The Josh Freeman Fun Train heads to Miami for the young quarterback's first taste of life on the road in the NFL. All is fine and dandy when you have the crowd behind you, but how will the rookie handle a hostile atmosphere?
If there was any city in the NFL the Bucs would want their young QB to get his first road start in the league—it's Miami. Many Dolphins fans masquerade as empty seats at Joe Robbie, uh, Pro Player, oops, Land Shark Stadium.
They're considered among the most apathetic in the league.
Still, if the Dolphins are playing well, they can make life hard on Freeman.
In addition, after having two weeks to prepare for his debut against the Green Bay Packers, Freeman now has to show what he can learn in just half the preparation time.
Freeman's ability to back the Dolphins secondary off the line of scrimmage may very well be one of the biggest keys to Sunday's game. That and the Bucs finding a way to stop the Wildcat rushing attack.
For Tampa Bay, this is perhaps the biggest game of the season. The Bucs got one on the Green Bay Packers, but if they can sustain the momentum and beat a team that isn't a juggernaut on the road it could go a long way to giving this team the confidence it desperately needs and begin the turn around of the franchise in earnest.
It's big for the Dolphins too, despite a 3-5 start, the Fins still hold some hope of a rebound and late playoff run. Considering the Patriots missed the AFC playoffs despite finishing 11-5 last year, such talk seems ridiculous at this point.
A loss to the Bucs would all but end their playoff hopes for 2009.
Let us take a look at the match ups for the Bucs and their cross state rivals.
The series between the Bucs and Dolphins is split down the middle at 4-4. Tampa Bay won the last three regular season meetings, including 2005's 27-13 destruction of the Dolphins.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Passing Attack against Miami Dolphins Pass Defense
Well, what else can you say about the opening act in the career of one Josh Freeman? The kid was poised, looking like a true veteran while throwing three touchdown passes in a windy game at Raymond James Stadium.
As we talked about in my article about rookie quarterback's early performances in the NFL, Josh's debut doesn't mean he's the next coming of Warren Moon (as Jerome Bettis said), but it certainly didn't hurt.
While Josh had a bigger impact than Matt Ryan in his rookie debut, we can look at Ryan to learn some tough lessons in the NFL.
From week one to week two, there's typically a drop off.
Luckily for Freeman, he'll be facing a weak Miami pass defense. The Dolphins are ranked 28th in the NFL in pass defense and have 21 sacks on the season, just four more than the Bucs much maligned pass rush.
The Dolphins also find themselves in the bottom half of the league for interceptions.
If Freeman can protect the football and hit some of those big plays he missed against the Packers, it could be a very good day in the passing game for Tampa Bay.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Running Attack vs. Miami Dolphins Run Defense
As bad as the Dolphins are in pass defense, they're that good in run defense. Miami comes in with the fifth-ranked defense against the run.
That could be due to everyone wanting to attack the Miami secondary, but the Dolphins have fared pretty well against some good backs in the league.
Tampa Bay's running game still has yet to find itself. A lot of that is due to the Bucs typically trailing and forcing the team to abandon the run early, not to mention the uncertainty at the quarterback position.
Cadillac Williams can still be deadly, while Derrick Ward still has not found his place in the Buccaneers rushing attack.
Miami Dolphins Passing Game vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pass Defense
Since taking over for the injured Chad Pennington, Dolphins second year quarterback Chad Henne has done a decent job as the Dolphins new guy under center.
Henne is averaging 179.6 yards per passing while tossing four touchdowns and three interceptions on the year.
Since getting off to a good start, Henne struggled a bit, throwing just one touchdown in his last three games. Three of his four touchdown passes on the year came against the Jets.
Tampa Bay's secondary still gives up the big play, but has played better in their last few outings and have risen to 15th in the league in pass defense. They've also begun to take the ball away from the opposing QB, rising to 5th in the NFL in interceptions with 11.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Miami Dolphins Running Game vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Run Defense
The worst part of the Buccaneers defense continues to be the run defense. Giving up an average of 163 yards per game, the Bucs can't stop any one.
That doesn't bold well while facing the league's fourth ranked rushing attack. Ricky Williams is revitalized while Ronnie Brown continues to display his versatile skills catching, running, and at times, throwing the football.
The Dolphins invented the NFL's version of the Wild Cat offense and continue to be the most prolific in running in the formation.
Still, in recent games, the Wild Cat has been contained by opposing defenses. Is it starting to be figured out?
The Bucs will study game tape of the Saints' and Jets' defensive game plans in shutting down the problematic formation.
If the Bucs can figure out a way to slow down the Dolphins rushing attack, they have a great chance at victory.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Special Teams vs. Miami Dolphins Special Teams
Miami and Tampa Bay boast two of the best kick returners in the game in Tedd Ginn, Jr. and Clifton Smith. Ginn, Jr. almost single-handedly beat the Jets with two kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Smith is both a great kick and punt returner, returning one kick 83 yards against Green Bay last week to spark a Bucs rally. He remains the only player in Buc history to return a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same season.
Tampa Bay, however, has the much superior coverage unit. The Bucs are ranked second in the NFL in kick return coverage, while Miami remains in the bottom half of the league in both kick and punt coverage categories.
Miami does boast Dan Carpenter, who is 11 of 12 on field goal attempts with a long of 52. Tampa Bay counters with Connor Barth, who's 1-for-2 on the season but is 11 of 14 during his short NFL career.
Dirk Johnson continues to punt fairly well for the Bucs, averaging 41.7 yards a punt while dropping 12 inside the 20 yard line.
Miami's Brandon Fields averages 45.8 and has 13 punts inside the 20.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
- Miami is coming off a difficult loss on the road to division rival New New England, while Tampa Bay is coming off their best performance of the season, a 38-28 upset of Green Bay.
- The Dolphins are starting three rookies in their secondary (S Chris Clemons, CB Vontae Davis and CB Sean Smith).
- The Bucs are +0 in turnover ratio, Miami is a -1.
- Miami hasn't beaten Tampa Bay in a regular season game since 1991
- The Bucs are 1-2 lifetime in Miami
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Raheem Morris is in his first season as an NFL head coach and is now 1-7.
Tony Sparano is in his second season as head coach of the Miami Dolphins and has a record of 14-11. In his first season, he led Miami to an 11-5 record and their first AFC East division championship since 2000.
Quite a few weeks ago I swore off predicting victories for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, feeling the team had no direction and little hope against a tough schedule.
What a difference a win makes. I'm not caught up in the euphoria of the Bucs victory over the Packers or in the superb play in Freeman. Still, you have to look at the Dolphins as an opponent that the Bucs can beat.
It's an opponent with a weak passing attack and a bad pass defense that doesn't apply much pressure on the quarterback or force many turnovers in the passing game. Good for a young QB to face.
Jets fellow rookie QB Mark Sanchez had two of his best games of the season against Miami.
The worst thing about Miami is their rushing attack. With it is their ability to bleed to clock and shorten games. It keeps them in ballgames with a chance to win.
Without an explosive offense and an average defense, the Dolphins play the old Tony Dungy style of keep it close, win in the fourth quarter.
It worked well in 2008 under veteran QB Chad Pennington, but hasn't worked out so well in 2009.
If Josh Freeman can take advantage of some mismatches in the Dolphins secondary and the Bucs can focus on the run, perhaps force a few turnovers, there's absolutely no reason why the Bucs can't win their fourth straight game over the Dolphins and their second win of the 2009 campaign.
Final Score: Tampa Bay 20, Miami 17.