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I remember looking at the Falcons schedule a few of weeks ago and highlighting the games that would prove to be challenging. At the time, the Buccaneers had a 1-3 record and were no concern to me. Man, has that changed.
The Bucs have won four games in a row and five of their last six to give them a respectable 6-4 record. While the Falcons are a superior team, Tampa has the talent necessary to pull off an upset on Sunday.
After two straight shaky performances, things aren't going to get easier this week for Atlanta—Matt Ryan included. The Falcons QB has thrown for interceptions (9) than touchdowns (8) in his career against Tampa and is coming off one of his worst performances at the professional level. Additionally, as we'll delve into deeper in a minute, the Falcons run defense will have their hands full, especially if Mike Nolan's crew isn't at full health.
Atlanta will get its first taste of the new and improved Buccaneers. Tampa Bay, coming off an overtime win over the Panthers, hosts Atlanta on Sunday and has won five of its last six games after starting the season 1-3. The Falcons have fared well against the Bucs since Smith and QB Matt Ryan, who threw a career-high five interceptions against the Cardinals, arrived in 2008. They are 6-2 against them.
Despite Michael Turner's struggles, Coach Smith remains confident in his starting running back. The former Pro Bowler's yards per carry has dropped from a 4.5 average last year to 3.7 in 2012, but it doesn't appear as if he's about to lose his job to backup JacQuizz Rodgers. While there are plenty of RBs throughout the league that are more productive than Turner, the Falcons have none of them at their disposal, so Smith's comments shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Of course, that could all change in the offseason. But for now, giving Turner the bulk of the carries is the only rational move, as Rodger's 5'6'' frame wouldn't be able to handle a heavy workload.
"Guys, again, I think we've been very transparent from the very beginning," said Smith. "I've been saying this since April that you're not going to look up at the end of the season and see Michael Turner having 300 carries. That's not the type of football team we are. We may have been that type of team when we first got here, but we're a completely different football team and I think our statistics and our rations define that. We're going to be an offense that we are going to move the ball around to our different assets and we've got a lot of assets. Michael Turner is an asset as well as Jacquizz Rodgers and as well as Jason Snelling in our backfield."
Following the suspension of Joe Hawley, the Falcons went ahead and nabbed guard Harlund Gunn off the Saints practice squad. Standing at 6'22, 320 pounds, the University of Miami (FL) alum will probably spend the entirety of Sunday's game on the sidelines. That said, he did spend some time with New Orleans, so perhaps there's more to this signing than adding depth...
Even though the Bucs have won four games a row, they're still having trouble filling Raymond James Stadium. The Tampa Bay area will not be able to watch Sunday's game on TV if the team doesn't sell more than 7,000 tickets by 1 p.m. EST on Thursday, according to league rules.
Akeem Dent has been getting better and better as the season has gone on, but the loss of Sean Weatherspoon remains palpable. With the toughest part of the schedule on the horizon, the Falcons are going to need their best defensive player healthy and ready to go sooner rather than later. This week would be a nice start, as the Bucs feature one of the best RBs in the league in Doug Martin.
“This running team that we’re getting ready to face is doing a great job,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “The rookie running back has had some really explosive games. It will be a challenge for us.”