NFL Preview - Atlanta (2-7) at Tampa Bay (1-8)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - This isn't what Tony Gonzalez signed up for.
Coaxed out of possibly retiring, the future Hall of Fame tight end decided to spend one more season with the Atlanta Falcons in hopes that this will finally be the year he gets a chance at a Super Bowl title.
Well, the Falcons are an abysmal 2-7 and chances of at least capturing a wild card berth are pretty much lost. Still, they have to move on and continue this tumultuous season, which resumes Sunday against the just-as-lowly and NFC South rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
Gonzalez was rumored to be on the trading block so the athletic pass catcher can link on with a contender. With the trading deadline now past that's not going to happen and Gonzalez is sticking it out with Atlanta, which has lost three straight.
Last year's No. 1 seed in the NFC and division champion, the Falcons were handed a 33-10 beating at home by the Seattle Seahawks Sunday in a rematch of last year's divisional playoffs. Gonzalez caught three passes for 29 yards and injured a toe on his left foot in the second half. Gonzalez said he couldn't play full speed, but was able to fight through pain.
"Usually when you have injuries, you can get through it through the game. Then the next day after it calms down and swells up a little bit, then that's when the trouble starts," Gonzalez said afterward. "So, we'll see how goes. Tomorrow, I'm going to wake up, and hopefully it's not that bad."
If Gonzalez is unable to go, that will leave quarterback Matt Ryan without three healthy targets. Julio Jones is already finished with a foot problem, Roddy White isn't 100 percent because of a hamstring and now Gonzalez. White had one reception for 20 yards against Seattle and was playing for the first time since an Oct. 7 loss to the New York Jets.
Harry Douglas led the corps with seven catches for 49 yards and Ryan completed 23 of his 36 pass attempts for 172 yards and a touchdown. The Falcons are off to the worst starts since going 1-6 in 2007, 1-7 in 2003 and 2-9 in 1999, and any speculation that head coach Mike Smith's job is in jeopardy went out the window following Sunday's loss.
"Mike Smith is a hell of a football coach; he's the leader of this team," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told ESPN.com. "Mike's going nowhere."
You know what else is going nowhere? Atlanta's running game. It's the worst in the league at 64.3 yards per game and hasn't been able to carry its own weight amid the passing struggles. Veteran Steven Jackson has been limited to five games and ran for 11 yards on nine rushes versus the Seahawks. The Falcons aren't going to instill fear in opposing defenses with a hobbled Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, who leads Atlanta with 251 yards on the ground.
The Falcons hope to get left tackle Sam Baker back from injury and he has been bothered by a knee issue. Lamar Holmes went back to playing left tackle and Jeremy Trueblood took over the right side.
"Yes, it is a concern," Smith said of Baker's health and the mix up across the line. "When you can't go out and play consecutive games, you have to be concerned about it. Sam's doing everything he can in terms of getting back out there and we wanted to make sure that he's 100 percent before we put him back out on the football field."
The Buccaneers got off the schneid with Monday night's 22-19 win over the Miami Dolphins. They are no longer the only winless club in the NFL and played a satisfactory game to prevail for the first time since last Dec. 30.
With Doug Martin on injured reserve, Brian Leonard carried the rushing load with 57 yards on 20 carries after Mike James was lost with a fractured ankle. Bobby Rainey got some reps as well and tallied 45 yards and a score on eight touches. Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon passed for 139 yards with a touchdown and interception, and talked about the ground game.
"I think Mike (James) got off to a great start. First try with him, he went down the field. But Brian Leonard has been around for a long time and he's a very good football player and we all knew what he was capable of," Glennon said. "Then Bobby Rainey really stepped up. He's only been here for a few weeks, these are really his first meaningful reps and to do what he did shows that he is a real special player. It looks like they are going to have to step up. I think between those two, they did a really good job."
Glennon still hasn't emerged as a franchise quarterback, but played safe enough to lift Tampa Bay to victory. Bucs head coach Greg Schiano was pleased to end the slump.
"It's a good feeling to be able to stand up here after a win," Schiano stated. "I'm really proud of our guys. It had that same feeling going down the back stretch, and our guys bowed up and made some plays in the clutch to win the game. That's something much needed and something that we'll build on now moving forward."
Tampa Bay, which opened the 2009 campaign 1-12, was able to stop a seven-game losing streak at home and amassed 264 total yards versus Miami, a franchise that entered Monday's game in turmoil because of the recent bullying scandal among two of its offensive linemen. It didn't seem to bother the Bucs, as they posted two sacks, an interception and four passes defensed. The Bucs had the two sacks on the Dolphins' final drive to thwart any comeback.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay seems to have itself a running-back-by-committe going on now with Martin and James gone. The Bucs did sign Michael Hill off the Packers' practice squad.
The Falcons and Bucs split two meetings last season, while Tampa Bay has lost eight of the last 10 in the series, including a 31-23 setback back on Oct. 20. The Bucs are 1-4 at home, while Atlanta is winless on the road this season (0-4) and has won three of four at Tampa Bay.
The all-time series between theses NFC South foes is even at 20-20.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Falcons still have to slow down Tampa Bay's solid committee of running backs and failed to that against the Seahawks Sunday. Of Seattle's 490 yards of offense, 211 came on the ground thanks to Marshawn Lynch, who ran for a season-high 145 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. Some speculated that Atlanta's defense was flat from the start.
"No, I don't feel like we came out flat," Falcons DT Jonathan Babineaux said. "First of all, I felt like we had a great week of practice and believed that we could get the victory leading into the game. The first couple of series we held their offense to just six points. We played hard today but just didn't make enough plays in the game to beat that ball club. We just have to continue to get better as a football team."
Babineaux could have his wish granted with the pending returning of star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon has been out since a foot injury in Week 2 against St. Louis and NFL rules has kept him sidelined until now. The versatile and tenacious Weatherspoon will definitely help a disenchanted Atlanta defense and Smith agrees.
"It'll be a big help to our defense," Smith said. "Sean, through his play since he's been here, has earned a leadership role. He is one of our best players. He's got a great attitude. He's a guy that can inspire his teammates, so it'll be good to have him back out on the field."
Weatherspoon is expected to practice this week and his return will shake up Atlanta's linebacker corps, but only for the better. He has eight tackles on the season and registered 96 stops in 2012, one year after a career-high 115 tackles.
Tampa Bay played well on defense Monday to reach the win column for the first time in 2013. Will the effort carry over against a Falcons team that still has enough firepower to rip off a few wins in a row?
Well, the Bucs allowed just two yards rushing to Miami and the Falcons dreadful running the football, so there shouldn't be a problem there. White will have another week to heal for Atlanta and hopes to have the same success Dolphins receiver Rishard Matthews had on Monday, when he caught 11 passes for 120 yards and a pair of scores.
The Falcons have the pleasure of facing one of the best in Bucs cornerback Darrelle Revis, who feels the team's confidence will grow after the first win.
"A win cures everything. We've been 0-8 and been struggling to get wins this year, but it (feels) good to get our first win. Especially at home, (where) the fans were into it, it was Veterans Day," Revis said. "It was an emotional game for us and we knew the type of game it was going to be on Monday night as well. It's great; it's great for the fans. It's going to give us confidence to move forward week in and week out."
In the week of Oct. 20, Falcons wide receiver Douglas ripped the Bucs' secondary for 149 yards and a touchdown on seven catches.
In a matchup that has no legitimate playoff impact, expect the Falcons and Bucs to come out swinging just to save face and restore pride. Atlanta is hoping the return of defensive stalwart Weatherspoon will aid them in getting back to respectability and that Ryan can continue to protect the football. He didn't thrown an interception last Sunday, but had seven in the previous two weeks.
Ryan's 172 yards passing versus Seattle were a season low and the weak ground attack prevented the Falcons from stopping their slide. The still-listless Bucs are next and it wouldn't be a surprise if Atlanta's offense, which has scored no more than 13 points in the past three weeks, comes to life.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Buccaneers 16
11/14 15:10:53 ET