FLOWERY BRANCH — This might not be the best time for the Atlanta Falcons' defense to face Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin, not with Sean Weatherspoon, Asante Samuel and Peria Jerry nursing injuries.
It's Week 12 of the NFL season, though, and no team has a completely healthy roster.
The problem for Atlanta could be matchup issues against a Buccaneers offense that, over the last six weeks, leads the NFL with a 34.2 scoring average.
Without Weatherspon, Samuel and Jerry, the Falcons (9-1) would be missing starters at middle linebacker, left cornerback and nose tackle on Sunday at Tampa Bay (6-4).
Considering how well Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman is syncing with receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, the Falcons still have one top priority — to stop Martin and prove that they're not as bad as the whopping 5.2 yards per carry they've allowed over the last two games.
Atlanta gave up runs of 40 and 52 yards to Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling in last week's narrow win at the Georgia Dome. In a loss two weeks ago at New Orleans, Chris Ivory broke off a 56-yard TD run.
"We've had a few more balls get on the second level of the defense, so the secondary has been challenged a little bit more," Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "That's a concern because they don't always come clean all of the time. Sometimes we miss some plays in the backfield, and that's concerning. But then when they get on the second level, a secondary's guy has a job to do. He's got to be a good tackler."
Samuel, right-side starting cornerback Dunta Robinson and safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have had mixed results in run support. Sometimes they knock ball carriers down, sometimes they whiff.
"Everybody gives up 5-, 10-yard gains," Nolan said. "But when you're missing two and three tackles at 10 yards, and then they keep going, that's a concern."
Martin will be the first running back Atlanta has faced this season that's been playing at an elite level for several weeks. The former Boise State standout has 1,019 yards from scrimmage over the last six games, helping him join Eric Dickerson (1983, Los Angeles Rams) and Edgerrin James (1999, Indianapolis) as the only rookies with at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage in a six-game span.
"He's a pretty powerful young guy running the ball," Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said. "I think he breaks a lot of tackles because of his size, so we're definitely going to have to gang tackle him and run to get to the ball."
Atlanta coach Mike Smith was pleased that Weatherspoon and Samuel returned to practice Friday, even it was in a limited role.
Though Jerry misses his third straight practice with a quadriceps injury, all three starters are listed as questionable for Sunday. Reserve defensive tackle Vance Walker (ribs) is listed as questionable, too.
A right ankle sprain has sidelined Weatherspoon for the last three games. He returned to practice on Wednesday, but missed Thursday's session with an undisclosed illness.
Samuel is nursing a sore shoulder after he and Jerry were injured in last week's home win over Arizona.
Two other defensive starters, right end John Abraham (back) and Jonathan Babineaux (neck), are listed as probable after fully participating on Friday.
Containing Martin, who ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,000 yards rushing, won't be easy.
"He's a very good back," Nolan said. "He reminds me a lot of (Ray) Rice at Baltimore. He's very comparable. He does a great job out of the backfield (catching passes) and does a great job in the backfield (running the football). He breaks a lot of tackles. He's sturdy. He's strong. He's tough. He runs hard. We're all very impressed with him."