By SCOTT PURKS
TAMPA – Many folks in Tampa predicted Buc running back Doug Martin – the heralded rookie with the famous nickname “Muscle Hamster” – would run wild against Atlanta.
And why not? Martin had already gained 1,000 yards on the season, and Atlanta’s run defense ranked 26th in the league (130.5 yards a game) and had repeatedly been gashed for long runs. Last week against Arizona, for example, a relatively unheralded back, LaRod Stephens Howling, had runs of 40 and 52 yards and finished with 127 yards on 22 carries.
But not so on Sunday.
Time and again during the Falcons’ 24-23 victory, Martin, who carried 100 percent of Tampa’s rushing load, was turned back and often turned flat on his back. He not only failed to gain a lot of yards (50 yards on 21 carries) but his longest rush went only for 10 yards.
Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said it came down to plain old, “Intensity.”
“We knew (the Bucs) were going to run the ball because they’ve been doing it pretty well (averaging 128.9 rushing yards a game for ninth in the league),” Babineaux said. “I mean they had a thousand-1,000-yard rusher coming into this game. So we got ready for it. We were determined.”
It didn’t hurt that Falcon linebacker Sean Weatherspoon returned with a vengeance after missing the previous three weeks with a sore ankle.
“I felt great and my ankle felt great,” said Weatherspoon, who tied for a team-high six solo tackles. “I was kind of emotional at the beginning of the game, but once I got back out there with my guys it just felt like being out there at the beginning of the season.”
If one series of downs defined Atlanta’s run defense on Sunday, it came with 5 minutes, 1 second remaining in the second quarter with the Bucs standing first and goal at Atlanta’s 3-yard line.
What followed was a handoff to Martin, who gained two yards before getting stuffed by Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. On the following play, the Bucs threw an incompletion, which set up for a third-down rush that proved to be one of the most pivotal in the game.
Martin ran around left end and sprinted toward the left corner. Atlanta linebacker Mike Peterson ran parallel and then lit Martin up with a straight-on collision.
Martin flew back for a three-yard loss and Tampa settled for a 22-yard field goal.
“I was just doing my job,” said Peterson, a 14-year veteran. “We were just reading the keys.”
From the perspective of Tampa quarterback Josh Freeman, the Falcons’ defense kept the Bucs thinking.
“(Atlanta) loaded the box and did a lot kind of outside their tendencies,” Freeman said. “All in all when you can contain a guy like Doug, as explosive as Doug, that’s saying a lot.”
Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson thought stuffing Martin had everything to do with preparation.
“We really worked on (stopping the run) and focused on it all week in practice,” Robinson said. “We understand what kind of a defense we can be when we stop the run. We came out (on Sunday) and did a great job (on the run).
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