The night started out badly for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday in Atlanta and never got better. The end result was a 56-14 loss that dropped the Buccaneers to 0-3 in 2014.
The Bucs came into Atlanta looking to rebound after two narrow losses at home to Carolina and St. Louis, but a short week, a rash of injuries and a red-hot Atlanta passing attack contributed to the third-most lopsided defeat in franchise history. The Buccaneers' largest margin of defeat is 45 points, originally set in a 45-0 loss at Oakland on Dec. 19, 1999 and then tied in San Francisco on Oct. 9 2011 in a 48-3 outing.
"I'm embarrassed by our play," said Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith. "We failed in all phases. Of course it starts with coaching, it starts with the head football coach. I thought I had our football team ready to play; obviously, we weren't ready to play. Again, it was all phases. We couldn't stop them on defense; couldn't score any points on offense; special teams, we couldn't get anything done there."
The Falcons found the end zone on each of their first four offensive possessions (not counting a brief loss of the ball that quickly turned into a new Atlanta possession) and also got seven points on a pick-six by S Kemal Ishmael near the end of the first quarter. WR Devin Hester, who played most of his career under the tutelage of current Bucs Head Coach Lovie Smith in Chicago, scored on a 20-yard end-around and a 62-yard punt return in the second quarter to put the game out of reach. The latter touchdown was his 20th return score, giving him the all-time NFL record in that category, one more than former Falcon Deion Sanders, who was in attendance at the game.
Tampa Bay's offense generated just 217 yards and didn't record a first down until late in the second quarter. It also had to go to a second quarterback, as Josh McCown went to the locker room late in the first half after hitting his right thumb on a Falcon helmet. Second-year player Mike Glennon came in to lead one drive in the second quarter and 121 yards on 17 of 24 passing. He finally got the Bucs on the board in the fourth quarter with a three-yard touchdown pass to WR Vincent Jackson.
The Buccaneers scored another touchdown a few minutes later on LB Danny Lansanah's 27-yard interception return of a pass thrown by reserve QB T.J. Yates. Yates relieved starter Matt Ryan, who completed 21 of 24 passes (a Falcon-record 87.5% completion rate) for 286 yards and three touchdowns.
The Bucs' game-long frustrations were summed up on one play in the first quarter. Trailing 7-0 and trying to turn away another Falcon scoring opportunity, the defense came up with a big play as CB Alterraun Verner forced a fumble by TE Levine Toilolo that S Mark Barron recovered on one hop. However, as Barron started to pick up steam in the direction of the opposing end zone, Hester hit him from behind and forced a fumble. Hester recovered the loose ball in one falling motion and the Falcons went on to score a touchdown on the ensuing possession. Later, one play after Julio Jones' second touchdown gave the Falcons a 42-0 lead in the third quarter, an errant snap over Glennon's head gave the ball right back to the home team at the Bucs' two-yard line, leading to a one-play touchdown drive.
Tampa Bay's defense allowed 488 yards of offense, and while it did come up with four takeaways that was more than offset by five Buccaneer turnovers. Two of those were fumbles by Bobby Rainey, who started in place of an injured Doug Martin for the second straight game and was once again the team's most prolific offensive weapon with 105 combined rushing and receiving yards. It was his two turnovers, however, that mattered more in the entire scheme of the game.
"Turnovers really ruin some of the good things we're trying to do," said Smith. "Bobby's a good runner but you can't turn the ball over. We get a takeaway and turn it over on the same play – how many times does that happen? Fumbled snap, just too many things we did wrong today to have a chance to win. If you do that many things, you get embarrassed the way we did tonight."
Tampa Bay's defense had trouble getting off the field all night, allowing conversions on eight of 11 third-down tries, including ones of 17 and 11 yards in the first half. While the team won't be using injuries as an excuse in the coming days, it's likely that a depleted lineup at least contributed to the defensive struggles. The Bucs played the game without three of its opening-day starters in DT Gerald McCoy (hand), DE Adrian Clayborn (biceps) and MLB Mason Foster (shoulder), and RDE Michael Johnson was only used sparingly due to his ankle injury.
Of course, the Bucs contributed to the game's snowball effect, committing 11 penalties for 110 yards, including several after-the-whistle roughness penalties, a surprise from a team that had committed just seven infractions through the Bucs' first two games. Considering the lopsided score, the turnovers and the team's myriad mistakes – and even allowing some leeway for the short week and the team's rash of injuries – Smith clearly felt after the game that his team needed to set a new path after its winless start.
"Of course we have to make some changes," he said. "The direction we're going right now isn't getting it done."
The Falcons got the ball first and started at their own 30 after a good return by Devin Hester. Julio Jones caught a 14-yard pass over the middle on the game's first play from scrimmage, and a swing pass to FB Patrick DeMarco two plays later got 16 yards down to the Bucs' 36. Ryan found Jones again at the 11 and, two plays later, hit Douglas in the end zone for a three-yard score.
A facemask penalty against Atlanta on the ensuing kickoff allowed the Bucs to start at their own 33, but the offense failed to gain a first down and the resulting punt went out of bounds at the Atlanta 25. The Falcons drove into Bucs' territory again before an unusual play nearly killed the drive. After a 13-yard catch by TE Levin Toilolo, CB Alterraun Verner punched the ball out of his arm and S Mark Barron picked it up on one hop. However, before Barron could get far, Hester forced another fumble and recovered it himself at the Atlanta 37. The Falcons took it in from there, with Ryan hitting Jones on a third-and-eight in the back of the end zone to make it 14-0.
Things quickly got worse for the Buccaneers, as S Kemal Ishmael intercepted a third-down pass intended for Jackson and returned it 23 yards for a third Falcon touchdown. On the second play of the Bucs' next drive, Rainey turned a short pass into a 13-yard gain but then had the ball stripped from his hand by LB Paul Worrilow. After the Falcons recovered the loose ball, they needed four plays to get it into the end zone, scoring on a 20-yard end-around by Hester to make it 28-0 on the first play of the second quarter.
A holding call on the next series put the Bucs' offense into a hole from which it couldn't climb, and the Falcons promptly drove back into scoring territory. This time, however, Tampa Bay's defense turned them away, with CB Leonard Johnson forcing a fumble by RB Antone Smith that DE Scott Solomon recovered at the Bucs' two-yard line.
Another three-and-out for the Bucs led to a Koenen punt, and though he booted 56 yards it ended up as seven points for the home team, as Hester returned it 62 yards for another Falcon touchdown and a 35-0 lead with seven minutes left in the half.
The Bucs got their initial first down of the game to start the next drive, as McCown hit Evans for a gain of 36 to the Falcons' 46. Jonathan Massaquoi sacked McCown two plays later to make it third-and-nine and a downfield throw under pressure in Jackson's direction was incomplete, leading to another punt. This one Hester fair caught at the 16.
The Bucs' defense forced Atlanta's first punt of the game and Glennon came in to lead the next drive with McCown in the locker room. Glennon completed a quick five-yard pass to WR Robert Herron and two plays later completed a third-and-five with a quick in to Evans. DT Corey Peters sacked Glennon for a loss of seven on the next play, bringing on the two-minute warning. Glennon and Evans just missed hooking up on a second-and-17 pass and a short third-down catch by Evans led to punt. The Falcons got enough yards in the final seconds of the half to try a 59-yard field goal but Matt Bryant's attempt sailed right.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half and got a first down on a 19-yard scramble by McCown on third-and-five. A deep shot down the middle to Evans just missed and Rainey fumbled on the next play after finding a seam over right tackle. The Falcons recovered at their own 44.
Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back a few plays later, however, as David chopped the ball out of the hand of running back Devonta Freeman. The ball appeared to be on its way to bouncing out of bounds but S Dashon Goldson made an acrobatic diving play to keep it in the field of play and a hustling David fell on it for the turnover.
The Bucs didn't advance the ball after the takeaway, however, and the Falcons used the ensuing possession to drive 82 yards for another score. After converting a third-and-five with a nice over-the-shoulder pass to Hester, Ryan hit Jones on a 40-yard score, with the receiver twisting around to make a scintillating catch just as he crossed the goal line.
The Bucs' next drive started with a snap over Glennon's head, which Atlanta's Stanley Maponga recovered at the two-yard line. Jackson used second and third efforts to just get the ball over the goal line on the next snap. RB Antone Smith tacked on another touchdown minutes later with a 38-yard run around left end.
- The Buccaneers declared the following players inactive prior to Thursday's game: RB Doug Martin, DT Gerald McCoy, LB Mason Foster, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, T Kevin Pamphile, G Rishaw Johnson and G Kadeem Edwards. Martin, McCoy, Foster and Seferian-Jenkins were out due to injury.
- The Falcons deactivated these seven players: QB Sean Renfree, CB Javier Arenas, LB Tyler Starr, C James Stone, T Ryan Schraeder, WR Roddy White and DT Cliff Matthews. White was out due to injury.
- With the victory, Atlanta tied the all-time series with Tampa Bay at 21-21.