The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are no pushovers.
After the Falcons were dominated by the Bears and squeaked out a thrilling win over the Eagles, you could be forgiven for looking past the Bucs a little bit. After all, the Saints and the Packers are coming up, and those games are vital tests for a Falcons team that has presented itself as leaner, meaner and twice as explosive.
That would still be a mistake. Led by talented young quarterback Josh Freeman, human battering ram LaGarette Blount, dynamic young receiver Mike Williams and a stout defensive front seven, the Bucs will fight the Falcons tooth and nail. They did last season, and they have done anything but take a step backward in 2011.
This is the most winnable game the Falcons have through the first five weeks, and they will come in to Raymond James Stadium like a black-and-red steamroller. To do anything less would be foolish. It also just so happens that the Falcons match up better against the Bucs than either of the teams they’ve played thus far in 2011, though there are still pitfalls.
With that in mind, I figured it was time to take a closer look at our erstwhile NFC South rivals. After the jump, find my biggest question, three smaller ones and a prediction.
The Biggest Question
Will the Bucs prove to be a sleeping giant?
Looking at the team’s statistics, it’s hard to be much of anything but underwhelmed. The offense has mustered up five touchdowns in two games. The defense has managed one interception and two sacks. Opponents have run for 312 (!) yards in just two games, and one of those guys was not Adrian Peterson. They have been, to this point, pretty much exactly what you would think a 1-1 team would be.
The problem is that they have the talent to be better than that. They also get to play a division rival at home, so you can bet Raheem Morris will have them fired up. In addition, Freeman, Williams, Blount and the powerful defensive line provide some matchup problems for the Falcons, based on their shaky offensive line and occasional lapses in coverage.
There’s also the little fact that the Buccaneers really don’t care for the Falcons. That ought to put a little more tobacco in their collective pipe, so to speak.
Of course, the reverse may be true. Josh Freeman had an insanely low 1.3 percent interception rate last year, which quarterbacks have trouble sustaining from year-to-year. The defense was far from a shutdown force in 2010, as well. There’s talent here, but it’s young, growing talent that may not fully blossom in 2011.
The Bucs also have a coach who screamed "STATS ARE FOR LOSERS!" in the locker room after the Vikings game, so it’s entirely possible the Football Gods will take their revenge.
Three Smaller Questions
Question 1: Will the line be able to protect Matt Ryan? I ask this question every week, it seems, but Ice has taken an absolute beating thus far. Take a look at these sack numbers:
Sam Baker: 2 sacks allowed
Justin Blalock: 0.5 sacks allowed
Joe Hawley: 1.5 sacks allowed
Garrett Reynolds: 2 sacks allowed
Tyson Clabo: 2 sacks allowed
The only offensive lineman who has been stout as a pass blocker thus far is Justin Blalock, who I’ve championed as the best pass protector on this line for the last couple seasons. The Buccaneers do not have an elite pass rush, per se, but they have enough talent up front to bring heat to Ryan.
If the line does its job and does it well, the Falcons should be able to put up a ton of points on the Bucs. That’s still an open question, though.
Question 2: Will this be the game where Julio Jones busts out? After disappearing against the Bears and turning in an encouraging but still average performance against the Eagles, this matchup would seem to be a ripe one for young Julio. After all, he’s up against Ronde Barber, who remains solid but is 36 years old. That's a bit of a mismatch.
With Roddy White drawing coverage from Aqib Talib and the Bucs offering up average safeties, it really could be Jones’ turn. I’d love to see that athleticism in the service of a leaping touchdown pass, for example.
Question 3: Can the Falcons tackle LaGarette Blount? The tackling has been suspect for much of the last two games, and Blount is an absolute load to bring down. Guy weighs like 400 pounds. His legs are as big around as red oaks.
He also averaged five yards a carry last season. Which isn't nothing.
So the Falcons will have to bring their tackling A game and continue their strong performance against the run. If they do that, it puts them in an excellent position to win.
I like the Falcons’ chances in this one. A lot, actually.
The Buccaneers will put up a good fight, but ultimately I think the Falcons will pull it out by the score of 31-20. What say you, gentle readers?