This is what everyone expected the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to look like when the season began. Potent offense, opportunistic defense, and playoff contenders.
The Buccaneers are 6-4, and were it not for a poor showing early in the season, they could very well be leading or tied for the division race. Every game they’ve won, they’ve put up a tremendous amount of points. Every game they’ve lost has been extremely close, down to the wire one might say.
The offense is clicking on all cylinders, despite losing their best offensive lineman, guard Carl Nicks, to a season ending injury several weeks ago. Their success rests, for the most part, on the tremendous play of rookie running back Doug Martin. Martin, a smaller back, has shown shockingly great strength running between the tackles, and equally outstanding ability to outrun defenders. The passing game is very good, no doubt about it, but the running game is what makes everything go for Tampa’s defense.
That’s exactly where the Falcons defense has struggled. They have been fairly miserable in 2012, ranked 26th in the NFL, giving up 130.5 yards per game on the ground. The Falcons haven’t looked good defending the run recently, and part of that has to do with opponents commitment to the run, but also the key players the Falcons have been missing.
Defensive tackle Corey Peters missed the first six weeks of the season, and is just now making some sort of impact in the games he does play in. DTs Vance Walker, Jonathan Babineaux, and Peria Jerry have been banged up recently as well. But the biggest missing piece has been LB Sean Weatherspoon. ‘Spoon is great playing the run, playing the pass, blitzing, and weeding through tackles to make plays. He’s quite simply the most important player on the defense, and since he has been missing since the end of the game in Philadelphia, something has been missing from this defense. If the Falcons wish to win, they will have to have Weatherspoon back and trying to stop Doug Martin.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons have tried unsuccessfully to establish a running game. That hasn’t worked out very well, whether it be a result of poor blocking by the offensive line or poor running by Michael Turner. Needless to say, this isn’t the week for the Falcons to re-establish that run attack, as the Buccaneers are the No. 1 team defending the run in the NFL. They are averaging only 81 yards per game on the ground to opponents, so things don’t look good for the Falcons in that aspect.
The one area where Tampa can be had is in the passing game. Tampa is currently 32nd in the NFL defending the pass. It’s also something that the Falcons have changed. They continue to throw the football more than ever, and for the most part, are more effective and efficient than ever. Tampa not only gives up a bundle of passing yards, but also points.
Tampa doesn’t boast much of a pass rush. They’re 25th in the NFL in sacks. DT Gerald McCoy is a good interior presence, but he is anything but a consistent player. They also are woefully undermanned in the defensive backfield. They recently traded Aqib Talib, and CB Eric Wright has fought injuries all season long. Their best cornerback who is guaranteed to be on the field Sunday is E.J. Biggers. He can certainly make plays, but he’s more of a liability than anything else.
The real wildcard that could tie the Falcons hands and prevent this from becoming a shootout is Tampa’s safeties. Atlanta will likely have its way with Tampa’s corners, but the Buccaneers safeties Ronde Barber and Mark Barron could make things difficult for the Falcons. Barber isn’t as athletic or physical as he once was, but there isn’t a smarter defensive player in the NFL. Barron, who is a rookieand is much better in run support, can do things to defend the pass. If the Falcons can make Barron stay in the box, they could have a big day. If not, they need to be aware of these two safeties playing deep.
An NFC South division matchup is never an easy game. This one is no different. The Falcons will have to scratch, claw, and fight tooth and nail to emerge from this game victorious. This game isn’t mathematically a must-win, but in reality it’s a must win game for the Falcons. A win would almost certainly seal the division for the Falcons, knock the Bucs out of the division race, and keep things on their terms. If they were to lose, it would keep both Tampa and New Orleans in the race far longer than anyone hoped. It would put the division championship at risk, and also risk giving New Orleans or Tampa the division crown. These are all things that absolutely can’t happen, so while math remains on the Falcons side regardless of the outcome, reality, perception, and momentum show only one possible positive outcome.