Matt Ryan had the hot hand early but Josh Freeman fired back to pull the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of an early hole and cut the Atlanta Falcons' halftime lead to 17-14 Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Both young franchise passers were at their best in the first half Sunday. Ryan led drives of 61 and 99 yards to start the scoring, though it was RB Michael Turner who took the ball in to finish each of those marches. Ryan completed 16 of 22 passes for 160 yards in the half.
Freeman answered by finding both of his rookie receivers, Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, for touchdowns in the second quarter. Freeman completed eight of 13 passes for 126 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 133.3.
Atlanta converted five of eight third downs in the first half and racked up 235 yards. The Bucs were nearly as productive, converting four of six third downs and gaining 153 yards. Tampa Bay's defense shook off a slow start to pressure Ryan on his last few drives of the half and keep the deficit to 17-14, with the difference coming on Matt Bryant's 31-yard field goal to end Atlanta's third possession of the game.
Atlanta won the toss and elected to receive. Return man Eric Weems gave the Falcons a great start by taking his return all the way to the Falcons' 39. The first play from scrimmage was a Turner run, with Stylez White and Quincy Black bottling him up after a gain of just one. Turner's second run got just three more but Ryan found a wide-open Tony Gonzalez at the Bucs' 42 for a first down. After a seven-yard strike to White and a one-yard run by Turner, Ryan rolled left and tried to hit White on the sideline but it was just out of reach. Since they were at the Bucs' 34, the Falcons elected to go for it on fourth and two and moved the sticks on an outlet pass to RB Jason Snelling. Two plays later, a screen pass to Snelling led to another first down at the Bucs' 19. Turner almost broke free on the next play but was tripped up at the last second and fell to the turf at the 11. Two more Turner runs got the ball down to the two, and his next tote went around right end for the game's first score.
Micheal Spurlock gave the Bucs a nice return, too, getting 29 yards to the Bucs' 26. Tampa Bay missed a golden opportunity on its first play when Mike Williams dropped a pass over the middle with room to run. On third-and-eight, Freeman threw incomplete but the play was erased by an offsides call on CB Brian Williams. That gave the Bucs another chance and Freeman converted with a short pass over the middle to Spurlock that was just good enough for a first down. A five-yard catch by Mike Williams and a one-yard run by Cadillac Williams brought up another third down, and Freeman moved the chains this time with his feet, scrambling for 19 yards to the Atlanta 39. The Falcons burned their first timeout when the Bucs put QB Josh Johnson on the field, and after the break Cadillac Williams lost two on a run and limped off the field. After a Buccaneer timeout, Freeman was sacked on the blind side by blitzing LB Mike Peterson. On third-and-19, Freeman found Winslow over the middle for nine yards but the Bucs had to punt. They made the most of it, with S Sabby Piscitelli downing Robert Malone's kick inside the one-yard line.
The Falcons got out of trouble immediately, throwing a quick strike out to White, who gained 11 yards but was a little shaken up at the end of the play. Three plays later, Ryan found Gonzalez on another third down for nine yards and a first down at the 25. Aqib Talib nearly intercepted Ryan's next pass but the ball was ruled to have hit the turf. Still, on third-and-nine, Ryan found WR Brian Finneran for a gain of 14 to end the first quarter. On the first play of the second quarter, Ryan pump-faked and then threw deep to WR Michael Jenkins for a big 43-yard gain to the Bucs' 17. Three Turner runs, the last a 10-yard score, once again took it into the end zone.
Spurlock put the Bucs into Atlanta territory on the ensuing kickoff return, going 66 yards to the Atlanta 32. Three plays later Freeman converted a third-and-seven, standing in against a big rush to deliver a 15-yard strike to Mike Williams over the middle. On the next play, Freeman threw a 14-yard TD pass to Benn, who reached over the defender and caught the ball just inside the right pylon.
On the next kickoff return, RB Kregg Lumpkin sliced in between two Falcon blockers to trip Weems up at the Atlanta 15. LB Geno Hayes went for the interception on a first-down pass to Gonzalez but the big tight end got to the ball first and gained nine yards to the 24. After picking up another first down at the 43, Atlanta tested the Bucs' run defense again and DT Roy Miller dropped Snelling at the 45. On the ensuing third down, Ryan scrambled right and then threw back over the middle to Finneran for a first down at the Bucs' 45, and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Elbert Mack took the ball down to the Bucs' 30. Atlanta's next third down came at the Bucs' 13, needing three yards, and this time the Bucs got the stop when Hayes reacted quickly to a swing pass and knocked Snelling to the ground right after the catch. The Falcons still turned the drive into three points on Matt Bryant's 31-yard field goal.
The Bucs had to start at their own 10 when WR Preston Parker was tripped up on the next kickoff, but Freeman gave them some breathing room with his 13-yard laser to TE Kellen Winslow on third-and-six. Cadillac Williams then produced another first down with a nine-yard catch and a two-yard run. Two plays later, the Falcons brought a blitz, Mike Williams ran a slant against single coverage and Freeman hit him on his break. Williams did the rest, breaking away from the cornerback and outrunning the safety for a 58-yard touchdown.
The Falcons got the ball back with exactly two minutes to play and got a first down on Ryan's 16-yard pass to Gonzalez, out to the Atlanta 38. DT Gerald McCoy's hit on Ryan forced a throwaway two plays later and made it third-and-10, and Ryan threw the ball incomplete on third down as White bore down on him. Michael Koenen's punt bounced backward to the Bucs' 28 after its initial hit, and that's where the Bucs took over with 55 seconds left in the half.
Unfortunately, consecutive incompletions left the Bucs in third-and-10 and drained only eight seconds off the clock. The Bucs gave it to Cadillac Williams on third down but he was tackled quickly and the Falcons used their second timeout with 41 seconds left, forcing a punt. Robert Malone's effort was downed at the Atlanta 30 with 33 seconds left in the half.
CB E.J. Biggers kept Finneran inbounds on a short pass to keep the clock running and the Falcons used their final timeout. After an incomplete pass in Finneran's direction down the left sideline, Talib tripped Snelling up inbounds on a short reception and the Falcons couldn't get another play off before time expired.