Observation Deck: Bucs-Falcons preview

In this edition of the "Observation Deck," go inside my preview of Sunday's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons. Get the best inside numbers, predictions and matchups to watch going into the game in this premium article.

As Wednesday unfolded, the duplicitousness of Bobby Petrino's departure from Atlanta became all too clear.

Even as Petrino got on a private plane to go to Fayetteville, Ark., late Tuesday, he couldn't tell Falcons owner Arthur Blank that he was going to Arkansas.

"He said he wasn't sure what he was going to do," Blank said Wednesday.

Gutless.

Petrino managed to take the spotlight off Michael Vick in Atlanta. No mean feat.

Remember the men that got on the lifeboats before the women and children on the Titanic? Petrino would have fit right in.

Petrino looked his owner in the eye on Monday afternoon and told him, "I'm your coach."

Dishonest.

He sold his Falcons on turning around a franchise suffering from the worst P.R. disaster in league history. Vick's legal woes — which ended in Federal court on Monday — enveloped this team like a storm cloud. And it was finally breaking.

Then the Arkansas rumors. Then Petrino's exit.

How did he say goodbye? A typewritten form letter with a signature stamp that was put in each player's locker.

Safety Lawyer Milloy scratched out Petrino's name and wrote what everyone was thinking:

Coward.

Then running back Warrick Dunn flat out said it.

"(That's) a coward's way to go," Dunn said.

And to be a fly on the wall at the Petrino household at Christmas when Paul Petrino comes over. Paul is Bobby's brother and was the Falcons' wide receivers coach.

Did Bobby take Paul with him to Arkansas? No. When he got on that plane in Atlanta, he left Paul behind to deal with the fallout.

Bobby wouldn't make it in the military.

The Falcons were gracious enough to give Paul a choice to stay or go. Paul, not wanting to be a distraction, left.

Coaches fib and tell half-truths all the time. It's part of the game. Heck, Jon Gruden played footsie with the NFL injury report last week when it came to Jeff Garcia. Last week led us to believe Garcia had a chance to play, and then Sunday after the game basically said he had no intention of doing so.

Coaches change their mind. Ask Billy Donovan. But at least he was up front about his reticence after taking the Orlando job and worked with the Magic to find a solution before returning to the Gators.

Coaches even, on occasion, betray their player's trust.

But to do it all in one sitting, as Bobby Petrino did, is bizarre. This was an all-you-can-eat buffet of dishonesty.

If Petrino didn't want to stay, he should have been more up front. He should have finished out the season. He should have, at least, faced his team before he left.

"At least we would have respected him a little more," Dunn said.

Now, no one respects Bobby Petrino.

Classless.

Now, on to the preview.

ON OFFENSE

The last time the Buccaneers played the Falcons, Atlanta was coming off a two-game winning streak and their defense played some pretty solid football in that stretch.

The Buccaneers put an end to that. They racked up 31 points, tying a season high. The gained 350 total yards and plowed the Falcons run defense for 162 yards. Earnest Graham rushed for 102 yards and a score. Jeff Garcia threw two touchdown passes.

The fact is, this game could end up being worse of the Falcons are unable to shed the emotional torture they've been forced to deal with this week. Even Dunn wasn't sure if the team would be able to do so.

The Buccaneers should not expect much to change in terms of game plan. Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will call the shots, and he likes to be aggressive with his 4-3 front. Expect plenty of blitzing early in the game as the Falcons try to make something happen that might give the team some confidence. Garcia is playing his first game in three weeks, so there will be a little rust there.

Plus, Ike Hilliard is not a lock to play, or at least he wasn't at this writing. If he can't play, the Bucs lose a valuable receiver on third down and could struggle in that department. Neither Michael Clayton nor Maurice Stovall have proved they're able to be that key third-down receiver yet.

I think the Bucs' best approach is to keep the ball on the ground. I expect Graham to get a big workout on Sunday. The Bucs had the ball for a whopping 43 minutes against the Falcons in the last meeting. Graham had plenty to do with that. That should allow Michael Bennett to get some playing time, too.

OTHER POINTS TO PONDER

THE SERIES: Everyone always assumes this heated rivalry ends each season in a split. That's not so. The season series has been split just twice since the NFC South was formed in 2002 — 2003 and 2004. The Bucs swept the series in 2002 and 2005, while the Falcons swept in 2006.

THE TIME TO CLINCH: If the Buccaneers do clinch the NFC South title on Sunday, it will be their third division title in six years and Jon Gruden's fifth division title in 10 years as a head coach. Among active head coaches since 2000, Gruden would tie Philadelphia's Andy Reid for second on the list. New England's Bill Belichick has six in that span. Indianapolis' Tony Dungy would join Gruden and Reid if the Colts claim another AFC South title. Gruden is the only coach on the list that has coached for two teams.

IS THIS GOOD OR BAD?: Gruden's road record with the Buccaneers is 21-27 (.438). His 21 road wins is best all-time in franchise history. Was this team really that bad for that long?

MATCHUPS

BUCS LT DONALD PENN VS. FALCONS DE JOHN ABRAHAM: We spotlighted this matchup in the first game and we'll do so again because Penn has made progress over the last month. But Garcia's back injury demands that Penn be much better than usual so Garcia isn't re-injured. Abraham had a sack in the last meeting. Penn said he remembers it well.

BUCS RB EARNEST GRAHAM VS. FALCONS MLB KEITH BROOKING: The Buccaneers will want to keep the ball on the ground to control the clock and lessen Garcia's exposure to possible re-injury. Graham had 102 yards in the first meeting. Brooking had eight tackles and a fumble recovery. He is one of the more emotional Falcons and he'll be looking to make something happen early in the game.

BUCS WR JOEY GALLOWAY VS. FALCONS CB DEANGELO HALL:

I still remember the small stutter move that Galloway gave Hall on his way to a 44-yard touchdown catch. I'm sure Hall remembers it too. Galloway won the first meeting. Hall has been inconsistent at times this year, but he'll be looking for a little redemption. He's still dangerous, as he has a team-leading four interceptions this year.

OFFENSIVE PREDICTIONS

I make five offensive predictions each week. Check back on Monday to see if I'm right.

1. Tampa Bay will rush for 140 yards or more on Sunday. Graham will get another 100-yard game because the Bucs will commit to the run. I would like to see Michael Bennett get some carries, though.

2. Jeff Garcia will not throw an interception or commit a fumble. He'll be back to his usual self in that regard. But I wonder if his timing, especially, with Joey Galloway, will be a little off.

3. Ike Hilliard will play. He won't be 100 percent. But my theory is he plays this week, helps them clinch the divison title and then sits during the final two weeks at times to rest and get healthy. I see him catching five passes.

4. The Bucs will convert better than 40 percent of the third-down opportunities. If they're running the ball well, third downs probably won't happen that often. If Hilliard plays, the Bucs will be much better here than they were last week.

5. Joey Galloway will make a statement. I see a big day for Galloway as the Pro Bowl voting ends soon. He won't be a starter, but perhaps the players will finally cast their ballots for the 13-year vet and give him the berth he's deserved the past three seasons. He'll eclipse 1,000 yards for the season on Sunday, too.

ON DEFENSE

The last time the Bucs played the Falcons they forced four Falcons turnovers and Ronde Barber returned one for a touchdown.

It could be just as bad for the Falcons on Sunday.

Aside from the Petrino mess, there are other factors. Chris Redman is now the starting quarterback, and while's he's played well the Falcons are being outscored by an average of 18 points during this four-game losing streak.

Dunn, their best running back, has gained 20 yards in his last two games.

The offensive line is also a mess as the starting left side of the line is different than a month ago. Quinn Ojinnaka and D'Anthony Batiste are there now. Ojinnaka is the left tackle that gave up Bucs DE Gaines Adams' big third-quarter sack. There's little to suggest he's made much progress.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will probably run the ball more than Petrino did, simply because that has always been this team's strength. That plays to the Bucs, who had not allowed a team 100 or more yards rushing in four of the last five games. In their last meeting, the Bucs gave up 49 yards rushing.

I think the Buccaneers will seek to put early pressure on Redman, perhaps blitzing him earlier than they have other quarterbacks the past few weeks. If the Falcons are able to succeed running the football, it will give Redman some confidence. But I see the Falcons struggling on the ground and that will force Redman to beat the Bucs with his arm.

OTHER POINTS TO PONDER

TURNOVERS: Entering their first meeting with the Bucs the Falcons had committed just nine turnovers. Starting with that meeting, the Falcons have committed 10 turnovers.

THE OTHER PETRINO: While Petrino is getting lambasted in the press, there is a bright spot in the Petrino family. Wide receivers coach Paul Petrino earned some praise from Falcons GM Rich McKay on Wednesday. McKay said the Falcons actually wouldn't have minded if Paul stayed after the work he did with their wide receivers this year. Roddy White is on the verge of his first 1,000-yard season after a career-high 506 yards last season. Michael Jenkins also has career highs in receptions (51) and yards (512). The progress of these two receivers was a sore spot under Jim Mora Jr. Maybe the Falcons should have done all they could to keep Paul, who resigned Wednesday so as not to be a distraction to the team.

SACK ATTACK The Buccaneers' sack totals have really improved the past few weeks. After generating only 15 sacks during the season's first nine weeks, the Bucs have registered 13 sacks in the past four games. Those 28 sacks for the season eclipse the 25 last year's defense was able to muster. The total is still lower than the great Bucs defenses of old. But it's becoming apparent that rookie DE Gaines Adams is catching on to the defensive scheme and that DE Greg White is a gem of a player. White is on the verge of a 10-sack season. Take his Arena Football totals of 15, and that would give White 25 sacks for 2007 if he made it to that rarified place. That's one heck of a year. White has eight sacks entering this game.

MATCHUPS

FALCONS LT QUINN OJINNAKA VS. BUCS DE GREG WHITE: White had done a lot of damage lately, forcing six fumbles and notching 5 ½ sacks in four weeks. Qjinnaka was overmatched when he faced off with Adams a month ago. Uh oh.

BUCS LINEBACKERS VS. FALCONS RB WARRICK DUNN: Dunn did absolutely nothing against the Buccaneers because linebackers Barrett Ruud, Derrick Brooks and Cato June did a great job of containing Dunn's outside rushing lanes. That's likely to be the strategy on Sunday.

FALCONS WR RODDY WHITE VS. BUCS SECONDARY: I liked this matchup last time and I like it again. White is already in the midst of his best season. Against the Bucs he had just four receptions for 28 yards. Since then he's caught 19 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns. So was it just a speed bump, or do the Bucs really have this guy's number? We'll find out.

DEFENSIVE PREDICTIONS

1. The Falcons will rush for less than 100 yards. The Bucs run defense, statistically doesn't look great. But statistics don't matter when you haven't allowed 100 or more rushing yards in four of your last five games.

2. Greg White will not have two forced fumbles. The streak has to end sometime and it will on Sunday. But don't be surprised if he has two sacks again. This Falcons offensive line is decimated.

3. Roddy White will catch a touchdown pass. I get the sense that White is finally getting what being a NFL receiver is all about, and he's in a nice groove now. The Bucs will give up one big play, and it will be to White.

4. Ronde Barber will pick off a pass. He only has one all year. Time to pad the stats a bit.

5. The Bucs will force three turnovers. Redman has thrown two interceptions in two games and the Falcons are doing a horrible job of hanging on to the football. That's a problem against the Bucs.

THE PREDICTION

The Bucs could face two different Falcons teams on Sunday. One could be highly motivated, emotional and ready to play for interim coach Emmitt Thomas. The other could be so beaten down by the events of the past week that they just wilt at the first sign of adversity. I'm betting the latter will happen. It's not their fault. The Falcons just have to suffer through the sins of Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino. The Bucs will score early and often and cruise to a third division title under head coach Jon Gruden. Bucs 34, Falcons 14.

For more on the Buccaneers from Scout.com, visit Bucsblitz.com Click here.

Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.


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