The Bucs make it close again, but fail to pull out of their season-ending nosedive.
Atlanta continues to torment its division rival behind a raucous Georgia Dome crowd.
Confusion has replaced confidence as the prevailing state of mind inside the Bucs locker room. A team that was fighting for a playoff berth a few weeks ago can't figure out why everything has suddenly gone so wrong, even though the answers are right in front of them. Poor quarterback play, poor secondary play, a poor pass rush and a sudden inability to take the ball away and capitalize on scoring chances are the reasons the Bucs are in danger of finishing the season with a six-game losing streak. Yet, the Bucs are certain that their work habits and work ethic have not changed. So why the slump? It comes down to execution, which is what the Bucs spent the past week focusing on. And we do mean focus. That has been the buzzword around One Buc Place this week, the hope being that with better focus comes better execution.
3 keys to victory
We're not talking about finishing the season strong. It's too late for that. What we're talking about is finishing offensive drives, particularly those that make it inside the Falcons 20-yard line. That area of the field is called the red zone but it has recently become a dead zone for the Bucs, who have produced only one field goal in their past five red-zone possessions. A week ago against the Rams, the Bucs failed twice to produce scores of any kind even after moving the ball inside the St. Louis 10-yard line. That's a recipe for disaster for any team, but especially one like the Bucs. Though their defense played well last week, the Bucs are a team that can't afford to waste possessions, especially against teams such as the Falcons, who have the ability to run up hefty point totals.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
This has become a cliché around football circles but it's a cliché because it's true. The team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the game in the NFL and the Bucs proved that point again last week. Three of QB Josh Freeman's four interceptions were transformed into 21 points during a 28-13 loss to the Rams. On a day when the Bucs defense mostly held St. Louis in check, the inability to hold onto the ball proved to be their undoing. Only three teams have turned the ball over less than the Falcons this year, so the Bucs can't count on taking the ball away too often today. That means they're going to have to hold on to it, which will require Freeman to make better decisions and avoid trying to make plays that aren't there. Simply taking what the defense offers is probably Freeman's best bet for minimizing turnovers and increasing the Bucs' chances of winning.
PLAY LIKE IT MATTERS
Forget all that talk about playing for pride. That is simply not the case here. No player in his right mind is going to take pride in winning the last game of a 7-9 season in which you slogged your way through a 1-5 finish. What the Bucs are playing for today are individual reputations and the future. That alone should be incentive enough to play this one like it matters. Just in case, though, Bucs coach Greg Schiano needs to remind his players what they put on tape today will be weighed just as much in their final evaluation as what they put on tape the previous 15 games. The Falcons may not play their regulars for four quarters today, but the Bucs can't let that alter their approach. After all, if the Bucs regulars can't beat the Falcons reserves, what will that say about the Bucs heading into 2013?
Falcons receivers vs. Bucs secondary
The Falcons have two dynamic wideouts in Roddy White and Julio Jones, a Hall of Fame tight end in Tony Gonzalez and a versatile running back in Jacquizz Rodgers who is tied with the Bucs' Doug Martin for fourth in the league in pass receptions by running backs with 45. With all those weapons, the Falcons will have a major advantage against the Bucs' struggling secondary, which will be forced to spend the bulk of the day playing in sub packages. But even that won't allow the Bucs to double-team every weapon the Falcons have, which will almost certainly prove problematic. If the Bucs can't pressure Falcons QB Matt Ryan, there will be plenty of time to find the single-covered option and deliver the ball accurately. That will leave it to the defensive backs to keep the Falcons passing game in check.
5 QUESTIONS WITH BUCS T DEREK HARDMAN
Q: How close did you come to signing with Ohio State instead of Eastern Kentucky?
A: I went to a lot of camps up there and my great uncle played at OSU as a punter. We talked back and forth, but they never made an offer. I ended up going to my best spot at Eastern.
Q: You were a productive tight end in high school. How did you get switched to the offensive line?
A: When Eastern recruited me, they said I had the body frame to gain 40 pounds and I had the quick feet to play the offensive tackle position.
Q: What was it like playing for your father, Tom, at Roane County High in Spencer, W.Va.?
A: It was great. I was a manager in football basically since I was in kindergarten, always around football. There's no doubt that playing for your dad makes it harder, but that was fine with me. It helped make me a perfectionist.
Q: How do you spend your Tuesdays during football season?
A: I've been married to Becky close to three years and I get to spend some time with her. My first few years, me and (Bucs guard) Ted Larsen would come out here every day, working on our pass sets and trying to get things going in the right direction, trying to stay in this league.
Q: How well prepared are you for life after football?
A: I'm ready for it when it comes. I'm pursuing an M.B.A. I'm a business major and I'm two classes away from finishing. Football's not for long, but you scratch and claw and make it as long as you can.