Tampa RB Doug Martin has a knack for breaking big runs — and that’s bad news for the Falcons, who’ve given up a few this year.
Want To Watch?
WHO: Falcons (9-1) at Buccaneers (6-4).
WHAT: NFC South showdown between Top 2 teams.
WHEN: 1 p.m. today.
WHERE: Tampa, Fla.
LINE: Atlanta by 1.
TAMPA, Fla. — The high-flying Atlanta Falcons and surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers understand the success of their seasons will be determined by where they finish, so they insist they're not bothered by anything people outside their locker rooms say about what they've accomplished so far.
The Falcons (9-1) opened with eight consecutive victories and own the NFC's best record, yet coach Mike Smith and his players constantly are being reminded of past playoff failures and the harsh reality that another strong regular season won't mean much without a deep postseason run.
"We don't concern ourselves with the noise outside of our building. We try to stay focused only on the things we have control of. That's going out and trying to play the best football that we can," Smith said.
"We live in one-week cycles in the National Football League. ... Our focus is we've got mission one through 16. We take them one at a time, learn from them and move on."
Smith just as well could be speaking for the Bucs, who host the NFC South leaders today with a chance to tighten the division standings.
Tampa Bay (6-4) has won four straight to climb back into playoff contention and has already surpassed its win total from all of last season.
Still, there are skeptics who question the turnabout under first-year coach Greg Schiano by pointing out they've only won one game against a team with a winning record.
"That's to be expected. That's just what people do," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "It's like, well they did win four in a row, but they beat who they beat, let's see what they do against the No. 1 team in the NFL. You know what? We're not worried about that. If we do what we do, go in there and play the best Buc football we can, we have a pretty good chance."
The Falcons overcame six turnovers, including Matt Ryan's five interceptions, to come from behind to beat the Arizona Cardinals. The Bucs pulled off an improbable comeback themselves, wiping out an 11-point deficit in the final six minutes of regulation before taking down the Carolina Panthers in overtime.
Atlanta has won six of the past seven meetings between the division rivals, but most of the games have been close, low-scoring affairs.
This one could be just as tight, though a lot more points figure to be scored with the usually accurate Ryan facing the NFL's lowest-ranked pass defense and Josh Freeman leading a Bucs offense that's scored a league-high 205 points over the past six weeks.
The Falcons are averaging 27 points per game. Tampa Bay is fourth in the league at 28.7, with Freeman throwing for 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions during a stretch in which the Bucs have won five of six following a 1-3 start that included losses to the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.
Tampa Bay's lone setback since September was a 35-28 loss to New Orleans in a game that ended with a game-tying TD pass being wiped out by a penalty on the final play of the game. The Saints handed Atlanta's its lone loss 31-27 two weeks ago.
"This is a very potent offense. They're top 10 in a number of what I call critical factors for a football team," Smith said, noting the Bucs are sixth in the league in turnover ratio at plus-9 and have prospered, in part, by turning opponents' mistakes into touchdowns.
"They've been very opportunistic when they've taken the ball away," the coach added. "Really, when you start looking at wins and losses, turnover ratio is one of the most important statistics. It's really about points and possessing the football."
The suddenly potent Bucs have gained more than 400 yards in four of the past five games after only topping that mark three times in 2011.
Two weeks ago, they withstood being outgained 426 to 279 by scoring on defense and special teams en route to a 10-point win over San Diego.
"You want to score points when your defense gives you an opportunity, and oddly enough I think the Bucs are one of the teams that have done that better than anybody this year," Ryan said. "It's something we've tried to do a good job of, and certainly something Tampa has done a great job of."
Ryan was intercepted five times by the Cardinals. He's eager to back on track, but said it would be a mistake to assume he'll be able to throw at will against Tampa Bay's leaky pass defense.
Tampa Bay is yielding a league-high 312.6 yards per game through the air. Atlanta is third in passing offense at 292.9 per game.
"Statistics are sometimes misleading. I think it's a good defense. It's a defense that plays with great effort. ... It's a defense you have to be prepared for," Ryan said. "You have to respect the talent they have on that side of the ball, and we will."
And the Bucs say they have to respect what the Falcons have done in compiling the best record in the NFC. With a win today, they'll keep pace with the Houston Texans for the best mark in the league.
"There's a lot to speculate and think about going into a game like this, but all we can focus on is us. They are who they are. They've proven it all year," McCoy said.
"We've just got to work on things we can fix and get better at because there were a lot of things we kind of got away with last week," against Carolina, the third-year defensive tackle said. "This team is not going to let us get away with them."
FALCONS KNOW THEY MUST MARTIN TO STOP BUCS:
FLOWERY BRANCH — This might not be the best time for the Atlanta Falcons’ defense to face Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin, not with Sean Weatherspoon, Asante Samuel and Peria Jerry nursing injuries.
It’s Week 12 of the NFL season, though, and no team has a completely healthy roster.
The problem for Atlanta could be matchup issues against a Buccaneers offense that, over the last six weeks, leads the NFL with a 34.2 scoring average.
Without Weatherspon, Samuel and Jerry, the Falcons (9-1) would be missing starters at middle linebacker, left cornerback and nose tackle today at Tampa Bay (6-4).
Considering how well Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman is syncing with receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, the Falcons still have one top priority — to stop Martin and prove that they’re not as bad as the whopping 5.2 yards per carry they’ve allowed over the last two games.
Atlanta gave up runs of 40 and 52 yards to Arizona’s LaRod Stephens-Howling in last week’s narrow win at the Georgia Dome. In a loss two weeks ago at New Orleans, Chris Ivory broke off a 56-yard TD run.
“We’ve had a few more balls get on the second level of the defense, so the secondary has been challenged a little bit more,” Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. “That’s a concern because they don’t always come clean all of the time. Sometimes we miss some plays in the backfield, and that’s concerning. But then when they get on the second level, a secondary’s guy has a job to do. He’s got to be a good tackler.”
Samuel, right-side starting cornerback Dunta Robinson and safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have had mixed results in run support. Sometimes they knock ball carriers down, sometimes they whiff.
“Everybody gives up 5-, 10-yard gains,” Nolan said. “But when you’re missing two and three tackles at 10 yards, and then they keep going, that’s a concern.”
Martin will be the first running back Atlanta has faced this season that’s been playing at an elite level for several weeks. The former Boise State standout has 1,019 yards from scrimmage over the last six games, helping him join Eric Dickerson (1983, Los Angeles Rams) and Edgerrin James (1999, Indianapolis) as the only rookies with at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage in a six-game span.
“He’s a pretty powerful young guy running the ball,” Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said. “I think he breaks a lot of tackles because of his size, so we’re definitely going to have to gang tackle him and run to get to the ball.”
Atlanta coach Mike Smith was pleased that Weatherspoon and Samuel returned to practice Friday, even it was in a limited role.
Though Jerry misses his third straight practice with a quadriceps injury, all three starters are listed as questionable for Sunday. Reserve defensive tackle Vance Walker (ribs) is listed as questionable, too.
A right ankle sprain has sidelined Weatherspoon for the last three games. He returned to practice on Wednesday, but missed Thursday’s session with an undisclosed illness.
Samuel is nursing a sore shoulder after he and Jerry were injured in last week’s home win over Arizona.
Two other defensive starters, right end John Abraham (back) and Jonathan Babineaux (neck), are listed as probable after fully participating on Friday.
Containing Martin, who ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,000 yards rushing, won’t be easy.
“He’s a very good back,” Nolan said. “He reminds me a lot of (Ray) Rice at Baltimore. He’s very comparable. He does a great job out of the backfield (catching passes) and does a great job in the backfield (running the football). He breaks a lot of tackles. He’s sturdy. He’s strong. He’s tough. He runs hard. We’re all very impressed with him.”