Two weeks ago, Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson was at his house with some friends watching ESPN when he saw Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris proclaim the Buccaneers as the best team in the NFC.
Peterson was taken back enough by the comment that he felt the need to rewind the clip to make sure he heard what he thought he heard. He was correct, as Morris made this statement after beating St. Louis 18-17 in Week 7. Atlanta was off in Week 8, and the Buccaneers once again found themselves pulling out a close, 38-35, win over Arizona.
Morris didn’t back off his statement, and Peterson and the Falcons are using it as bulletin board material.
“Thank you, we appreciate it,” Peterson said. “If we didn’t have anything motivating us to play now, we definitely have another motivating factor.”
Morris is a confident, youthful coach who’s trying to get the most out of his young players. His quarterback, Josh Freeman, is in his second year and already has six comeback victories in 16 starts. Both of his top wideouts, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, are rookies. His best running back is also a rookie, the emerging LeGarrette Blount, who was claimed off waivers just weeks ago.
“I’m believing in this football team and they’re believing in their young head coach,” Morris said. “We’re believing together.”
But sometimes the bulletin board talk, whether purposeful or not, can fire a team up. And it looks like the Falcons, who are also 5-2, have taken notice.
“They still have to beat us, and we don’t think that’s going to happen,” Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “Somebody’s going to walk out 6-2, and I think it’s going to be us.”
Keys for the Falcons
• To say left tackle Sam Baker is in a slump is putting it lightly. Baker has struggled all season, picking up costly penalties and being beat off the snap time and time again. This week, Baker will face off against Buccaneers defensive end Stylez G. White, who had his way with Baker a year ago. Tampa Bay doesn’t blitz too often and relies on its four-man pressure. Baker will need to keep White off quarterback Matt Ryan, which is something he had trouble with last year.
• The secondary has given up 705 passing yards in the past two games, which has plummeted Atlanta’s pass defense ranking to 27th in the NFL. But for a game-and-a-half the Falcons were without their best corner in Robinson, who suffered a concussion against Philadelphia. Robinson should be back this week to help slow down Freeman, the rookie receivers and tight end Kellen Winslow.
Keys for the Buccaneers
• Tampa Bay will need to keep this game close. In the Buccaneers’ two losses, to Pittsburgh and New Orleans, they were outscored by a combined 69-19. Tampa Bay can’t afford to allow the Falcons to get up by a couple of scores early as Atlanta’s offense is just starting to kick into high gear. If Tampa Bay is in the game late, it can rely on Freeman to come through in the clutch once again.
• Ryan, like most quarterbacks, struggles when rushed. However, Tampa Bay isn’t good at rushing the quarterback. The Buccaneers are tied for last in the NFL in sacks with just six for the season. If Ryan has time in the pocket, his playmaking receiver Roddy White will continue to shine.
Both teams have had five common opponents this season: Pittsburgh, Arizona, New Orleans, Cleveland and Cincinnati. The Falcons outscored their competition 136-88 while the Buccaneers have been outscored 139-98. Tampa Bay doesn’t have a quality win while Atlanta holds a victory over the Saints. To put it mildly, Tampa Bay has a lot to prove this week, and until then, it’s way too early to crown it as the best in the NFC. Falcons 27-21.