By Michael Cunningham
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and the passing game have hit their stride in the past two weeks. But he had an interception and a lost
fumble in the first meeting this season, a 24-23 Falcons victory.
Ryan talked about the offense and the rematch with Tampa Bay.
Q: What has to be better for you guys from the first game against Tampa Bay (a 24-23 Falcons victory on Nov. 25)?
A: Certainly one of the things, for me personally, we’ve got to protect the football better. I had two turnovers down there the last time we played. Ronde (Barber) did what he has done throughout his entire career. He’s a ballhawk and made a great play. And then I made a mental mistake in terms of our pass protection. Those are two things I’ve got to clean up in order for us to have a better chance.
Q: How have teams tried to defend you?
A: We’ve been playing different ways at different times throughout the season. I think that’s why we’ve been different each week. There have been weeks when Roddy (White) is the guy. Tony (Gonzalez) has been the guy a number of times this year. Julio (Jones) has been that guy. We’ve run the ball effectively when we needed to. I think we’ve been defended differently throughout the year, and we’ve found different ways to win. That’s probably the thing we’ve done best of anything is taking what they are giving us and doing the best we can.
Q:It seems Roddy doesn’t always get mentioned as one of the top wide receivers. Why do you think that is?
A: If I’m talking about (it), he’s mentioned. He’s incredibly consistent. He’s an unbelievable competitor. He’s one of the smartest football players I’ve ever seen. He is very, very in tune with what a defense is trying to do, and he’s great for feedback on the sidelines. I certainly think he’s one of the best in the game.
The Browns selected Luke McCown in the fourth round of the 2004 draft with the hopes that he could develop into a starting
quarterback. It hasn’t happened for McCown in four NFL stops: He’s appeared in 22 career games with nine starts and hasn’t attempted a pass this season for the Falcons.
That probably will change in the Falcons’ regular-season finale against the Buccaneers. The Falcons have clinched the NFC’s top seed and don’t want to expose Matt Ryan to too much injury risk, so expect McCown to get some significant snaps.
McCown has played well in this situation before. He started for the Buccaneers in 2007 when they had clinched a playoff spot before the final regular-season game and was 21-of-28 for 236 yards and two touchdowns and one interception in a 32-23 loss to Carolina.
McCown had two other starts that season. When Tampa Bay starter Jeff Garcia was injured, McCown replaced him in the lineup and passed for 313 yards and two touchdowns with an interception while completing 78 percent of his pass attempts in a 27-23 Buccaneers victory. McCown also played well in the next game, passing for 266 yards on 25-of-38 passing in a 28-14 loss to Houston.
The Falcons signed McCown in August after they released Chris Redman, who was Ryan’s backup for three seasons. McCown played the past three seasons for Jacksonville, where first-year Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was on staff.
McCown started two games for Jacksonville last season and was 1-1 with 234 yards passing and four interceptions. McCown started two games as a rookie for the Browns, both losses, and totaled three touchdowns and four interceptions.
When the Falcons played the Buccaneers in November, running back Doug Martin was on a roll, and not coincidentally, so were the Bucs.
Martin had accumulated 766 total yards and scored six touchdowns in his previous four games. Tampa Bay won all four to improve to 6-4 on the season.
Since then, though, the Bucs have lost five in a row. Martin gained only 50 yards on 21 carries in a 24-23 loss to the Falcons and has topped 100 yards once over those five games.
Martin was one of the hottest backs in the NFL, and the Buccaneers were streaking. Now both are playing out the string in the regular-season finale.
“The whole season was a roller coaster,” Martin said. “We got hot midseason, but couldn’t sustain it. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the last game, and we want to put our best foot forward and do our best to win this game and end the season on a good note.”
Tampa Bay has been riddled with injuries, nowhere more so than on the offensive line. Among the linemen who went down were guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, both of whom were named to the Pro Bowl last season.
Those injuries forced the Bucs to do a lot of shuffling on the line, but Martin said the unit has performed well under the circumstances.
“Guys have stepped up and done a good job,” he said. “We are real confident in their abilities.”
Falcons president Rich McKay started as general counsel for the Buccaneers before eventually becoming the team’s general manager. He built a Super Bowl winner for Tampa Bay before joining the Falcons as general manager in 2003 and eventually moving into his current role.
McKay’s father, the late John McKay, was hired as Tampa Bay’s first coach in 1975.
Other connections include:
Falcons coach Mike Smith was the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville when Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was an offensive assistant there in 2003.
Bucs wide receivers coach P.J. Fleck was a wide receiver for the 49ers in 2005 when Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was the team’s head coach.
Fleck played with Falcons running back Michael Turner at Northern Illinois in 2003.
Falcons defensive line coach Ray Hamilton held the same position with the Bucs in 1991.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez played for Bucs senior offensive assistant Jimmy Raye when Raye was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City from 1997-2000. Raye was on the Falcons’ staff in 1980-82 and 1987-89.
Falcons kicker Matt Bryant played for the Bucs from 2005-08.
Bucs punter Michael Koenen played for the Falcons from from 2005-10.
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and offensive lineman Mike Johnson won a BCS championship with Bucs safety Mark Barron at Alabama.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan played with Bucs tackle Jeremy Trueblood at Boston College.
Each season seems to follow the same pattern for Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman.
Before the season there are predictions that Freeman’s talent will finally be realized. At some point during the season, Freeman plays well enough that more people start to believe. But then, inevitably, he reverts back to his earlier ways.
That’s the way it happened again for Freeman this season. After a mid-season streak of five games in which he posted triple-digit quarterback ratings and 16 touchdown passes against two interceptions, Freeman has regressed.
He threw four interceptions in a 41-0 loss to the Saints on Dec. 16 and again in a 28-13 loss to the Rams on Sunday. For the season, Freeman has completed just 54.9 percent of his pass attempts with 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Freeman had a solid game against the Falcons in the first meeting. He didn’t have a touchdown pass, but completed 19 of 40 pass attempts for 256 yards without an interception.
The Falcons haven’t allowed a touchdown pass in five of their past six games.
“It’s a combination of our disguise and us being tight in coverage,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “If we can confuse quarterbacks before the snap, that can have them hesitate and throw the ball in places they may not have wanted to or after they wanted to on a clean read. Those two things and working on ball skills in the off-season have definitely paid dividends.”