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Falcons to face Griese, not Garcia
Atlanta Falcons running back Jerious Norwood (32) leaps into the air during a second-half touchdown run last week against the Detroit Lions at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The Falcons’ running game will be the focus for a Bucs’ defense in need of a good performance. - photo by Dave Martin | The Associated Press


— Brian Griese is eager to pick up where he left off for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers three years ago.

The veteran quarterback begins a second stint as the team’s starter today against the Atlanta Falcons, replacing an injured — and ineffective — Jeff Garcia in the home opener for the defending NFC South champions.

The big question is whether the move is for the short term or long haul.

"I look at it as we’re 0-1, and we didn’t play as well as we could have played last week at all positions," said Griese, who helped Tampa Bay to a 5-1 start before suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2005.

"I look at it as an opportunity to go out and get this thing back on track. It’s just one game, but I think this is a big game for us. To think about this as anything other than that wouldn’t do it justice."

Atlanta won its debut under coach Mike Smith last week, with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan throwing a long touchdown pass on his first pro pass and Michael Turner rushing for a franchise-record 220 yards and two TDs in his first game for the Falcons.

A loss would drop Tampa Bay, a 24-20 loser at New Orleans, to 0-2 within the division — a hole the Bucs desperately want to avoid.

"It’s early, so you don’t want to say must win," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "But it really is."

And after watching Garcia only get the offense into the end zone once against New Orleans, Bucs coach Jon Gruden thinks Griese is his best option to beat the Falcons, who opened with a 34-21 victory over Detroit.

The Bucs said Garcia sprained an ankle late against the Saints. However, the injury wasn’t the only reason for benching the 38-year-old quarterback, who missed most of training camp and the preseason with a strained right calf.

Gruden said he wants Garcia to get healthy "physically and emotionally."

"I’m a pretty good judge of Jeff Garcia. I’m a big believer in him. I just believe right now what we’re seeing is not what Jeff Garcia is capable of doing," Gruden said. "And that doesn’t mean he won’t be back here soon. But I do believe the best thing to do is go with Brian Griese, and that’s what we’re doing."

Griese, obtained in a trade from Chicago in March, started 16 games over two seasons in his first stint with Tampa Bay. He helped the Bucs to a strong start three years ago before knee surgery ended his season, and his stay with the team.

Despite signing with Chicago the following offseason, Griese said he liked playing for Gruden and never wanted to leave. He welcomed the trade that reunited him with the coach’s system, feeling it was a chance to take care of unfinished business.

Griese insisted he doesn’t view this week as an audition for the rest of the season.

"I don’t really care," he said. "All I care about is winning the game (today). Everything else will take care of itself."

Griese, who began his career in Denver and also had a stop in Miami, is 9-7 as a starter with the Bucs. Although the door is open for a possible return by Garcia, this clearly is an opportunity to seize the job.

"We don’t have a lot of controversies to speak about at this point in time," Gruden said. "We’re doing what we think gives our team the best opportunity to win this game. ... And we’d better be ready to go because the Falcons, they’re pretty impressive on the tape I’ve seen."

Ryan attempted only 13 passes in his debut, but he completed nine for 161 yards and one touchdown. Even more importantly, the Falcons didn’t have any turnovers and Turner’s success on the ground eased the pressure on Ryan to carry the team.

The Bucs, who are hoping to rebound from a subpar defensive performance, expect more of the same.

"We’ve got to force them to throw the ball because they’re a dangerous team when they’ve able to rack up the runs," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. Brooks is hampered by a hamstring injury.

Tampa Bay yielded 438 yards total offense to the Saints, who scored on three pass plays 39 yards or longer — a tough blow to a defense that’s always thrived on its inability to limit opponents’ big plays.

The Bucs have a history of feasting on young, inexperienced quarterbacks such as Ryan. But defensive end Gaines Adams said it would be a mistake to assume that giving the rookie fits will be the key today.

Containing the run, featuring Turner and Atlanta’s other very capable back, Jerious Norwood, is the No. 1 priority.

"The target right now is their entire offense," Adams said. "Our tackling last week was terrible and, as a whole, we can’t just focus on the quarterback."

Smith called Tampa Bay’s Monte Kiffin "arguably one of the best defensive coordinators in the history of the NFL," adding that Ryan knows he’s going up against one of the better defenses in the league.

"Matt is smart enough. He watches that film," Smith said. "That film doesn’t lie."

Similarly, the rookie is not going to dwell on how he and the Falcons performed in their opener.

"It’s just Game 1, it’s finished, and now we’re on to Tampa and the responsibility of winning continues to be on everyone’s shoulders," Ryan said. "You have to prepare as best you can ... and you have to do everything you can to try to get yourself a win (today)."

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