 867 receiving yards.
That's the offense the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be trying to slow down when they visit the Georgia Dome on Sunday for their 2011 season finale. The Bucs' defense has struggled in recent weeks, but there is still reason for optimism, that being the results of the first Atlanta-Tampa Bay game this season. In Week Three, Tampa Bay won 16-13 and limited the Falcons to 325 yards of offense. Almost half of that came in the fourth quarter after the Bucs had built a 16-3 lead.
As the numbers over their last eight games show, the Falcons' offense has improved as the season has transpired, probably due in part to the continued assimilation of Jones and running back Jacquizz Rodgers, both rookies playing significant roles. The Buccaneers expect a more difficult challenge this time around than in Week Three, especially considering this one will be played on Falcon turf.
"Roddy had a good game against us last time – both [White and Jones] had good games against us last time," said cornerback E.J. Biggers, who has since taken over as the starting left cornerback with the loss of Aqib Talib. "We'll try to contain them a little bit. They're a very explosive threat…Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas, Michael Turner in the backfield and Matt Ryan at the helm. Like I said, a very explosive offense.
"We've just got to go in and execute our game plan this week and just keep getting better."
Rookie linebacker Mason Foster had one of his best games as a pro in that Week Three meeting with Atlanta, combining six tackles, with a tackle for loss, a sack and a quarterback pressure. Midway through the third quarter, with Atlanta driving into Buccaneers territory, Foster blitzed on a third-and-five and dropped Ryan for a seven-yard sack. Pushed back to that no-man's-land of the 38-yard line, the Falcons punted and got only an 18-yard netback on the ensuing touchback.
Rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn also had a big sack in that game, forcing a fumble that gave the Bucs an instant scoring opportunity in the opening minutes. That opportunity was lost to a subsequent interception, but the Bucs still built a 16-3 lead, helped by four sacks of Ryan, an interception and two fumble recoveries.
The two teams' seasons have gone in opposite directions since that game, but Foster thinks the Buccaneers' defense can do something similar to the Falcons' dangerous attack if they can summon up the same level of effort as in Week Three.
"We haven't had as much success as we'd like and they've had a good season," he said. "But we played them well the first time around. We're out there just treating this like any other week, trying to get better."
The Bucs have generally played well in the Georgia Dome, in good seasons and bad. During a 3-13 season in 2009, Tampa Bay had a 17-13 lead with less than 30 seconds to play in Atlanta before a last-minute, fourth-down touchdown pass made it 20-17. Last year, the Falcons were on their way to an NFC-best 13-3 record in November when the Bucs visited, and but for a failed fourth-and-one at the Atlanta two-yard line late in the fourth quarter, that might also have ended in Tampa Bay's favor.
There is no love lost between the Buccaneers and Falcons, and even though Tampa Bay's roster is loaded with young players who have seen little of the rivalry's history, there seems to be some extra motivation for the Bucs when they travel to Atlanta. Defensive end Michael Bennett thinks he's seeing that on the practice field this week.
"They're the same team," he said. "They're still making the same plays they've been making all year, they still have a good quarterback, good running back, good receivers, good offensive line. It's just whether or not we're going to show up and compete with them. Looks like the way we're practicing that everybody's focused and wants to come out and compete."
Joseph Expects All-Star Company Soon
Though he is the Buccaneers' lone Pro Bowl selection this year, guard Davin Joseph will not be going to Hawaii alone in late January.
Speaking to the assembled media for the first time since he learned of his all-star nod on Tuesday night, Joseph reiterated on Wednesday that he believed the honor should be shared with his fellow offensive lineman. To drive that point home, he also revealed that his O-Line teammates will be joining him in Honolulu for a week-long vacation.
"I'm proud to be the one that was chosen but I couldn't do it without my guys," said Joseph. "It just shows that we have talent, and there's no doubt that we've put in a lot of work. Things are not panning out for us right now but soon they will be."
Joseph believes the Buccaneers, who will finish the 2011 season with either four or five wins after a very promising 10-6 campaign in 2010, will soon restore their winning ways. And, as is understandably the case, winning teams draw more attention for their individual players when it comes to Pro Bowl voting time. It's no surprise that the two teams with the most Pro Bowl players this year are New England and San Francisco. Obviously, talented rosters helped those teams win playoff berths, and in turn those accomplishments shined a brighter light on individual talents.
The Buccaneers saw that phenomenon in the mid-'90s, when their turnaround from 15 straight losing seasons to a playoff campaign in 1997 immediately resulted in eight Pro Bowl berths. From 1997-2003, Tampa Bay averaged more than six Pro Bowlers per season. Joseph expects that to happen again in Tampa.
"I just really want to represent the Buccaneers, show that we have talented players and we have a bright future here," he said. "I'll be the first this year, but soon to come we'll see a lot of guys in this locker room taking that trip to Hawaii."
DT Ranks Thinned by Injury
The three busiest men on the practice field at One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday were Jovan Haye, Frank Okam and Lamar Divens.
Haye, Okam and Divens are all defensive tackles, and they are also all the defensive tackles the Bucs had healthy enough to practice on Wednesday afternoon.
Starters Albert Haynesworth and Brian Price, who missed last Saturday's game with knee and ankle injuries, respectively, were held out again at the start this week for the same reasons. Roy Miller started in Price's place against the Panthers but on Wednesday he too was sidelined due to a back ailment. Defensive end Michael Bennett saw some action on the inside against the Panthers with the team short-handed, but he watched Wednesday's workout as well due to his ongoing struggles with a toe injury.
That left all the reps to Haye, Okam and Divens. Haye was just signed by the Buccaneers last week while Okam was only re-promoted from the practice squad two weeks ago. Divens is still on the practice squad, so he wouldn't be eligible to play Sunday anyway unless he is subsequently promoted to the active roster.
Obviously, then, the Buccaneers will be keeping a close eye on their defensive tackle situation this week.
"It's kind of similar to last week," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We'll have to wait until a game-time decision. We've got to get them out there in practice and play. We had three guys out there in practice today going hard. They were full-go, lathered up, ready to deal.
"I'm fired up for those three guys and the other guys were out there doing some mental reps. Hopefully as we get closer to the game we'll get a chance to practice tomorrow the next day and we'll see."
Also sitting out Wednesday's practice were starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood (concussion), starting wide receiver Arrelious Benn (neck) and wide receiver Preston Parker (concussion). Both DE Adrian Clayborn (hamstring) and linebacker Geno Hayes (finger) were on the field but limited.