FLOWERY BRANCH — When Tampa Bay turned its head coaching reigns over to Greg Schiano, a former head coach at Rutgers, few took notice.
The hiring of college coaches by NFL teams has worked out for only a few, such as Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer.
The list of college coaches who have faltered miserably in the NFL includes iconic names such as Lou Holtz, Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier. Also, there was Bobby Petrino, who walked out on the Falcons after 13 games in 2007.
It looked as if the Bucs had made a bad move as they stumbled to a 1-3 start, and Schiano got into a tiff with New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin for rushing their kneel-down formation.
But Schiano, who spent three seasons in the NFL as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bears (1996-98), has the Bucs fighting for a playoff berth.
The Bucs (6-4) have won five of their past six games and face the Falcons (9-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at a Raymond James Stadium.
They trail the Falcons by three games in the NFC South with six to play, including two head-to-head matchups.
“The one thing that we really stress is that we play clean, hard football, but we play it all the way through the down and all the way through the game,” Schiano said.
It didn’t seem to bother Schiano that he ruffled Coughlin’s feathers. The Bucs repeated the tactic the following week against Dallas.
“If there is not an opportunity to win the game, we’re not going to run the play because there’s no sense of putting either team in harm’s way,” Schiano said. “But if there is still an opportunity to win the game, we have a series of plays that we used in that situation to try to get the ball back.”
Schiano had a major clean-up job. The Bucs, under former coach Raheem Morris, were a mess when they last played the Falcons. They were routed 45-24 on Jan. 1, and it appeared that the team was in a rush to complete their regular-season finale.
“Coach Schiano has come in and really laid down a plan,” Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman said. “It’s a plan that shows guys what we have to do to win each week.”
Freeman said a premium is placed on preparation during the week so that the Bucs can execute at a high level in games.
It helps that the veterans, such as defensive back Ronde Barber, have bought into Schiano’s methods.
“I can’t tell you how big a help Ronde has been to me as a first-time head coach in National Football League,” Schiano said. “He’s one of our captains, and he’s also a guy that I bounce things off almost constantly and really has been a huge help and a great role model for our younger guys.
“Ronde is not a rah-rah guy. He’s a lead-by-example guy. He’s actually stepped out more and spoken up some. That’s been big.”
Freeman’s play has rebounded this season. His passer rating dipped from 95.6 in 2010 to 74.6 last season. Under the direction of offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, Freeman again has a 95.6 passer rating and has thrown 16 touchdown passes. He has thrown only three interceptions over his past six games.
“When you look at the talent he has and the throws he’s made, the things he’s done leading our offense, that’s what’s given us a chance to win games,” Schiano said.
Rookie running back Doug Martin, who leads the NFL with 1,319 yards from scrimmage, has re-established the Bucs’ running game.
“I like the way he runs,” Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “He’s a tough runner. He reminds me of (Ray Rice) in Baltimore.”
The Bucs’ defense is a paradox. They rank first in the NFL against the rush and last against the pass.
“It’s a work in progress for sure,” Schiano said. “There is a gap. Certainly we’d like to keep the run defense where it is and close that gap with the pass defense.”
Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said his unit will be prepared for the Bucs’ kneel-down tactics should they have to line up in the kneel-down formation.
Koetter also is impressed with linebackers Lavonte Davis and Mason Foster. Defensive end Michael Bennett leads the Bucs with seven sacks.
“Their whole front is relentless,” Koetter said. “These guys don’t quit until they hear the whistle. They play extremely hard. That jumps right off the tape at you. This is going to be a team, for us to be successful, we’re going to have to out-work their front.”
Schiano would not have it any other way.
“After the dust settled and we realized this is who we are and this is how we do things, we’ve had tremendous buy-in,” Schiano said. “I think (we have) a group of guys that care deeply about each other and are willing to work hard. So, that’s a good combination.”