(Sports Network) - Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris recently proclaimed his team to be the best the NFC has to offer. If it's able to come away with a victory over the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, he'll be able to back up those bold words.
Morris' headline-grabbing statement came after the up-and-coming Buccaneers made a stirring second-half rally to deliver an 18-17 home triumph over the St. Louis Rams last Sunday, a result that further cemented his young charges as a club to watch in what's been a topsy-turvy group of NFC members. Coming off a dismal 3-13 campaign in Morris' managerial debut, Tampa Bay has already exceeded both its 2009 win total and expectations for this season by prevailing in four of its first six games out of the chute.
If the Buccaneers are to overtake the transitioning Cardinals on Sunday, they will indeed be at the top of the conference mountain at this stage. Both Atlanta and the New York Giants presently reside at 5-2 and have Week 8 byes, with NFC West leader Seattle owning a 4-2 mark heading into its game this weekend.
The 34-year-old Morris is a confident young man, and that belief system has clearly carried over to his developing team. The Bucs never panicked after falling behind 17-3 to the Rams late in the first half, scoring 15 unanswered points and putting together a 16-play, 81-yard drive in the closing moments capped by quarterback Josh Freeman's short touchdown toss to running back Carnell Williams with only 10 seconds left.
Freeman has also been instrumental towards Tampa Bay's surprising turnaround. The 2009 first-round draft choice has now engineered five comebacks in the fourth quarter during his brief professional tenure, three of which have come this season. He brought the Buccaneers back from an 11-point deficit in a 17-14 verdict over Cleveland in Week 1 and led the offense to 10 points in the final two minutes to pull out an improbable 24-21 win at Cincinnati on Oct. 10.
While Tampa Bay is certainly on the upswing, the Cardinals are trying to maintain their recent standards of success while going through a significant personnel overhaul. Gone are many of the key contributors to Arizona's back- to-back NFC West titles and 2008 Super Bowl appearance, with two-time MVP quarterback Kurt Warner headlining that extensive and talented list.
The now-retired Warner has also been the toughest player to replace. The Cardinals have used both Cleveland castoff Derek Anderson and undrafted rookie Max Hall under center, neither of which have been able to provide much of a spark to an offense that enters this week's play last in the NFL in total yards and passing yards and has produced a meager six touchdowns through Arizona's first six contests.
Hall has started the Cardinals' last two tilts and helped the team to a 30-20 decision over defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans in Week 5. However, the former BYU standout was an ineffective 4-of-16 for 36 yards with an interception in last Sunday's 22-10 loss at Arizona before exiting in the third quarter with a concussion.
It seems neither the injury nor that poor performance will prevent Hall from getting another chance this week, however. Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt has stated that the 25-year-old will start against Tampa Bay provided he's healthy enough to go, and Hall did practice without any restrictions on Wednesday.
He'll be attempting to direct 3-3 Arizona to its third consecutive home win to begin the season on Sunday. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, will be shooting for their first 3-0 start on the road since 2003.
These teams have split 16 all-time meetings, with the Buccaneers evening the series with a 17-10 home win during the 2007 season. Tampa Bay has prevailed in five of the past seven matchups between the teams, but has lost in two straight visits to Phoenix and hasn't won there since 1998. In their most recent trip to Arizona, the Bucs dropped a 12-7 decision to the Cardinals in 2004.
Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt lost his only head-to-head encounter with the Buccaneers as a head coach, while Morris will be opposing both Whisenhunt and the Cardinals for the first time.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
By the numbers, the Tampa Bay offense doesn't impress. The Bucs rank just 23rd in total yards (307.5), 24th in rushing yards (96.7 ypg) and have eclipsed 20 points only once this season, while Freeman (1255 passing yards, 7 TD, 3 INT) has completed a lackluster 58.8 percent of his throws. The strapping sophomore has exhibited good decision making in the pocket, though, having thrown just three interceptions thus far, and his leadership qualities are off the charts. Freeman does have two quality targets to work with in the passing game, as rookie wideout Mike Williams (28 receptions, 3 TD) has made a quick adjustment to the pro ranks and veteran tight end Kellen Winslow (29 receptions) can still be a factor despite battling through knee problems that have robbed him of his downfield abilities. Carnell Williams (202 rushing yards, 23 receptions, 1 TD) has made an impact as a receiver out of the backfield as well, but the brittle running back is averaging a paltry 2.5 yards per rush attempt as the primary ball carrier. He's begun to yield some touches to powerful rookie LeGarrette Blount (102 rushing yards, 1 TD), who set season bests with 72 yards and 11 carries last week and looks to be more involved in the game plan going forward. The Buccaneers will be going into Sunday's battle banged up on the offensive line, with starting center Jeff Faine sidelined indefinitely with a pulled quad and left guard Keydrick Vincent (back) and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood (knee) both questionable to play.
Look for the Bucs to try to establish the run against an Arizona defense that's been rather soft in that area this season, having surrendered an average of 141.3 rushing yards per game (29th overall). The team could be receiving some help towards improving that number, however, with inside linebacker Gerald Hayes on the verge of returning from offseason back surgery that kept him out of the first six contests. If activated for Sunday's tilt, he'll likely be used in a rotation with journeyman Paris Lenon (49 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and promising rookie Daryl Washington (42 tackles, 1 sack) along the interior of the Cardinals' 3-4 look. Freeman will be taking shots at a secondary that sports a wealth of playmakers, as cornerback Dominique Rodgers- Cromartie (23 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD) is a Pro Bowl coverman capable of locking down an opponent's No. 1 receiver and free safety Kerry Rhodes (36 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) has returned two fumbles for touchdowns this season. Arizona's got some pretty good pass rushers that Tampa Bay will need to deal with as well, with veteran outside linebacker Joey Porter (22 tackles, 2 sacks) and linemen Darnell Dockett (21 tackles, 1 sack) and Calais Campbell (23 tackles, 2 sacks) all recording seven or more sacks last season.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Whether it's been Hall (289 passing yards, 3 INT) or Anderson (746 passing yards, 3 TD, 5 INT) at the controls, the Arizona offense has been inept practically all of this season. The Cardinals are averaging a substandard 237.8 total yards and 146.2 passing yards per game while ranking 30th in third down conversions (27.4 pct.), and mustered a paltry 227 yards while going 2- for-12 on third-down tries in last week's loss to the Seahawks. The team was able to generate some production on the ground against Seattle, however, with the running back tandem of Tim Hightower (298 rushing yards, 2 TD, 8 receptions) and Beanie Wells (183 rushing yards, 1 TD) combining for 109 yards and a touchdown on 20 totes. Hightower is averaging 5.7 yards per carry for the season but has had major issues with ball security, one reason why Arizona is last in the NFC with a minus-seven turnover margin. The dreadful quarterback play has played a role in that poor ratio as well, and it's also led to an ordinary season for four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (29 receptions, 2 TD), who's yet to surpass 100 yards in a game this year. Fitzgerald also has drawn constant double teams with running mate Steve Breaston (14 receptions, 1 TD) having missed three straight games after undergoing a knee procedure, though he appears on track to return this week.
With Hall still a major work in progress, expect the Cardinals to attack a woeful Tampa Bay run defense with its backfield duo early and often come Sunday. The Bucs have permitted the second-most yards in the league on the ground (157.7 ypg) and an NFL-worst 5.3 yards per attempt, with the Rams going off for 161 rushing yards last Sunday and New Orleans putting up 212 on the unit the previous week. Young tackles Roy Miller (14 tackles) and Gerald McCoy (10 tackles) will need to get more of a push up front and linebackers Barrett Ruud (47 tackles) and Geno Hayes (32 tackles) have to be disciplined in their assignments in order to prevent a repeat. Pressuring the quarterback has also been a problem, with Tampa Bay having managed a league-low five sacks to date. Even with that dearth of a pass rush, the Buccaneers have handled themselves well against enemy signal-callers, having yielded the sixth-fewest passing yards in the NFL (196.2 ypg) and coming up with 10 interceptions, including three from gifted young cornerback Aqib Talib (16 tackles, 3 INT). Rookie safety Cody Grimm (29 tackles, 2 INT) has garnered a pair of picks over the past three weeks, while 35-year-old corner Ronde Barber (41 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PD) has remained a reliable coverman in his 14th professional season.
With two of the four lowest-scoring teams in the league going head-to-head, there isn't a whole lot to choose from a fantasy standpoint here. Hightower's fumble problems have made Wells the better running back to own on the Arizona side, and the latter seems to be a strong play in what figures to be a run- oriented game plan against a leaky Tampa defense. Carnell Williams offers some value as a flex option due to his receiving skills, but Blount is an emerging sleeper who's worth picking up if available. It's hard to recommend sitting a player as good as Fitzgerald, but the presence of a rookie quarterback really downgrades the star wideout's potential. Mike Williams has turned into a pretty consistent performer for the Buccaneers, however, and should make for a solid selection as Freeman's go-to guy. No other Tampa receiver is a strong choice, and Freeman has yet to become an elite fantasy producer and only possesses upside in two-quarterback leagues. Hall should not be considered. Arizona has been a pretty good fantasy defense this season and merits a look in a matchup with a Tampa team that isn't too explosive.
Neither of these teams are equipped to blow out the other, so expect a tightly-contested affair that should come down to a handful of plays. That scenario could work in the favor of the Buccaneers, who have come out on top in all three of their games that have been decided by three points or less and have generally been a more consistent outfit than the skittish Cardinals. Arizona's not going to do much offensively and needs to rely on forcing turnovers, like it did in victories over St. Louis and New Orleans earlier this season, and that could be a tall order against a Tampa squad that does a good job of taking care of the ball. The Bucs aren't the best bunch in the conference as their coach claims, but they should be good enough to get past a Cardinals team with some serious concerns on the offensive end.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 16, Cardinals 10