Before the season started, it's unlikely the Atlanta Falcons or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers anticipated that Sunday's Week 11 contest between the two NFC South foes would have any bearing on who may end up with the top pick in the 2014 draft.
However, with the Falcons and Bucs residing at the bottom of the division standings at 2-7 and 1-8 respectively, this week's game is more relevant to NFL draft positioning than it is to the NFC playoff race.
Just don't tell that to Falcons head coach Mike Smith, Bucs' coach Greg Schiano or the players on either team since both squads are solely focused on getting a win this weekend.
“This season is not over,” Smith said Monday via AtlantaFalcons.com. “I know people want to say doom and gloom. That’s not the case. We’ve not played the type of football that we’d like to play in the first nine games. It is well below our expectations and we’re going to continue to work and get ready to play the Buccaneers.”
Schiano echoed Smith's sentiment when speaking about whether his Buccaneers team will relax after getting its first win on Monday night against the Miami Dolphins.
“No, I don't think that's going to happen,'' Schiano said via Roy Cummings of The Tampa Tribune. “Not with this group. Not with the losses as hard as they've been. I think, more than anything, these guys are going to cherish the feeling of winning and are going to want it back again.''
The Falcons' last win came at the Georgia Dome against the Bucs in Week 7, but a few things have changed for Tampa since then.
Here we'll preview Sunday's matchup by taking a look the current state of the Bucs, as well as the offensive, defensive and special teams keys for the Falcons as we gear up for the game.
State of the Buccaneers
After coming close to being the first road team to win a game in Seattle in over a year in Week 9, Tampa beat Miami 22-19 on Monday night, but its victory didn't come without a cost.
Bucs' running back Doug Martin injured his shoulder in Week 7 and was subsequently placed on season-ending injury reserve. Martin's replacement, Tampa running back Mike James, injured his ankle against Miami and has also been declared out for the season.
Greg Schiano appears to have bought himself some time by winning the game against Miami, but that could change quickly if his team drops a home game to the Falcons on Sunday.
Offensive Keys for Atlanta
1. Move Harry Douglas Around
Harry Douglas dominated the Bucs secondary in Atlanta's Week 7 win with seven catches for 149 yards and a touchdown. Both Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez could be unavailable this week with injuries, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of ajc.com, so Douglas could be expected to carry Atlanta's passing game again on Sunday.
If that's the case, it would behoove the Falcons to move Douglas around their formations and send him in motion a lot so that the Bucs secondary will have difficulty keying on him pre-snap. Douglas could be Atlanta's only big-play threat on Sunday, so the Falcons must keep him involved if they're going to come out of Tampa with a win.
2. Use Stretch Runs
As repetitive as it sounds, the Falcons must jump-start their ground game if they're going to give their offense a chance to do anything. Tampa held Atlanta to just 18 yards on 18 carries on October 20 in Atlanta.
Second-year linebacker Lavonte David is a big part of Tampa's run defense, and Mike Smith has certainly noticed David's playmaking ability. “He's all over the field,'' Smith said Wednesday via Ira Kauffman of The Tampa Tribune. “In my opinion, he's got to be playing as well as any linebacker in the NFL. I wouldn't be surprised if at the end of the season he gets an opportunity to be on a Pro Bowl team.''
Nevertheless, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter spoke about staying committed to running back Steven Jackson (who didn't play against Tampa back in Week 7) and Atlanta's rushing attack this week via Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com:
We're not running it successfully enough to get him enough carries. If he's carrying in multiple times, he's going to need to come out and then that's going to lead to [Rodgers] and Jason getting more carries, too. But unfortunately, because we're not doing anything successfully right now and we're getting behind on the scoreboard, [the running game] sometimes gets away from us.
Perhaps the Falcons could employ more stretch runs to take advantage of an aggressive Tampa defense and open up some cutback opportunities for Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling if he plays.
3. Get Levine Toilolo and Chase Coffman More Involved in the Passing Game
Even if Atlanta is able to move Harry Douglas around successfully, the Falcons are going to need someone else to step up in the passing game if White and Gonzalez aren't able to go.
In addition to undrafted rookie receiver Darius Johnson, the Falcons should look to exploit some mismatches with Levine Toilolo and Chase Coffman by employing some two-tight end sets and even splitting Coffman out wide when necessary.
The Bucs have already seen the Falcons once this year, so getting Toilolo and Coffman involved could be advantageous to Atlanta because it'd throw an unexpected wrinkle at them.
4. Win on First Down
Atlanta's offense can't make life more difficult for itself on the road by falling behind on down and distance. The Falcons have had a tendency to look a little complacent on first downs, but they can't fall into that habit on Sunday.
Like most NFL teams, the Falcons offense seems to get very predictable if the opposing defense beats them on first down. Atlanta can keep the Bucs on their heels by grinding out a couple more yards on its first-down plays.
Defensive Keys for Atlanta
1. Take the Ball Away
The Falcons got off to a great start at home against Tampa by forcing an early fumble that Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud scooped up for a touchdown. That play seemed to set the tone for the rest of that afternoon for Atlanta.
Atlanta's inability to generate turnovers is part of the reason the Falcons have struggled on defense this year. “We’ve got to get more confidence while the ball is in the air and going up and trying to make plays and get that mindset that the ball is ours when it’s in the air,” DeCoud said via Daniel Cox of AtlantaFalcons.com.
2. Get Ready to Stop the Run
The Bucs have really emphasized the run over the last two weeks because Schiano felt as thought his team was putting its rookie quarterback in tough spot by asking him to throw too much.
Even though Glennon had a decent outing against the Falcons a few weeks ago and the Bucs have lost two running backs to injuries since that contest, don't look for Schiano to deviate too far from the run-first game plan he's run in Tampa's last two games.
Atlanta's defense has to be ready to play run defense with a sense of urgency and get after Brian Leonard and Bobby Rainey.
3. Make Someone Besides Vincent Jackson Beat You
Glennon targeted Jackson 22 times the first time that these two teams met, and Jackson hauled in 10 of those passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Atlanta's secondary can't expect to come away with a victory if it allows a repeat of that performance.
Since receiver Mike Williams is out for the season with an injury, receiver Tiquan Underwood and receiver/tight end Tim Wright have emerged as the Bucs' top passing threats after Jackson. The Falcons should focus on taking away Jackson and making Underwood and Wright beat them.
Both Underwood and Wright are solid players, but Jackson has proven he can do his damage quicker than both of them.
4. Keep the Pressure Coming
Atlanta turned up the heat on Glennon in Week 7, and that pressure led to the turnover that sparked the Falcons at the start of the game. Glennon may have a few more games under his belt now, but he's still learning on the job. The Falcons can't afford to make things easier for Glennon by not sending pressure his way with some exotic blitzes.
Special Teams Keys for Atlanta
1. Be Alert
The Bucs ran a lateral on their first punt return against the Dolphins in an attempt to make a big play and steal some field position. That should tell the Falcons that this Tampa team realizes it can afford to run some trick plays to spark its offense and defense since expectations are where they are now.
Atlanta's defense got burnt badly by a flea-flicker that Seattle ran last week. The special teams units can't allow anything similar to happen to them this week.
2. Keep the Offense Out of the Shadow of Its End Zone
This usually goes without saying since the special teams unit's primary job is to win the field position battle, but the Bucs took advantage of the field position they got from their punting unit when Lavonte David tackled Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas in the end zone for a safety in the second quarter of Monday's game.
The Bucs have a lot of speed on defense, and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is an All-Pro-caliber tackle. Atlanta can't afford to risk getting backed up at its own end zone too many times against this opportunistic Tampa defense.
Neither one of these teams has won a lot of games this year, so each squad will be desperate to win one of the few remaining "winnable" games left on its schedule. Both teams want to run the ball, and the team that's most successful on the ground will likely be the team that comes out on top.
Though their records may not suggest it, expect the Falcons and Bucs to give each other all they've got in a hard-fought, NFC South fight.
All Stats are via ESPN.com.