The Buccaneers' recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff but failed to build momentum after that fine start
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers forced a fumble on the opening kickoff and barely allowed the Atlanta Falcons' offense to move for a quarter and a half but still trailed by a touchdown at halftime on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
The Falcons scored on each of their last two drives, both covering 53 yards on eight plays, to take a 10-3 lead. Atlanta gambled on the second of those marches, running a third-down play from the two-yard line that used all the remaining time on the clock but succeeded on Matt Ryan's TD pass to TE Justin Peelle.
Atlanta took a 179-52 yardage edge into the intermission, gaining most of their yards on Ryan's sharp passing in the second quarter. Ryan was 16 of 22 for 152 yards and one touchdown in the first half after missing most of the first Bucs-Falcons game with a toe injury.
Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman completed just five of 12 passes for 31 yards. He was pressured frequently into hurried throws but also misfired on several possible openings downfield. The Bucs' running game produced few open lanes for RB Cadillac Williams, who gained just 26 yards on 13 carries.
Atlanta won the coin toss and chose to receive, but it was the Bucs who ran the game's first offensive series. S Tanard Jackson caused a fumble by return man Eric Weems, with RB Kareem Huggins recovering for the Bucs at the Atlanta 28. The first play from scrimmage was less successful for the Bucs, as DE John Abraham burst through the line and stopped Williams for a loss of four. Williams' second-down run got the ball almost back to the original line of scrimmage but Freeman's first pass of the game was off target in the vicinity of WR Antonio Bryant. K Connor Barth came on to try a 48-yard field goal and hit it low but true for the game's first points.
The Falcons' next drive started at their own 22 and went back five yards on an ineligible-man-downfield flag. RB Jerious Norwood then tested the middle for no gain on first down, then caught a short pass on second down for five yards. On third-and-10, Ryan was forced out of the pocket and had to settle for a short pass to RB Jason Snelling that came up two yards short. Michael Koenen's punt on fourth down covered just 29 yards before it was downed at the Bucs' 41.
The Bucs quickly faced a third-and-nine on the ensuing drive but converted it when Freeman scrambled left and threw a pass to Winslow right at the first-down marker. Three plays later, however, Freeman had a shot to hit Bryant downfield on third-and-six but the pass sailed on him and the Bucs had to punt. Sam Paulescu's punt went into the end zone in the air for a touchback.
Snelling got the Falcons seven quick yards on a run up the middle as he jumped over one would-be tackler, and Norwood spun over right guard on second down for four yards and Atlanta's initial first down of the game. A throw-away under pressure from Stylez G. White and a scramble up the middle by Ryan left Atlanta in a third-and-seven. Ryan tried a fade-stop pass to WR Marty Booker on third-down but it was well-covered by CB Aqib Talib and incomplete. Another short punt left the ball at the Bucs' 36.
Williams opened the next drive with his best run yet, slamming up the middle for six yards, though he fumbled at the end and the Bucs only retained possession when G Jeremy Zuttah fell on it. After another Williams run made it third-and-inches, Freeman slammed the ball over the line for a first down at the 46. Freeman was sacked on the next play by DE Chauncey Davis for a loss of six and then threw a bit wide to Winslow for an incompletion. A draw play to Williams was good for seven yards but led to another punt.
Two runs up the middle by Snelling were bottled up for a total of just four yards. On third down, Ryan went deep down the right sideline to WR Michael Jenkins but Talib showed impressive closing speed and got a hand in the way to break it up. Koenen's next punt was much deeper but WR Micheal Spurlock's 10-yard return got it back to the 40.
Williams made something out of nothing on first down by bouncing off a pile in the middle and getting around the right edge for a gain of nine. Two more Williams runs moved the chains, put the ball on the midfield stripe and brought the first quarter to an end.
Williams ran for three yards to start the second quarter but a holding penalty made it second-and-17 back in Buc territory. A screen play on second down never developed and was incomplete, so the third-down completion to Williams gained 10 yards but failed to produce a first down.
The resulting punt was fair caught at the Atlanta 17 but the Falcons followed with their best play of the game to that point, a 32-yard pass to Peelle. The drive reached the Bucs' 33 on a seven yards pass to Jenkins in the left flat and two plays later, on third-and-four, Ryan hit Norwood on an out for just enough to gain a first down at the 30. The Bucs challenged the spot of the call but the original ruling was upheld. Two plays later, Ryan tried to find Booker in the end zone but the pass was well overthrown. Tampa Bay brought a big blitz on third down and LB Geno Hayes was able to sack Ryan for a loss of nine. In no-man's-land at the Bucs' 35, the Falcons decided to go for it on fourth-and-15 but Ryan was forced to dump it off underneath to Snelling, who got just five yards.
The Bucs took over on downs at their own 30. After an incompletion deep, Freeman hit Bryant on the left sideline for a gain of seven. The Falcons brought a blitz on third down and Freeman was rushed into an incomplete pass over the middle.
After the punt, the Falcons tried a flea-flicker that resulted in a wild turn of events. Jackson's flying near-sack forced Ryan to delay his throw, which was then intercepted by Barber. However, Barber was flagged for holding before the throw, though the foul was difficult to detect on replays. Ryan then hit WR Roddy White over the middle for 19 yards and Norwood on two short passes for a first down at the Bucs' 26. After trying to hit Peelle in the end zone on second down, Atlanta faced a third-and-two at the 18 and very tight coverage forced an eventual incompletion. The Falcons brought on Matt Bryant to try a 36-yard field goal and Bryant popped it through to tie the game with 4:09 left in the half.
A bouncing kick near the sideline forced Spurlock into a tough spot and his return got back only to the Bucs' 12. Williams ran once for two yards but was trapped by Davis for a loss of three on the next snap. A dumpoff to FB Chris Pressley gained just two yards and the Bucs had to punt from their own 13 with 3:17 left, as the Falcons used their two remaining timeouts to preserve the clock. Paulescu's punt landed at the Atlanta 47 but bounced sideways to set up the Falcons' next drive.
A quick pass to Gonzalez picked up 12 into Tampa Bay territory, and an 11-yard catch by White two plays later put it at the Bucs' 23 as the two-minute warning arrived. After the break, Ryan somehow got a sideline pass to Gonzalez between tight double-coverage, gaining nine yards to the 14. Ryan tried to hit Gonzalez on a slant into the end zone moments later and S Sabby Piscitelli was flagged for pass interference, making it first-and-goal from the one.
The Bucs made two impressive goal-line stops on Snelling and the Falcons, out of timeouts with the clock ticking down, gambled with one more offensive play. A play-action rollout was sniffed out but Ryan was able to find a late-releasing Peelle at the front of the end zone for the two-yard TD pass and a 10-3 lead at halftime.