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Backup Plan: Bucs Test Depth in 30-17 Loss to Falcons

After pulling Tom Brady and virtually all of their starters, the Buccaneers saw a 17-10 halftime lead wash away in a 13-point defeat in Atlanta that had no effect on Tampa Bay's position in the upcoming playoffs

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For the first time since joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020, Tom Brady left a game before halftime, as the Buccaneers completed their 2022 regular season with a 30-17 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Brady's exit was not, crucially, injury-related; in fact, the Buccaneers' starting lineup and in-game substitutions were clearly aimed at reducing injury risk before the start of the playoffs next weekend.

The Buccaneers finished the regular season with an 8-9 record, as the Falcons snapped Tampa Bay's six-game winning streak in the head-to-head series. Atlanta improved to 7-10. Tampa Bay had clinched the NFC South title with a win over the Carolina Panthers in Week 17 and had locked itself into the fourth seed in the conference playoff field. The Bucs knew the outcome of their Week 18 battle with the Falcons would have no impact on the playoff seedings but they still came to Atlanta determined to try to finish with a winning record.

"It's not tough at all," said Head Coach Todd Bowles of balancing injury risk with a desire for victory. "It's a division game. We're trying to win the game. Regardless of who's out there, we're trying to win the game. We went into halftime with a lead. We should have been able to preserve the lead and try to win the ballgame. We got beat on fundamental stuff with some of the younger guys and we've got to go back to the drawing board with those guys."

The Falcons scored 20 unanswered points in the second half to turn a 17-10 halftime deficit into a runaway win. Quarterback Desmond Ridder threw for 224 yards on 19 completions in 30 attempts, hitting fellow rookie Drake London six times for 120 yards, and yet another NFL newcomer, RB Tyler Allgeier, ran for 135 yards. Ridder's touchdown passes to MyCole Pruitt and Olamides Zaccheaus were the first of his career after he had none in his first three starts.

In addition to pulling Brady and several other regulars before halftime, the Buccaneers were also cautious with their ailing players coming into the game, using all seven inactive spots on players working through injuries. Five of those seven – S Mike Edwards, WR Julio Jones, S Logan Ryan, T Donovan Smith and DL Vita Vea – did play the previous Sunday when the Bucs defeated Carolina to clinch the NFC South title.

The Buccaneers also did not play tackle Tristan Wirfs, their lone 2022 Pro Bowl selection, giving him more rest for an injured ankle. Brandon Walton started at left tackle and rookie Luke Goedeke, who opened the first seven games at left guard, took over at right tackle. Starting center Robert Hainsey subsequently pulled a hamstring in the first quarter, prompting the Bucs to slide left guard Nick Leverett over to center and install John Molchon at guard. It was Molchon's NFL debut. In the second half, Justin Skule, who was elevated from the practice squad for the game, came in at left tackle, Walton moved to left guard and Molchon flipped to right guard to get the last regular O-Line starter, Shaq Mason, out of the game.

The game was tied 10-10 late in the second quarter when Brady exited, and Gabbert gave the Buccaneers a 17-10 lead just after the two-minute warning with a three-yard touchdown pass to former Falcons WR Russell Gage. Brady finished the game with 13 completions in 17 attempts for 84 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 106.0 passer rating. WR Chris Godwin, who caught six of those 13 completions, left the game at the same point. Godwin was two catches short of the Buccaneers' single-season record for receptions when he took a seat.

Brady's touchdown pass went to tight end Kyle Rudolph, an eight-yarder that completed a 70-yard drive to open the game. That made Rudolph the 98th different player to catch a touchdown pass from Brady in his career, playoffs included.

After halftime, the Buccaneers replaced inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White, who had collectively played 2,105 of a possible 2,106 defensive snaps through the first 16 games of the season. Anthony Chesley and Zyon McCollum took over at cornerback and the Bucs also gave significant playing time to CB Dee Delaney, OLB Ifeadi Odenigbo and DLs Logan Hall, Patrick O'Connor and Deadrin Senat. The Falcons promptly opened the second half with two long scoring drives to take a 20-17 lead and use up most of the third quarter. Tampa Bay's defense had only allowed 78 total yards and five first downs in the first half, with five of Atlanta's drives ending in four plays or fewer; the Falcons' first two drives of the second half covered a total distance of 149 yards and produced 10 first downs. In all, the Falcons rang up 304 yards on the Bucs' substitutes.

"The young guys had a chance to step up," said Bowles. "They've been with us all year. We expect them to play the same way with little drop off. We had more drop off than we wanted to. Given the opportunity, those guys have got to play better."

Tampa Bay's offense also slowed down in the second half with all of its regulars on the sideline. The Bucs gained 184 yards and 10 first downs before the intermission but tacked on just 38 more in the second half. Gabbert finished the game with six completions in eight attempts for 29 yards and a touchdown before being relieved by second-year QB Kyle Trask with eight minutes to play. Making his NFL regular-season debut, Trask ran two drives and was three of nine for 23 yards.

After the game, Bowles felt as if the Buccaneers came out of the game relatively unscathed on the injury front, with the main new concerns being Hainsey (hamstring), S Keanu Neal (hip) and Rudolph (knee). Bowles also felt positive about the work the Buccaneers got in the first half after building some momentum with wins in Week 16 and 17.

"We got some good work in in the first half," said Bowles. "Everyone understands what's at stake, understands what we were doing coming into this ballgame. It's a clean-slate season. The momentum was to keep playing. I think if you rest them and don't play them at all I think you lose the momentum. But we still had that competitiveness and eagerness to go once the game started. We started fast on both sides of the football, so that's still there and that was important.

After brief cameos by Rachaad White and Leonard Fournette, the Bucs turned the running game over to Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard, who produced 34 and 28 yards from scrimmage, respectively. Undrafted rookie Deven Thompkins was the most targeted player by the Bucs' three quarterbacks, with nine throws in his direction resulting in four catches for 25 yards.

The Bucs got the ball first and two plays in Brady hit Godwin on the right sideline for a gain of 17. Another Godwin grab and a three-yard run by White moved the sticks again and Thompkins got the ball down to the Atlanta 23 with a 17-yard end-around. The Bucs faced a third-and-five at the 18 and had to burn a timeout as the play clock wound down; after the break, a quick-hitter to TE Cade Otton over the middle was enough for a first down at the 12. Two plays later, Brady threw over the top to Rudolph for the eight-yard score and a quick 7-0 lead for the visitors.

The Buccaneers' defense got off to a good start, too, forcing a three-and-out and a quick punt. OLB Anthony Nelson stopped Allgeier for a loss of two, OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka pressured Ridder into an incompletion and Hicks dropped Ridder for a loss of eight on third down. Tampa Bay's second drive didn't go as well, and the Bucs punted from their 49 after a three-and-out that included two incompletions in Gage's direction. Jake Camarda's 42-yard punt was fair caught at the Atlanta nine.

Ridder went deep on the first play of the ensuing drive but CB Jamel Dean caught up with London just in time to knock the ball away. Two plays later, Ridder slid right out of the pocket, buying time to find London for a gain of 26. An illegal block call on CB Sean Murphy-Bunting added 15 yards to a five-yard Patterson run, making it first down at the Bucs' 40 and Allgeier then ripped off a 17-yard run around right end. Another impressive Allgeier run tacked on 16 more to the Bucs' seven, and the rookie back powered down to the two a couple snaps later. On third-and-goal, Ridder scrambled to his right and waited for Pruitt to get free for a short pass into the end zone, completing a 91-yard drive.

The Bucs' third drive only lasted two plays, as Godwin fumbled at the end of a six-yard tunnel screen, with the Falcons recovering at Tampa Bay's 34. Ridder took a shot at the end zone on the next play but it fell incomplete. ILB Lavonte David dropped Cordarrelle Patterson for a loss of three on second down and the Falcons ran on third-and-13 before bringing on K Younghoe Koo to drill a 49-yard field goal.

After a five-yard catch-and-run by Godwin, the Bucs faced a third-and-two at their own 33 as the first quarter came to an end. After the teams switched ends, Brady scrambled left before throwing diagonally back to the right and getting just enough on his pass to reach a sprawling Godwin at the 43 for a first down. Two Bernard runs picked up eight yards and got the ball just over midfield. Brady converted another third-and-two with an in-and-out route by Gage for five more. Walton delivered a great block on the move to help Bernard get eight yards on a pitch to the left, and two plays later Vaughn made a sharp cutback on pitch left to convert a third-and-one with a gain of 12. On the next snap, DL Grady Jarrett put the Bucs behind the sticks by knifing into the backfield and hitting Vaughn just as he got the handoff for a loss of five. On third-and-10 from the Atlanta 23, Godwin caught a ball near the left sideline but was knocked out of bounds a yard short of the first-down marker. The Bucs elected to go for it on fourth down and, after using their second timeout of the half, and although Bernard got all the way down to the six, most of the play was erased by a holding call on Goedeke, making it fourth-and-10. That brought on the field goal unit and Ryan Succop drove it home from 41 yards out to tie the game.

Tampa Bay's defense came up with a three-and-out on the next possession, with Tryon-Shoyinka nearly sacking Ridder and sending him scrambling for a gain of eight, two yards short of what was needed. Bradley Pinion's 53-yard punt bounced out of bounds at the Bucs' 19 with six-and-a-half minutes left in the half. Atlanta's defense countered with a three-and-out of its own, with short completions to Thompkins and Vaughn gaining little and leading to a punt that was downed at Atlanta's 36.

The Bucs got the ball back moments later when Ridder lost the ball while trying to throw out to his left. White picked it off the turf and took it nine yards down the field to the Atlanta 22. Gabbert relieved Brady under center and immediately took a shot at the end zone but the ball was out of Thompkins' reach. Gabbert went back to the rookie receiver on the next snap and Thompkins slipped past a would-be tackler to get all the way down to the nine. The ball was back on the 10 after a Bernard run and a penalty as the two-minute warning arrived. Two passes to Gage got the ball into the end zone. The first was a quick tunnel screen on which Gage kept fighting for yards down to the three in the middle of a crowd of defenders. Gabbert went back to Gage on third-and-goal with a fade to the left edge of the end zone and the former Falcons receiver made a leaping catch and then held on despite landing hard on his back.

Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back quickly again. Reserve CB Dee Delaney made two consecutive stops to force a punt, the second one as he chased Ridder to the sideline on third-and-five. The Bucs had 50 seconds left when they got the ball back at their own 20 and simply ran twice to take the game into halftime.

The Bucs brought in reserves at virtually every defensive spot to start the second half and the Falcons took advantage with a nine-play, 69-yard field goal drive on the opening possession. Ridder got the ball into Tampa Bay territory with completions of 16 yards to London and 29 to Pruitt and Allgeier ran for 12 yards down to the seven to make it first and goal. The Bucs' defense held there and the Falcons settled for a short field goal to make it a 17-13 game.

Tampa Bay's first drive of the half went nowhere, as Vaughn's tough run after a swing pass came up a yard short on third-and-nine. Camarda blasted the ensuing punt 66 yards but the coverage team couldn't stop it from bouncing into the end zone for a touchback. Ridder opened the next drive with a 17-yard inbreaking route to London and Allgeier followed with a hard-charging run around right end for 13 more, putting the ball on the midfield stripe. On third-and-two moments later, Tryon-Shoyinka stopped Allgeier for a loss of one but the Falcons went for it on fourth down and got it on Ridder's scrambling 11-yarder to TE Anthony Firkser. Atlanta got another first down and then faced a third-and-three at the Bucs' 11. Allgeier followed a line of blockers on a pitch left and got five yards for a first-and-goal at the six. Three plays later, Ridder found WR Olamides Zaccheaus wide open in the end zone for a three-yard touchdown, giving the home team a 20-17 lead with a minute left in the third quarter.

The Bucs faced a third-and-13 on their next possession as the fourth quarter began. Thompkins made several nice cuts to elude tacklers on a quick pass down the line but didn't come close to moving the sticks and the Bucs punted again. Camarda's 56-yarder rolled down to the Atlanta 17.

Atlanta backed up on a holding call to start the drive, leading to a third-and-six at the 21. Ridder got that and a lot more, throwing deep down the right sideline to London, who made a leaping catch over McCollum to pull down the 40-yard play. Ridder then converted a third-and-six with a hard strike straight down the middle to London at the Bucs' two. Patterson ran it in on the next play.

Trask came in to lead the next drive but his first two passes, both in Thompkins' direction, were incomplete, include a deep ball down the left numbers on second down that was well thrown. The ensuing punt was fair caught at the Atlanta 25.

Ridder tried another deep shot to start the following drive but it was well covered by Murphy-Bunting and incomplete. However, a simple handoff to Allgeier produced the same explosive play, as he broke free over left tackle for a gain of 28 to the Bucs' 47. A tackle for loss by Delaney and a big hit on Ridder by Hall led to an intentional grounding call, making it third-and-21. Ridder got much of it back on a deep slant to Zaccheaus for 17 and the Falcons went for it on fourth down. The drive was maintained by a quick out to Zaccheaus for six more, to the Bucs' 35 with the clock ticking under five minutes. The Bucs stopped the drive at the 33 and Koo came out to hit a 51-yard field goal.

Trask's first NFL completion came on a quick curl to Scotty Miller for a gain of eight to start the next drive, and he hit Breshad Perriman on a crosser to convert a third-and-two. He tried another deep shot to Perriman on the next snap but CB Cornell Armstrong was able to knock it away. After a scrambling dump-off to Bernard for six on third-and-10, the Bucs went for it on fourth down but Trask's pass in Thompkins' direction was incomplete and the ball went over on downs at the Tampa Bay 48 with 2:28 left. Atlanta was able to run out the clock from there.

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