Sunday’s game will be a challenge. That is the statement of the week in Tampa as the Bucs travel to the confines of M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore to take on the 7-3 Ravens. Up until this point the Buccaneers have been matched-up against less than impressive opponents and the bad news is when Tampa has been matched up against opponents with a winning record, 0-3. But when the game is broken down, it looks like Tampa Bay actually has a chance to win this game.
On paper, this match-up looks close. There are only 3 point separating the two teams in terms of average points scored a game (23.3 – 20.9 in favor of Baltimore) and average points allowed (20.6 to 17.8 again in favor of Baltimore). The continuing theme of Josh Freeman needing to step up will be present Sunday as the Buccaneers’ 22nd ranked passing offense goes up against the always scary Ravens secondary that is ranked 10th. It will be really interesting to see how young Freeman handles the likes of Ed Reed’s coverage, and the pass pressure that Ray Lewis is capable of bringing. One of the positives of Freeman’s performance last week in San Francisco was that he faced a secondary that wasn’t fluffy, it was actually pretty solid. After his lackluster performance it’s hard to believe the the young quarterback wasn’t been in the film room methodically breaking down the Ravens passing defense which, despite popular belief, isn’t invincible. It can be torched, and the likes of Kyle Orton have done it with a receiving core similar to the one in Tampa. Mike Williams will be a huge target on Sunday, but he will draw the majority of the coverage based on his home run ability. Don’t be surprised if Arrelious Benn and Kellen Winslow get dialed up in big spots this week. Even a guy like Sammie Stroughter or Michael Spurlock come into the game as slot receivers to pick up short yardage gains or draw up coverage to open up downfield space for Williams or Benn, or clear up running lanes for Blount and Cadillac.
Speaking of the running game, if there is one offense area the Bucs have to potential to bust loose, it’s in the run game. LaGarrette Blount and Cadillac Williams are very quickly solidifying their status among the top ranking one-two punches out of the backfield. They are currently ranked 12th in the NFL and the Ravens are ranked 9th. Tampa Bay was able to put together a pretty respectable game on the ground last week and it wouldn’t be shocking if they did it again. The Raven’s run defense isn’t bad by any means, but like the passing secondary, it’s not untouchable. Peyton Hillis of the Browns put 144 and a touchdown in week 2 and he has a very similar running style to Blount, which bodes very well for the offense. Cadillac has seen his role as the feature back diminish greatly since his Rookie of the Year season season, but he’s not complaining and he works really well as a side kick back, comparable to a Chester Taylor in the way he can come in the game, eat up yardage and have the potential to score. This should be an aspect of the game on Sunday that should whet the appetite of Bucs fans and the Batman and Robin of Tampa Bay’s backfield.
Defensively there is no area where anybody can honestly say the Bucs are outmatched. The Ravens Joe Flacco led passing offense is ranked 10th in the NFL, and will run into the brick wall that is Tampa Bay’s 6th ranked secondary. Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber will be occupied all day keeping the ball away from T.J Houshmandzadeh and Anquan Boldin. But other than that, Baltimore really doesn’t have many other weapons to pass to, but the big question mark is the run game. Ray Rice is one of the NFL’s top rushers but last week’s complete dismantling of Frank Gore gave this defense a boost. I had a chance to ask Stylez White how much of a confidence booster last week was and he said “it was never about confidence, it was about getting better and being consistent, playing smart and fast”. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect answer. Tampa’s defense has been playing fast, strong and externalities smart and it alls showed in last week’s shutout of the 49ers. No one is expecting a shut out this week, but it isn’t out of the cards. If anything Sunday’s game has the high chance of being a low scoring, defensive game and if this unit could shut down a top rusher last week, Ray Rice better watch out because he can expect more of the same.
Overall Tampa Bay will face it’s newest ‘real’ challenge as the Ravens are not the 49ers, Panthers or Rams. They are an AFC powerhouse in a tough division and are fighting for a playoff spot that won’t come easy. The Bucs are very much in the same position, in a tough division fighting for a tough playoff birth. These two teams are so similar, Sunday’s match-up should be a really good game to watch and it will give us an even more well rounded look at just what this team really looks like when matched up against a tough opponent. There is the saying that no win is an easy win, and that saying couldn’t be more true this week; however the Buccaneers are flying under the mainstream NFL’s radar, which is the perfect place to make a strike to the top.