By Matthew Asher
With just two games played against NFC rivals this year, the Falcons head to Tampa Bay this weekend to take on the Bucs for the first of two meetings in the final six regular season games.
While Atlanta did beat Arizona last week, it wasn’t a pretty victory. The Falcons will have to be much sharper this week when they face the surprisingly good Bucs’ offense quarterbacked by Josh Freeman.
Coach Smitty knows one of the keys to the game will be to limit Freeman and his production. “He’s running the offense extremely well. They’re scoring a lot of points, and they’re doing it both running and throwing the ball,” Smitty said. “I think he’s throwing with more accuracy. I don’t think he’s taking off and running with it as much. When he does he’s running effectively…I think he’s doing a good job of getting the ball out of his hands.”
One reason for Freeman’s improved offense is the addition of two key receivers: wide receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Dallas Clark. For those who don’t pay much attention to the AFC, Clark was one of Peyton Manning’s weapons when the two played together in Indianapolis.
While Clark’s move to Tampa Bay may not have been a huge headline, he’s been quietly proving just how good a receiving tight end he is. “Dallas the last three or four weeks has really become more of a productive player for them,” Smitty said. “He creates some issues inside and outside, not to take anything away from the other guys. He’s done a nice job in his production.”
The other main reason for Tampa’s recent success is their new head coach Greg Schiano. While he may not be playing on the field, any sports fan worth their salt knows how invaluable a good coach can be for their team.
What’s interesting about the Bucs this year is the disparity of their run defense versus their pass defense. As far as rushing defense goes, the Bucs are statistically the best in the league. “They play with a lot of passion and a lot of energy. They’re doing a very good job in their run defense,” Smitty said. “They’ve been a very aggressive team in terms of stopping the run…The other thing that I think shows up is they’re very good in the turnover ratio, but when they do create those turnovers the offense is turning them into points. They’re number one in the League in terms of scoring touchdowns off turnovers.”
But what about Tampa’s pass defense? It’s the worst in the league. That’s good for the Falcons since they have one of the most efficient passing games and one of the weaker running attacks in the league.
The fact that Tampa is so poor on passing defense is a definite shock since they have one of the best secondary players in the league, Ronde Barber. He’s someone that Matty Ryan will have to constantly know where he is. “Ronde is an extremely smart player. He probably knows his defense as well as anybody in the NFL,” Ryan said. “He’s a great pattern reader, very good at reading the quarterback’s eyes, and anticipating things coming from the offense. I think he’s been a good fit for them on the back end.”
With the Falcons currently at 1-1 in their division, the Tampa game will be a good barometer to see exactly where the Falcons stack up in the rest of the division. Tampa is currently the only other NFC South team with a winning record (the Saints are .500) so this game will not have the feel of a trap game. Kickoff is at 1pm EST.
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Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on Examiner.com.