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By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons are both licking their wounds and desperate for a win. Something has to give when the NFC South rivals collide Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Buccaneers are one of three winless (0-5) teams in the NFL (Giants, Jaguars) and have gone through more drama the past few weeks than the Kardashian clan. With the soap opera that surrounded former quarterback Josh Freeman to the latest MRSA infection, the Bucs have stumbled to last place in the NFC South.
But the Falcons are right there with Tampa Bay and have a 1-4 record, one year after going 13-3 and capturing the top seed in the conference. The Falcons were hoping that this year would be a memorable one, and it has for all the wrong reasons. New Orleans has taken over the division with a 5-1 record.
Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano could be on a short leash and believes his players are still motivated to turn these down times around.
"I think we have very strong leadership and I think the leadership will just keep us locked in; the coaches, myself, everybody," Schiano said Monday. "This is a group of men that are committed to each other, committed professionals, guys who love the game. I know our quarterbacks will be in here tomorrow grinding on the initial game plan and our coaches will do the same and we'll crank it up and go see if we can win in Atlanta."
The Bucs had an extra week of rest to get ready for the Philadelphia Eagles and dropped a 31-20 decision at Raymond James Stadium. It was a back-and-forth battle until the second half, when the Eagles had a 17-3 advantage and rolled to the victory behind backup quarterback Nick Foles, who passed for 296 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Eagles running back LeSean McCoy made Tampa Bay's stout run defense look mediocre with 116 yards on 25 carries.
Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson said Bucs' defensive back Darrelle Revis couldn't keep up with him and backed up his words with two scores and 64 yards on two receptions. Jackson had a 36-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter.
"Well, two good plays by a very good player," Schiano said of Jackson's scores. "We helped out on the deep one, the deep crossing route. We didn't exactly execute the way that we planned to execute on Darrelle's route. Sometimes you get one-on-one, good throw, good catch."
Revis had a forced fumble and recovery to go along with four tackles. He talked about the MRSA distraction leading up to Sunday's game and how it affected the plan.
"It was a big distraction because our minds were on starting fresh and getting back into football mode, but then we had to deal with this thing the whole week and it trickled into the game a little bit," Revis told the Tampa Tribune.
Schiano wouldn't talk about how he's trying to keep his players motivated, but did reveal the Buccaneers have to "keep it real." Whatever that means to Schiano and the Bucs, who have lost 10 of 11 games dating back to last season, will remain private. Still, Schiano has a plan to change course.
"The Knute Rockne stuff, there's a time and a place for it, but they're grown men who are busting their guts to win," Schiano said. "They're as disappointed as I am, and it's just our jobs as coaches to decipher and look at and then give them constructive feedback and then help them move forward. And that's what we're going to do."
Tampa Bay last started 0-6 back in 2009, when it was 0-7.
Atlanta is off to a disappointing start and had an extra week to focus on turning things around. Head coach Mike Smith said the Falcons weren't concerned about the Bucs during the bye week and noted that the coaches and players focused on themselves and what they "need to get better at."
"This is a strong locker room, these guys are not only dedicated to winning football games, but they are dedicated to one another," Smith said. "This is a very strong group and I anticipate they will come out and play very aggressive, passionate football against Tampa Bay."
The Falcons have been struggling on defense, making stops on third down, defending the pass and keeping teams from reaching the scoreboard. Before heading into the bye week, the Falcons suffered a 30-28 home loss to the New York Jets on Monday night. Atlanta erased a 17-7 halftime deficit and allowed the Jets to march into scoring territory, where Nick Folk blasted a 43-yard field goal as time expired.
That loss and the Saints' hard-luck defeat in New England on Sunday kept it a four-game difference between the teams in the NFC South. The margin could grow larger because the Falcons' offense took a tremendous hit when wide receiver Julio Jones was lost for the season with a foot injury. Jones leads the team in receptions (41) and yards (580). Atlanta still has Roddy White, who is slowly coming back from injury, Harry Douglas and newly signed wide receiver Brian Robiskie.
"We signed Brian Robiskie to replace him on our 53 man roster," Smith said last week. "Brian has played in this league, he has three or four years of experience, knows our offense, knows our verbiage. Hopefully, we can get him up to speed in a very quick fashion and get him ready to go."
Robiskie's father, Terry, is an assistant head coach and wide receivers coach for the Falcons.
"I know that father and son always speak, and I know that they kind of speak the same language," Smith said. "Even though there might be a different playbook, I'm sure that when they talk, they probably talk in the verbiage that Terry has talked to him all his life, so I think it will help."
Once White gets back to full strength the Falcons should be able to shake off this funk they're in. White said in a radio interview that it was a "big blow" to lose Jones and that the yards and plays will have to go through "other guys." Quarterback Matt Ryan is still putting up numbers no matter who is healthy and has passed for 1,649 yards with 10 TDs to three interceptions. Ryan has thrown for 300-plus yards four times in five weeks.
Ryan has faced the Bucs 10 times in his career, throwing for 2,069 yards with 10 touchdown passes and 10 INTs. The Falcons and Bucs split two meetings last season, while Tampa Bay has lost seven of the last nine in the series. The Bucs ended a four-game slide at the Dome with a 22-17 win last Dec. 30.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Falcons are hoping first-year running back Steven Jackson can make a return versus the Buccaneers and he has been sidelined since Sept. 15 because of a hamstring injury. Jackson has 77 yards on 14 carries for an Atlanta offense that is 26th in the league with just 78.4 rushing yards per game.
"We want to get Steven back as quickly as we can. He's continuing to work with our athletic performance group on the side, he hasn't been back out on the field," Smith said last week. "We will see how he is on Tuesday when we get back together. We need to get Steven back as quickly as we can."
Smith also talked about the ground attack, saying "we have not run the ball consistently as we would like to."
Another power back, Jason Snelling, could play Sunday after he sustained a concussion against the Jets. Snelling, of course, has to pass the NFL's concussion protocol in order to play and practiced on Wednesday.
"The only player that I will say is further along than where he was last week is Jason Snelling," Smith said Monday. "Jason Snelling has moved down the chain so to speak, in terms of his concussion protocol and we will see Jason Snelling out on the field in the next day or two."
Even though the Bucs allowed McCoy to rush for more than 100 yards last week, they're still a force to be reckoned with against the run. Defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Akeem Spence are pluggers and will most likely see a lot of Jacquizz Rodgers, who leads the Falcons with just 177 yards rushing and is a threat out of the backfield.
McCoy became the first player to record 100 yards rushing on Tampa Bay since Nov. 4 of last season. Tampa Bay was first against the run in 2012 and has yielded only three 100-yard rushers since the start of last season.
Also keep an eye out for Bucs rookie quarterback Mike Glennon, who will make his third career start in place of the exiled Freeman. Glennon showed poise in the pocket versus the Eagles and threw for 273 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
"Mike stands in there with great confidence," Bus wide receiver Vincent Jackson said. "He's going to be a great leader for this football team. Just his command of the game is impressive. They gave us a lot of different looks and he made a lot of great decisions."
The lanky Glennon even showed good footwork in the pocket and was sacked only twice. Atlanta has just 11 sacks total this season.
Another Tampa Bay rookie, tight end Tim Wright, has made the transition from wide receiver a smooth one and is excited working with another fellow first- year player in Glennon.
"We came in together as rookies and we spent a lot of time during the offseason throwing routes on air and getting that timing down, that connection," Wright said of Glennon. "You never thought, down this line, that we'd be the two hooking up together at this point, but it happened, and it's starting to show for us."
Wright and Jackson will face an Atlanta defense allowing 274.8 passing yards per game and 26.8 ppg.
Both the Bucs and Falcons have fallen on hard times and are desperate for a win. Tampa Bay is pretty much out of the running at 0-5, but the Falcons still have an outside shot if they can find the win column this week.
Even though Jones is finished for the season and White is gradually getting back to full strength, Atlanta still has a talented roster. If Ryan thought he would be facing pressure entering this season after a strong 2012, imagine how he feels knowing all eyes will be on him to lead a resurgence.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Buccaneers 19
10/17 14:06:08 ET