Even though the Falcons have won five straight over the Tampa Bay Bucs, there's still a mutual high level of respect. Sunday's game against the Bucs will be Atlanta's third conference game, but first NFC South game. The Falcons never lack focus for a game and don't subscribe to the notion that they need extra incentives to get up for a game.
They appreciate, however, a third straight matchup that will put them to the test. They know games like this early in the season will only make them better around Week 13.
"A division game gets us right back focused on the next opponent," running back Michael Turner said. "I think this team is coming at the right time for us."
The Falcons have played the role of spoiler a little in recent years. Last season's sweep of Tampa played a significant role in keeping the Bucs out of the playoffs and getting the Falcons in. After a tough loss in Week 1 for the Bucs, the boys from Florida came out with an inspired effort in the second half of Week 2's game against the Vikings, coming back from 17 points down to take the win.
There's a sense that they're looking up at the Falcons and want to take them out, as the new kid on the block, not unlike the Falcons in 2008.
"They might come out swinging pretty hard," defensive end Kroy Biermann said. "We're going to focus on us and get ready. We'll do what we do here and practice well. We'll go down there and see what we can get done."
Games in recent years between these two division opponents have gone to the wire, including a Week 13 come-from-behind win for Atlanta on the road. Down 10 points with a little more than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of that game, the Falcons got an Eric Weems kickoff return touchdown and a Ryan touchdown pass to take the win.
Emotions were high for the Falcons last week after a tough Week 1 loss and heading back into the Georgia Dome against one of the league's high-profile teams. They know a little of that will still be present this week.
"This is going to be another emotional game," Turner said. "It feels like a rivalry for us. They're going to play us tough. They want to finally get over that hump by beating teams in this division."
The Bucs and the Falcons share similarities. Both relatively young teams with a choice veterans and an offense growing as it adds playmakers. They've got a good young quarterback as well and they're no stranger to fourth-quarter comebacks. At times it may be like playing mirror images of each other on Sunday.
The familiarity with division opponents is high and that lends Sunday's game a sense of just going out to play football. Schemes will only do so much because of the familiarity, both teams will just need to execute when they have a chance.
"They're becoming a very balanced football team with the run and the pass," cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "They're doing a lot of good things. We've just got to make sure we're ready to play and clicking on all cylinders. We've just got to go out there and fly around. The'yre a good football team, one that doesn't quit. Freeman is called the 'Comeback Kid' for a reason. He showed that again last week. We understand it's going to be a 60-minute game. We've got to go out there and play."
Speaking of Freeman:Freeman is one of those quarterbacks that can strike fear into an opponent, just from the looks of him. At 6-foot-6 and 248 pounds, he's bigger than most players on the field. Because the ball is in his hands every play, he's the man to beat for Tampa.
"He's like the size of a D-end running around," cornerback Brent Grimes said. "He presents a big problem for the defense. We've got to prepare for it. We've seen them a lot of time so we know what he likes to do and you've just got to be ready."
Other than being ready, how do you beat him? Very carefully.
Being over-aggressive with Freeman can lead to broken tackles or misses outright. While he's big, he's more mobile than you think and can be elusive. The Falcons may look to employ a wave approach, bring multiple guys to the quarterback.
"He's very difficult, very athletic and he can run, as well," defensive tackle Corey Peters said. "We've just got to try to get as many people to ball as possible and get him on the ground."
Peters explained that while they want to sack him, pressure is good, as well. Hitting Freeman's arms and tying him up as plays progress while help can arrive will be critical.
Although both are considered mobile, the Falcons' approach to Freeman will be different from how they managed Michael Vick last week. Vick uses his legs to make plays; Freeman will tuck it and run, but wants to use his legs more to extend plays.
"They're two totally different quarterbacks," Robinson said. "Freeman is different from Vick in a lot of ways. We can't go out there and treat the quarterbacks the same. We've got to prepare for him individually just like we did for Vick last week. The game plan changes every week. You change the way you play certain quarterbacks and we're looking at him differently."
More than physical ability, the Falcons respect Freeman's tenacity and leadership. In him they see a player not unlike their own quarterback, a player with blood in his veins with the game on the line looking to lead them to a victory. Robinson said Freeman's poise is what makes him special and disrupting that has to be part of their game plan.
"I wouldn't say there's one particular thing he does on the field but it's his all-around demeanor," the cornerback said. "He never allows himself to get rattled. When you've got 52 other men watching him not getting rattled, they get confidence. The biggest thing is his poise. He can make all the throws also. He'll stand in there and take hits and still deliver the football."
Fast-Break Offense:The image opponents hate seeing more than any other when facing the Falcons is the one where Ryan waves his team off the huddle and starts picking up the pace.
When the Falcons move into their hurry-up, no-huddle offense, they are very difficult to beat. In the fourth quarter Sunday night, with the game on the line, Atlanta called for the no huddle and Ryan began dissecting the Eagles with play calls at the line of scrimmage to best exploit what he was seeing.
"We've been doing that since 2008," running back Michael Turner said. "It's nothing new, it's just something that is possible sometimes in some games. If we have an opportunity that we see that we can run that, we'll do it."
Ryan's fourth season in the offense gives him even more comfort to man the no huddle and use everything at his disposal. With the game on the line, Ryan engineered two no-huddle drives to take the game back from the Eagles. Turner says Ryan's intelligence is why he is so effective in that role, because the quarterback can see the field he can make the right call.
Ryan thinks the length of time in the system is beneficial for everyone on offense when they go to the no huddle, not just him. The players around him need to be able to understand what the quarterback is checking out of and their sixth sense is improving over time.
"We practice that every day," Ryan said. "Every time we're out at practice we work on that. I think we've got guys who have been in the system for a long time and understand how we'll operate in those type of situations. We've been together for a llong time so there's a familiarity with each other. We can change our code words and those type of things to keep defenses honest. I think that's probably one of the reasons we've been successful in it."
Even though they have success often in the no huddle, it's still a tool to change the pace of a game, not something they'll convert to full time. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and Ryan have an excellent relationship and they work together to devise game plans and draw up plays that will work against opponents. They communicate during the game as well to continue to hone their strategy.
Mularkey has more tools on offense than he may have ever had in his career. There's a sense each week he's learning new ways to use all the talents the team has provided him and his quarterback and the results are showing on the field, even through two weeks. The Falcons didn't just score out of the no-huddle last week. Three other touchdowns came from Mularkey play calls.
"Mike does a great job of balancing the two," Ryan said. "When you look at this past weekend, we had two successful drives in the no huddle at the end. We had some really good calls also. A couple of those calls in the red zone, Mike got us lined up in some really good positions, had guys running wide open. Tony was wide open on the first or second touchdown past. The post he caught was unbelievable format. I like them both. "
Let's Get Physical:It's almost a cliche in football that you must play physical to win. In reality, no one has ever won a game without tackling an opponent.
But there are teams that welcome physical play and some that shy away from it, either in how they play on offense or defense. The Falcons are quickly being recognized as a team that can trade body blows with anyone. The Bucs are, too. Last week's win over the Eagles was about as tough as they come. It was a clinic on physical football. This week will be no different.
"That's football," Turner said. "Every week is going to be physical and tough. This team that we're playing against has played us tough the last couple of years. So we're expecting them to take us down to the wire."
Turner thinks, under head coach Raheem Morris, the Bucs have a new attitude. They're winners again and the young team plays with a swagger that includes a physicality that isn't too uncommon for the NFC. Whatever they saw on Sunday night against the Eagles is what they're likely to see against the Bucs, an opponent they're very familiar with.
"It was an emotional, hard-fought football game against Philly," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "You've got to expect the same thing coming to Tampa. They're a good football team that have taken us down to the wire since I've been here. It's been close games and I'm looking forward to going out there to see how we match up. It's a division opponent too."
Both teams figure to run the ball heavily. The Falcons have Michael Turner to pound between the tackles, the NFC's third-leading rusher. The Bucs have introduced more of a ground game in the last year with the emergence of LeGarrette Blount, a tough runner himself. The team that can stop the running game may gain the edge and it's going to be a fight to do just that all day on Sunday.
"It's going to be huge," safety William Moore said. "This is a big 360 from what we saw last week as far as (LeSean) McCoy being shifty and his style of running. You go out and play Blount, it's another ball game. He's a powerful runner so we've got to come down hill this week."
Injury Update:The physical nature of Sunday's game lengthened the first injury report of the week on Wednesday. Head coach Mike Smith said Jonathan Babineaux and Kelvin Hayden did not participate in practice. Todd McClure, Roddy White, Matt Ryan and Ray Edwards were limited.
Corey Peters and Shann Schillinger were listed as full participants in practice.
McClure is returning from a knee injury that caused him to miss the last two regular season games. Smith said he was excited to have his veteran center back on the field.
"We missed his leadership out there over the first two ball games," he said. "Hopefully, he'll not have any adverse affects from the workload that he had today. We'll try to ascertain tomorrow where he'll be. It was good to have him back out there, I can assure you of that."
Hayden, who injured his hamstring in Sunday's game, remains in a competition for the nickelback corner position with Chris Owens. Babineaux continues to rehab his knee. Peters returned to action Sunday after missing Week 1 with a knee injury of his own. The back injury took him out of the game against the Eagles for a while but he returned. Schillinger suffered a neck injury in the last week's game.
White was limited with a leg injury, Ryan was limited with a knee injury and Edwards was limited with a foot.