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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (1-7) at Miami (3-5)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Last Sunday, when he engineered a surprising upset of the Green Bay Packers in his first NFL start, Buccaneers rookie quarterback Josh Freeman walked off the field a hero.
This week, when the Bucs look for their first road win of 2009 in a matchup with the Miami Dolphins, he'll find out what it's like to play the role of villain.
Freeman, who was roughly a month removed from being Tampa Bay's third quarterback, was the answer for the Buccaneers under center in their 38-28 win, and by ending the team's brief run as the NFL's only winless team, did what predecessors Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson could not.
The first-round draft choice out of Kansas State completed 14-of-31 passes for 205 yards and a three touchdowns versus just one turnover despite the absence of top receiver Antonio Bryant, and the rookie was aided in his efforts by a defense that scored a game-sealing touchdown off an interception in the waning moments, and earlier in the day notched a touchdown off a blocked punt return.
The victory for Freeman was also the first for youthful head coach Raheem Morris, who had come under fire from the team's frustrated fan base during the 0-7 start.
This week, the task for Morris and Freeman will be snapping the team's six-game road losing streak, which has followed a win at Detroit last Nov. 23rd. Freeman will also be vying to become the first Tampa Bay rookie to win a start on the road since Shaun King beat the Bears at Soldier Field on Jan. 2, 2000.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, won't have time to prop up Freeman's resume'.
Instead of heading into the second half of the season at 4-4 with a win over the New England Patriots last week, a victory that would have left them with a 4-0 division record and just a game out of the AFC East lead, the Dolphins dropped to 3-5, and into a tie for last place, with their 27-17 loss in New England.
Miami and its young secondary struggled to contain the New England passing game, as Tom Brady completed 25-of-37 passes for 332 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the contest. New England wideout Randy Moss had a particularly big day against the Dolphins, hauling in six passes for 147 yards and struck a huge fourth-quarter blow with a 73-yard touchdown catch that broke a 17-17 tie.
The Dolphins' Chad Henne (19-of-34, 219 yards) failed to match his more esteemed counterpart, as Miami failed to trouble the scoreboard for close to the final 20 minutes of the contest.
Despite their disappointing 3-5 mark, the reigning AFC East champion Dolphins begin a stretch in which they'll have a chance to achieve some positive momentum.
Miami's next three games - against the Buccaneers (1-7), Panthers (3-5), and Bills (3-5) - all look winnable, and if the Dolphins can get on a roll, Tony Sparano's squad could enter a Dec. 6 home meeting with the Patriots in a position to do some damage in both the division and playoff races.
The all-time series between the Dolphins and Buccaneers is knotted, 4-4, with Tampa Bay evening the series by virtue of a 27-13 home win when the teams last met, in 2005. The Bucs have won three in a row since Miami's most recent win, in 1991, and were 16-13 winners when they last played a meaningful game in Miami, in 2000.
The teams also met in the 2009 preseason, with the Dolphins earning a 10-6 victory at Raymond James Stadium on Aug. 27th.
The Buccaneers' Morris and Dolphins' Sparano have never met as head coaches, nor have they met one another's respective teams.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
For the second straight week, Freeman (221 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) is likely to head into battle without a full complement of pass-catchers in tow. Bryant (knee) seems unlikely to play, continuing a disappointing season for him, and Michael Clayton has been bothered by a knee problem and is questionable as well. That means the team's starting receivers on Sunday could be Maurice Stovall (7 receptions) and Sammie Stroughter (19 receptions), with tight end Kellen Winslow (35 receptions, 5 TD) again expected to be a critical outlet for the rookie. Stovall had three catches for 54 yards last week, while Stroughter caught three balls including the aforementioned critical fourth- quarter TD. Winslow also had a touchdown in the win, and his four receptions and 57 yards were team-highs. The Bucs would like to take the pressure off of Freeman by establishing the running game, a directive that will be up to Cadillac Williams (366 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 3 TD) and Derrick Ward (183 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 2 TD). Williams had 16 carries for 56 yards against the Packers, while Ward did most of his damage through the air, catching three passes for 54 yards including a six-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. Freeman was sacked just once in his first NFL start, and the Bucs have surrendered a modest 16 sacks on the year. The Bucs are 28th in NFL total offense (273.1 yards per game).
Freeman can look forward to the Dolphins applying consistent pressure to the young quarterback, with outside linebackers Joey Porter (12 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Jason Taylor (23 tackles, 5.5 sacks) expected to be heavily involved and Miami likely to send more blitzes than did Tampa Bay. Porter has been battling knee and hamstring problems over the past few weeks, and has just a half-sack in his last five games, but Taylor has taken over the team lead in sacks and appears to be getting stronger. The probable step-up in pressure will place extra scrutiny on rookie cornerbacks Vontae Davis (23 tackles, 2 INT) and Sean Smith (23 tackles), who have played generally well in their first year as pros, last week's performance against New England's top-notch fleet of receivers not withstanding. Davis logged an interception of Tom Brady on the day, and safeties Nathan Jones (34 tackles, 1 INT) and Yeremiah Bell (57 tackles, 1.5 sacks) added value with nine tackles each. The Dolphins rank fifth in the league against the run as Week 10 begins (94.5 yards per game), with linemen Jason Ferguson (19 tackles) and Randy Starks (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks) among the active members up front and inside linebackers Channing Crowder (22 tackles) and Akin Ayodele (37 tackles) making plays behind them. Ferguson (elbow) and Crowder (shoulder) did not play last week against the Patriots but both are expected to be back Sunday.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Miami's vaunted "Wildcat" rushing attack had some success in last week's loss to the Patriots, as the Dolphins piled up 133 ground yards on 31 carries, but the fact that the team put the football in the air 37 times is an indication it did not have its best offensive day. Running backs Ronnie Brown (566 rushing yards, 7 TD, 12 receptions) and Ricky Williams (456 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 7 TD) combined for a sub-standard 81 yards on 22 totes in the contest, and both were nearly outgained by quarterback Pat White, who carried six times for 45 yards in his most significant action of the season. Henne (990 passing yards, 4 TD, 3 INT) was reasonably efficient, throwing for 219 yards without a turnover and suffering just two sacks, though the team's lack of explosive playmaking in the passing game was again a problem. Devone Bess (36 receptions) and Greg Camarillo (25 receptions) combined for 11 catches and 127 yards in the win, and reserve tight end Joey Haynos (7 receptions, 2 TD) caught a touchdown pass for the second straight week on a throw from Brown. Ted Ginn, Jr. (19 receptions, 1 TD), who lifted Miami to a Week 8 win by scoring a pair of touchdowns off kickoff returns against the Jets, posted just one seven-yard catch in the game. The strength of the Dolphins offensive line lies in run- blocking, and the team's slightly high total of 23 sacks allowed is evidence of this.
Job number one for the Bucs this week will be slowing the Miami running game, a directive that won't be easy to carry out for a Tampa Bay unit that is 30th in NFL rushing defense (163.4 yards per game). Defensive tackles Chris Hovan (15 tackles) and Ryan Sims (24 tackles, 1 sack) will be critical to the group's success, and linebackers Barrett Ruud (68 tackles, 1 INT) and Geno Hayes (47 tackles) - who are 1-2 on the team in stops - will have to be fundamentally sound behind them. Hayes had a team-high seven tackles against the Packers last week, but Tampa Bay gave up 180 ground yards to Green Bay in the win. The strength of the Buccaneers defense is a secondary that has seen cornerbacks Aqib Talib (28 tackles, 5 INT), Ronde Barber (34 tackles, 1 sack), and safety Tanard Jackson (23 tackles, 3 INT) all make big plays this season. Talib and Jackson both had picks of Aaron Rodgers last week, while Barber made his presence felt on a 31-yard blocked punt for a touchdown in the second quarter. The pass rush has been less consistent. registering just 17 sacks on the year, though the team's six-sack assault on Rodgers was encouraging. End Jimmy Wilkerson (33 tackles) is the team leader in sacks with 5.5, but did not have one of Rodgers last Sunday.
Despite the 38 points they scored and the emergence of Freeman last week, the Buccaneers continue to lack many great fantasy options. Winslow, who has three touchdown catches in his last four games, is worth a look but even he has been inconsistent.
On the Miami side, running backs Brown and Williams are solid plays this week against a Tampa Bay front seven that is not especially strong. The Dolphin defense is also a strong option against a rookie quarterback, though none of Miami's pass-catchers has been consistent enough to be worth rolling with.
The Buccaneers won a game last week, but there is also no doubt that the Packers lost it, as Green Bay played into Tampa's hands with huge mistakes in its passing game, on special teams, and in the area of pass protection. This week's opponent, the Dolphins, won't play a perfect game either but Miami is a much more disciplined and fundamentally-sound club, which is bad news for Freeman. Don't look for the Tampa Bay offense to have much success against a good Miami "D," and don't expect the Buccaneers to get the Dolphins' ground- based offense off the field very easily either.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 20, Buccaneers 3
11/12 16:22:08 ET