Bucs Look to Cool Off Matty Ice and the Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons invade Raymond James Stadium on Sunday for a rematch with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a key NFC South battle. The 9-2 Falcons come in riding a 5-game winning streak on the hot arm of their third-year QB Matt Ryan and the sure hands of potential All-Pro WR Roddy White.

Known as “Matty Ice”, Ryan has been as cool as his moniker suggests this season. He’s completed 64.7% of his passes for 2715 yards with 19 TDs and 5 interceptions. In his last 5 starts, Ryan has passed for 1300 yards and 10 TDs to only 1 interception. A big secret to the Falcons’ success during this stretch has been superior protection of the football. The Falcons haven’t turned over the football in the past 4 games and, if the streak stretches to 5 games on Sunday, would set an NFL record for most consecutive games without a turnover.

A big part of Ryan’s productivity has been the protection that his veteran offensive line has provided him. Center Todd McClure, the veteran anchor of that line, has started in a team-record 139 consecutive games and leads a physical group of linemen who, collectively, have not missed a start this season. Tackles Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo have done an outstanding job protecting Ryan, as evidenced by the fact that the Falcons have allowed only 17 sacks this year, which ranks 6th-fewest in the league.

The line has plowed the road for Michael Turner, who is having a bounce-back season from an injury-plagued 2009. The Falcons are rushing for 128 yards per game, good for 8th-best in the league, and Turner has been the main benefactor, with 974 rushing yards at 4.4 yards per carry and seven touchdowns on the ground. He has gone over 100 yards rushing in 4 of his last 5 games. Third-down back Jason Snelling has been a safety blanket for Ryan in the passing game, catching 35 passes for 299 yards and 2 TDs. However, Snelling missed practice this week with a hamstring injury and likely could be out Sunday.

Conversely, the Buccaneer defense has stepped up its play in the past few weeks, particularly with its pass rush and gap responsibility. The Bucs have tripled their sack total in the past 3 weeks and have managed to hold the 49er and Raven tailbacks to fewer than 100 yards rushing. However, the loss of the steady Cody Grimm at free safety will be felt. Grimm had become as sure a tackler as any defender on this team. Raheem Morris named Corey Lynch as the starter at free safety today. Lynch had two interceptions against the Houston Texans in the preseason, returning one for a touchdown. Morris also stated its possible Vince Anderson and even Ronde Barber could see some time at free safety on Sunday.

The key matchup to keep an eye on Sunday will be between WR Roddy White and CB Aqib Talib. In their first matchup, Talib held White to 4 catches for 49 yards and kept the explosive wideout out of the end zone. White commented earlier in the week that he felt like Talib got the best of him the first time around.

That’s not enough for Aqib.

“We lost the game,” Talib said. “So I wasn’t really happy. He says I got the best of him, but we lost the game, so I feel like I lost the matchup.”

On offense, the Buccaneers will trot out their sixth different starting offensive line this week. Jeremy Zuttah will start at RG in place of the injured Davin Joseph, marking the third position that Zuttah has started at this season. Also, Raheem Morris announced today that James Lee will start at right tackle over Jeremy Trueblood, his sixth consecutive start at the position.

Kickoff is set for 4:15 pm on Sunday.