The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made a habit of rallying in the second halves of their games this season. On Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, in a game that could make or break their division-title hopes, the Buccaneers couldn't wait that long.
Rallying twice from seven-point deficits, the Buccaneers forged a 14-14 tie at halftime with the first-place Falcons. Both of Tampa Bay's touchdowns were scored by rookies, as LeGarrette Blount concluded an 86-yard drive in the first quarter with a six-yard TD run and Mike Williams caught a one-yard slant just before halftime. Williams' TD, his seventh of the season, turned Sean Jones' interception into seven points.
Much of the play was even, which made Jones' takeaway, the only one of the first half, enormous. The Falcons had a 178-142 edge in total yards but the Bucs' ground game was stronger, with 85 yards to the Falcons 50. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan threw for 128 yards and hit FB Ovie Mughelli on a 17-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, but he was also forced into 12 incompletions in 22 attempts, including several other passes that were nearly intercepted.
The Bucs' young quarterback, Josh Freeman, had only 57 passing yards but he completed 10 of his 15 throws and was not intercepted. He was aided by Blount's 47 yards on eight carries and his own two scrambles for 18 yards.
The Bucs' defense did lose a key piece, however, as CB Aqib Talib left with a hip injury early in the second quarter.
The Falcons won the coin toss and chose to receive. Connor Barth bounced a low kickoff down the middle that was returned to the Falcon 31 by up-man Brian Finneran. After a five-yard run by Michael Turner, the Bucs blitzed Ryan but he got off a four-yard out to White. On third-and-one, Turner was stood up near the first-down line but got just enough for a first down. Turner then got around the right end on two consecutive runs to get the ball all the way down to the Bucs' 41. CB Ronde Barber nearly intercepted Ryan's next pass, which was intended for Roddy White, and downfield coverage on second down forced a throwaway under pressure. On third down, Ryan was pressured into a bad throw, too, but Talib couldn't hold on to the potential interception. The resulting punt was fair caught at the Bucs' 10.
Blount got the carry on first down but slipped trying to make a cut and fell down for no yards gained. Mike Williams dropped a potential first-down pass on the next play, forcing a third-and-10 play that became third-and-five when the Falcons jumped offside. Freeman did an amazing job of avoiding a near-sack at the five but his resulting scramble gained just one yard. The Bucs covered Robert Malone's 46-yard punt very well but the Falcons still got to start their second drive at Tampa Bay's 48.
The Falcons gave it to Turner two more times to start the next drive and he pounded right up the middle for a total of 17 yards. Ryan then found TE Tony Gonzalez open 14 yards downfield on the left side, putting the ball at the Buccaneers' 21. Geno Hayes and Barrett Ruud combined to drop Turner for a loss of one on the next play but Gonzalez made a marvelous catch down the middle on second down for 17 yards to the five. Turner took it in one play later for the game's first score.
Micheal Spurlock was dropped at the Bucs' 14 on the ensuing kickoff. Freeman tried to hit Benn on a deep out on first down but the pass was a little out of the receiver's reach. Blount's second run was good for eight yards as he made two nice cuts to get to the 22. Josh Johnson replaced Freeman on the third-and-two and ran an option play with Spurlock that just barely got the necessary yards. Freeman came back in on the next play and hit TE Ryan Purvis for 10 yards on the right sideline. Two plays later, Freeman once again escaped the clutches of a Falcon pass-rusher and broke free for a 17-yard run to the Atlanta 46. An end-around to Benn picked up three yards and a quick slant to Williams produced a first down at the 32. Blount got great straight-ahead blocking on his next carry and followed it all the way to the 26, then burst through an overloaded front on the right side to rumble 20 yards all the way to the Atlanta six. Blount got one more handoff and that's all it took, as he weaved through traffic on the left edge for his fifth touchdown of the year.
Atlanta's next drive started at its own 28, and a three-yard Turner run brought the first quarter to an end. The first play of the second period was even better, as DE Michael Bennett swarmed over Turner for a loss of one, and Atlanta followed with a false start. On third-and-16, Ryan tried to hit Michael Jenkins on a very deep out, and cover man E.J. Biggers slipped on Jenkins' cut, but the pass was fortunately out of reach. Spurlock fair caught the punt at Tampa Bay's 41.
Freeman had to check down to TE John Gilmore on first down but the play still gained four yards. A power run by Cadillac Williams picked up two more to make it third-and-two. Freeman scrambled to his right on third down and could have picked up the first down with his legs, but he saw a wide-open Cadillac Williams 20 yards downfield. Unfortunately, Williams slipped as the ball headed his way and the result was an incompletion and a punt that was fair caught at the 13.
The Bucs forced a third-and-11 thanks to another great near interception by Barber, but Ryan converted it by throwing on the run to White for 17 yards. Two more short Turner runs made it third-and-five, and this time the Bucs got off the field when CB E.J. Biggers made a last-minute bat-down of a pass that almost reached White. Spurlock appeared to break a long return on the ensuing punt but it was completely erased by a holding penalty.
That pushed the Bucs back to their own 12, and two Blount runs gained only two yards apiece. Freeman had to settle for a checkdown to Cadillac Williams on third-and-six and the play was two yards shy of moving the chains. Robert Malone's punt went out of bounds at the Atlanta 40.
A diving pass break-up by Hayes started the next drive, but Ryan zipped a quick slant to Jenkins on second yards for a 15-yard gain. Ryan then found Douglas open down the right seam for 21 more to the Bucs' 24, but White drew an unnecessary roughness penalty on the next play after being tackled for a loss of three by Biggers. That backed the ball up to the Bucs' 42. However, DT Gerald McCoy gave those yards right back on the next play with his own post-play personal foul, and the Falcons had a first down at the 17. Ryan took a crack into the end zone to Douglas on first down and the receiver was open but the pass was too deep. A comebacker to Finneran also fell incomplete, but the Falcons called the right play against a Buc blitz, with Ryan tossing it over the top to Mughelli, who ran it in for the score.
The Bucs were unable to counter this time, giving the ball back quickly after a three-and-out. Freeman hit WR Sammie Stroughter over the middle on third-and-four but he was tackled short of the first down and the Bucs had to punt with three minutes left in the half.
Ryan took immediate advantage, hitting White on a 16-yard out that brought on the two-minute warning. Two plays after the break, however, he overthrew Gonzalez and Jones intercepted the ball, weaving through traffic for 31 yards to the Atlanta 30.
A quick slant to Mike Williams was good for nine yards but a crack to Spurlock in the end zone was incomplete. Benn then took another end-around, this one on a pitch, and got the corner for a gain of seven yards to the 14, getting out of bounds with 1:03 left in the half. Short passes over the middle to Stroughter and Winslow produced a first down at the one and the Bucs used their final timeout of the half with 25 seconds to play. A fade to Mike Williams was well-defended, but Williams switched to the left side on the next play and ran a quick slant for the game-tying score.