TAMPA — Quarterbacks have stolen the spotlight in the NFL. But in Sunday's Bucs-Falcons game at the Georgia Dome, the most exciting plays are likely to happen after Atlanta QB Matt Ryan and Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston simply turn and hand off the ball.
The game will feature the NFL's Nos. 1 and 3 rushers: former Florida State star Devonta Freeman, who leads the league for the Falcons with 621 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, and the Bucs' Doug Martin, who has 541 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
"It'll be a fun matchup," Martin said. "(Freeman) is an explosive back. I've seen tape on him while watching other film. It'll be a cool matchup."
A fourth-round draft pick in 2014, Freeman showed flashes as a rookie but took over as the Falcons' primary ball carrier this season. At 5 feet 8 and 208 pounds, he is a combination of speed and power. He also has 34 catches for 310 yards and a score.
"(He presents) problems in the backfield, out of the backfield, carrying the ball, catching the ball," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "(He's) just a good football player. He runs hard. He can make you miss. He can make you miss in tight quarters, so when he gets out, it's even harder."
Martin has resurrected his career in a contract year and returned to his rookie form, churning out three straight 100-yard rushing games.
"A lot of the things we are saying can be said about Doug Martin," Smith said. "Doug's having a heck of a year. … Two good running backs will be on the field."
Martin also has been a factor in the passing game, with 14 receptions for 129 yards and a score.
Sunday's game is a throwback to an era when watching running backs such as Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith were worth the price of admission.
"I think you look throughout the league, though, running backs are becoming more part of the offense and giving the offense a different dimension that maybe we haven't had in a while," Smith said.
INJURY UPDATE: WR Vincent Jackson (knee), defensive tackles Clinton McDonald (pectoral) and Tony McDaniel (groin), T Reid Fragel (concussion) and S Major Wright (hamstring) did not practice Thursday. G Logan Mankins was held out for a maintenance day but should return today. C Evan Smith had full participation.
The best news for the Bucs is that TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins practiced again on a limited basis. He has not played since injuring a shoulder in Week 2 at New Orleans.
"(Wednesday) in pads you could see a little bit more, even though he didn't do a lot," Lovie Smith said. "But no problems for the day. He was able to practice on a limited basis (Thursday), a non-padded practice. He can catch the ball, and he has fresh legs and all that, so we assumed we would see that."