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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (1-9) at Atlanta (5-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Falcons' season is in a tailspin, but with four home games left on the schedule, the team can't be counted out just yet. A contest this weekend against the road-challenged Tampa Bay Buccaneers should also give the club a good chance at righting the ship.
Atlanta has lost four of its last five games since starting the season 4-1, and last weekend's tough-to-swallow 34-31 overtime loss to the New York Giants dropped the Falcons five games back of the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints, who are a perfect 10-0.
All is not lost, though, as long as the Falcons have some games left at the Georgia Dome, where they will host the Buccaneers this weekend. Atlanta is a perfect 4-0 at home this year and has won seven straight and 12 of its last 13 as the host. The Falcons' last home loss was against Denver on November 16 of last year.
Atlanta will need to recover from its three-point setback last weekend to New York. The Falcons trailed by 14 with 12:08 left in the fourth quarter, but quarterback Matt Ryan completed a four-yard touchdown pass to Eric Weems six minutes later before connecting with tight end Tony Gonzalez for the game- tying score from 11 yards out with 28 ticks left.
The Falcons, though, never got the ball in OT, as the Giants won the toss and marched down the field to set up Lawrence Tynes' 36-yard field goal.
Atlanta was without running back Michael Turner, who was out due to a sprained right ankle. Jason Snelling started in his place and ran for 76 yards on 25 carries while scoring a pair of touchdowns. Ryan ended with 268 yards passing without a pick, but Atlanta's pass defense allowed Giants quarterback Eli Manning to throw for a career-high 384 yards and three touchdown passes.
The Falcons will look to rebound versus a Buccaneers team that has dropped six straight on the road, including all four games away from Tampa this year.
Hosting last Sunday's game didn't help the Bucs (1-9) much either, as they were stomped by the Saints, 38-7. It was Tampa Bay's second loss in a row since its lone victory of the season, which came over Green Bay on November 8, and 13th in its last 14 games overall.
In his third career start, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman turned the ball over on four occasions, getting picked off three times in addition to a lost fumble. He was also sacked three times in completing 17-of-33 attempts for 126 yards.
Michael Clayton scored the Bucs' lone touchdown, hauling in an 18-yard pass from Freeman on the club's first offensive drive that totaled 95 yards. However, Tampa Bay would post just 124 yards of offense over the rest of the game.
The Buccaneers defense, meanwhile, allowed Saints quarterback Drew Brees to throw a pair of touchdown passes in the first half and another early in the third quarter. Tampa also failed to stop New Orleans' run attack in the second half, when the Saints amassed 147 of their 173 rushing yards in the game.
This Sunday's game is the second of three straight versus divisional opponents for the Buccaneers, who visit Carolina next Sunday.
Tampa Bay holds a 18-13 edge in its all-time series with Atlanta, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home. The Buccaneers were 24-9 home winners when the teams met in Week 2, and dropped a 13-10 decision at the Georgia Dome in Week 15. The latter result snapped a three-game series skid for the Falcons, a skein that included a 31-7 win for the Bucs in Atlanta during the 2007 campaign.
Atlanta head coach Mike Smith is 1-1 against the Bucs as a head coach, while Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris will be meeting both Smith and the Falcons for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Had the Buccaneers not fallen behind by such a big margin, the NFL's 23rd- ranked rushing offense (100.7 yards per game) might have been more of a factor. Tampa Bay notched 57 of its 119 rushing yards versus New Orleans on its first drive and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Cadillac Williams (450 rushing yards, 3 TD) led the way with 32 yards on 11 carries, while Earnest Graham had 31 yards on just three carries. Freeman (543 passing yards, 5 TD, 5 INT) also made some plays with his feet, ripping off a pair of 15-yard runs as he continues to feel his way through the NFL. His 33.1 passer rating versus the Saints was by far his lowest in three starts, and he has also been sacked seven times in the last two games. Tampa Bay had scored 61 points in Freeman's first two starts, but are averaging just 16.4 points per game (27th overall) this season. Tight end Kellen Winslow (47 receptions, 5 TD) continues to be one of his primary weapons, as the big target has 16 catches in three games since Freeman became a starter. That includes a team-leading five for 29 yards versus the Saints. Wide receiver Antonio Bryant (19 receptions, 2 TD) returned from a two-game absence due to a nagging knee injury to make three catches for 40 yards. Clayton (14 receptions), meanwhile, made his first touchdown catch of the season, but hasn't had a multi-catch game since Week 5.
The Falcons' secondary could be in line for a few changes after allowing Manning to pass for 384 yards last weekend. Atlanta, which ranks 29th versus the pass at 253.4 yards allowed per game, let the Giants complete seven passes of 26 yards or longer, including a 29-yard reception by Mario Manningham in overtime that moved New York into Falcons' territory. Atlanta managed just one sack versus the Giants, by linebacker Stephen Nicholas (47 tackles, 3 sacks), while cornerback Brent Grimes (38 tackles, 2 INT) came away with the club's eighth pick of the season. Linebackers Curtis Lofton (101 tackles), who leads the NFL in tackles, and Mike Peterson (72 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) combined to make 22 tackles, while Grimes had seven and safety Erik Coleman (83 tackles) added eight stops. Coleman and the Falcons' linebacking group will need to keep their eyes on Winslow in this one. Atlanta did much better versus the run on Sunday, holding the Giants to 88 yards on 26 carries. Tampa Bay will likely try to test the league's 24th-ranked rush defense (126.1) if it can keep the game close.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Falcons were without Turner (831 rushing yards, 10 TD), as well as running back Jerious Norwood for a fifth straight game due to a hip injury, that didn't stop them from finding the end zone on the ground. In his second career start, Snelling's seven and one-yard scoring runs gave Atlanta its 13th and 14th rushing TD's of the season, fourth-most in the NFL. The Falcons, who rank 12th in rushing offense (122.5 ypg) and ninth in scoring (25.2 ppg), will likely lean on Snelling (259 rushing yards, 3 TD) again in this game with Turner not expected back. Atlanta will also hope that Ryan's second-half surge will get the passing game back on track. Ryan (2276 passing yards, 16 TD, 12 INT) threw for 268 yards, his highest total in three weeks, and didn't throw an interception for the first time since Week 3. He had been picked off 11 times in the previous six games. Gonzalez (52 receptions, 5 TD) ended with eight catches for 82 yards versus the Giants, while wideout Michael Jenkins (33 receptions) had a season-high six catches for 76 yards, though he is still in search of his first touchdown of the season. Wide receiver Roddy White (51 receptions, 6 TD) had four catches for 45 yards last Sunday and went without a touchdown catch for a third straight week.
Even though the Buccaneers kept Brees in check for the most part, holding the signal-caller to just 187 passing yards in addition to three touchdown strikes, that won't stop Morris from making some changes to his defense. The big one for this game is the rookie head coach taking over defensive play- calling duties from coordinator Jim Bates. Morris, who served as Tampa Bay's defensive backs coach the previous two seasons after holding the defensive coordinator spot at Kansas State in 2006, probably wasn't too happy with his team's inability to shut down New Orleans' run attack and get the ball back to give his offense a chance at a comeback. That shouldn't have come as too big a surprise, as the Buccaneers rank 31st in points allowed (29.4 ppg) and 32nd versus the run (168.9 ypg). Tampa Bay was unable to record a sack or force a turnover versus New England, and the club is minus-four in the turnover ratio. Linebacker Barrett Ruud (86 tackles, 1 INT) led the way with 10 tackles versus the Saints, while defensive backs Ronde Barber (44 tackles, 1 sack) and Tanard Jackson (38 tackles, 3 INT) made six stops each. The Bucs are near the bottom with just 17 sacks this year, led by left end Jimmy Wilkerson's 5 1/2, though they are tied for sixth in the league with 12 interceptions.
Tampa Bay remains too inconsistent of a bunch to offer much fantasy value. Although Winslow remains a star and must-start at the tight end spot, the rest of the passing game should be avoided. The Buccaneers' run game looks like it could be effective at times, but the fact that Tampa Bay has three running backs who don't find the end zone very much makes Williams, Graham or Derrick Ward all risky plays. Tampa Bay's defense isn't worth a start, while kicker Connor Barth has excellent range but doesn't get a lot of chances. Still, the 23-year-old might get a few looks this weekend , and his range makes him a sleeper pick.
Hopefully, Turner owners were able to jump on Snelling for last week's game, and the understudy deserves to be picked up if he is still available. He should have another solid game this weekend against the worst run defense in the league. Ryan has slowed down after a fast start, but isn't a poor play this weekend. Gonzalez is a must-start, as is White, who can break a big play at any moment. Jenkins, though, doesn't hold much value due to his lack of scoring. Any time a defense goes against a rookie quarterback it is a good play, and this weekend is no exception for Atlanta. Kicker Jason Elam should get some good looks on Sunday as well.
This is a must-win game for the Falcons, who have two things working for them this Sunday. First, they play at the Georgia Dome, where they are a tough team to beat under Smith. Second, they finally get to play the struggling Buccaneers, which is enough to get any team on track. Even without Turner, Atlanta stayed committed to the run last week and Ryan shook off some issues to flash signs of his outstanding rookie form. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is getting ready to find its self defensively after finally handing over the offense to Freeman. While the Buccaneers are on the road to 2010, the Falcons are trying to keep a 2009 postseason berth in sight. They get some help in that department this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Buccaneers 13
11/25 18:19:31 ET