The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't have to play catch-up in the second half this time. At halftime of the Bucs' critical NFC South showdown with the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs own a 13-3 lead and a healthy amount of momentum thanks to three defensive turnovers.
The Bucs scored 10 points in the final four minutes of the second period, with Josh Freeman notching the only touchdown of the opening half on a one-yard sneak. Freeman, who completed 14 of 19 passes for 114 yards, was seven-for-seven for 72 yards on the 80-yard drive that finished in his own run. Moments later, rookie DE Adrian Clayborn forced a Matt Ryan fumble with his first career NFL sack and K Connor Barth tacked on his second field goal of the half.
The Falcons used the final two minutes of the half to drive into Buccaneers territory, but CB Ronde Barber ended the threat with a diving interception of a deflected pass. That allowed the home team to take its 10-point lead into the intermission, feeling much more comfortable than in their previous two outings. In a season-opening 27-20 loss to Detroit, Tampa Bay trailed 20-13 at the break, and the following week the Bucs had to overcome a 17-0 halftime deficit to win 24-20.
The overall yardage in the first half was almost identical – 141 yards for Atlanta to the Bucs' 137 – but Tampa Bay's defense controlled the action with three takeaways. The first one, a Ryan fumble caused by a Dekoda Watson sack, went for naught when Freeman was intercepted in the end zone, but that was the Bucs' only giveaway of the half.
Tampa Bay's defense was also significantly better against the run than it had been in the first halves of the Lions and Vikings games, despite facing a red-hot runner in Atlanta's Michael Turner. Turner got the ball seven times but produced only nine yards.
Perhaps due to a slicker track, P Michael Koenen uncharacteristically hit a low, bouncing kick to start the game and Eric Weems got it out to the Atlanta 27. Ryan ran a play-action and looked deep on first down but eventually checked down in the fullback's direction and it was incomplete. Turner's first run was strung out by quick penetration from DE Michael Bennett and CB Aqib Talib dropped him for a loss of three. On the next play, Watson blitzed off the end and sacked Ryan, forcing a fumble that Barber recovered at the Atlanta 17.
Freeman came out throwing on first down and, with good protection, eventually dumped it over the middle to Williams for a gain of eight. LeGarrette Blount's first carry started with a little hesitation step but eventually plowed forward for a gain of five and a first down at the four. Unfortunately, a little rollout left that looked promising at first blew up when S Thomas DeCoud made a leaping interception in the end zone.
Back at the 20, the Falcons got two yards on Turner's next run and then six more on a flare-out pass to RB Jason Snelling. A little flip to RB Jacquizz Rodgers on third-and-two was good enough to get the right corner and a first down at the 33. Watson had perfect coverage on TE Michael Palmer on the ensuing first down and Ryan's pass sailed incomplete near the sideline. Two plays later, on third-and-six, S Cody Grimm closed quickly on a seam pass to TE Tony Gonzalez and knocked it out of the Falcon's hand at the last second, forcing a punt. A neutral-zone infraction by Elbert Mack gave the Falcons' five extra yards but Matt Bosher's low kick was fielded on the run by Preston Parker and returned 23 yards to the Bucs' 46.
A first-down Blount run picked up just one, and his second carry produced four more. On third-and-five, Freeman was pressured into a dumpoff to RB Earnest Graham and the play lost two yards. Koenen's first punt trapped Atlanta inside the 20, at their 17.
Turner ran into Clayborn in the middle on a three-yard first-down run, and DT Brian Price pressured Ryan into an errant throw on second down. A neutral-zone infraction on Watson shortened the third down to two yards, and Ryan found Roddy White on a rollout to move the chains. Ryan gave it to rookie WR Julio Jones on an end-around on the next play but Barber shed a block and dropped the receiver for a loss of nine. Two plays later, on third-and-19, Ryan tried a screen to Snelling but Bennett sniffed it out and dropped the back for a loss of three. The Falcons had to punt twice due to a motion penalty, but the Bucs committed a block-in-the-back on the return and the line of scrimmage ended up back at the Bucs' 32.
Freeman tried to hit Arrelious Benn downfield on first down but couldn't connect. After Blount's four-yard cutback run, an encroachment penalty on the Falcons made it third-and-one and Freeman brought enough time with a scramble right to throw a four-yard laser to Graham. Two plays later, a quick slant to Williams worked to the tune of 16 yards, down to Atlanta's 39. However, the drive stalled at the 31 and the Bucs had to settle for Barth's 49-yard field goal and the game's first three points with a minute left in the opening quarter.
Good kickoff coverage and a holding penalty on the return forced Atlanta to start at its own eight, but Ryan hooked up with White on a post for 22 yards two plays later to get the Falcons out of trouble as the quarter came to an end. Early in the second quarter, White found Jones on the left sideline and the rookie slipped a tackle for an 18-yard gain to midfield. A short Turner run and a leaping catch by Harry Douglas left Atlanta in a third-and-three at the Bucs' 44, but Ryan located White again on the opposite sideline for another big gain, this one 30 yards to the 14. Ryan overthrew Gonzalez on a shot into the end zone two plays later, and the Bucs stopped the Falcons' drive on the next play. Barber and Watson showed blitz and Ryan reacted, but the defenders backed off at the snap and a quick hit over the middle to Douglas was stopped well short of a first down. Matt Bryant tied the game with a 26-yard field goal.
After a touchback, the Bucs got five yards on an offsides call but Blount lost a yard going left on first down. A holding penalty backed the home team up another 10 yards, but a swing pass to Blount after a fake handoff got him into the open field for a gain of 13. The Bucs used the shotgun again on third-and-short and it worked again as Graham flared out for a six-yard catch. Blount bashed over right guard for eight yards and a quick pass to Williams off the line moved the chains. TE Luke Stocker released off the left end of the line on the next snap and ran up the seam, with Freeman finding him for a pretty 24-yard completion down to Atlanta's 30. The Bucs had to burn a timeout as the play clock wound down to one, and the resulting play failed to work when Blount was stopped for a loss of one going left. Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson pulled out the slant to Williams again and it worked once more, this time picking up 12 yards and a first down at the Atlanta 19. Stocker took a flare-out left and turned it up for a gain of nine and a first down at the eight, running over CB Dunta Robinson in the process. A screen pass over the middle to Graham appeared to score a touchdown, but the play was reviewed and the ball was placed at the one. Freeman finished the drive himself, sneaking it in over left guard for a one-yard score. Surprisingly, it was the first rushing touchdown of the third-year quarterback's career.
A bouncing touchback put the Falcons at their own 20, and DT Gerald McCoy pressured Ryan into an errant first-down throw. On second down, McCoy had a hold of Ryan's ankles when Clayborn buried his shoulder into the quarterback's chest on a dead run, forcing a fumble that Bennett recovered at the Atlanta nine. The Bucs couldn't punch it in from there, however, and had to settle for Barth's second field goal, a 26-yarder that made it 13-3 just past the two-minute warning.
Another penalty on the ensuing kickoff return forced Atlanta to start at its own seven. Two quick buttonhooks by White picked up 17 yards, and Gonzalez got out of bounds with an eight-yard out at the Atlanta 32. Two plays later, White ran a quick slant, got 14 yards to midfield and Atlanta called their second timeout with 30 seconds left. A dumpoff to Rodgers got 15 more and Ryan spiked the ball with 15 seconds left. Clayborn flushed Ryan out of the pocket on the next play and he had to throw on the run downfield to Gonzalez, missing by a few yards. With 10 seconds left, Ryan tried to get closer for a field goal try with another slant to White, but E.J. Biggers got a hand on the pass and Barber dived for the deflection, picking it off at the Bucs' 25. A single kneel-down ended the half.