Young Buc defenders Sabby Piscitelli (21) and Aqib Talib (25) each had their first career interceptions off fellow young player Matt Ryan
Matt Ryan threw a 62-yard touchdown on the first pass of his NFL debut, sparking a 34-21 win over Detroit in Week One. Thanks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his second opening sequence didn't go nearly as well.
Rather, it was a fellow 2008 first-round draft pick who made the first big play in the Buccaneers' 24-9 victory over Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon. Talib picked off Ryan's third pass – after two incompletions to start the game – setting up a quick Buccaneer touchdown that gave the Bucs a lead they never relinquished. Talib made an impressively quick reaction to an errant Ryan toss that sailed over intended receiver Harry Douglas, and TE John Gilmore scored his first Buc touchdown on a five-yard catch two minutes later.
It didn't get any easier for Ryan, who got a rude introduction to the Bucs' stifling defense and the heated Tampa Bay-Atlanta rivalry. His eighth pass was intercepted by another young Buc defender, second-year S Sabby Piscitelli, setting up Matt Bryant's 33-yard field goal six minutes into the second quarter. Ryan didn't complete a pass until the 6:20 mark of the second quarter and finished with just 13 completions in 33 attempts for 158 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. A week after producing a near-perfect 137.0 passer rating against the Lions, Ryan was forced into a 29.6 mark by the Bucs' defense.
"I'm proud of our team," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It was a hard-fought game. We had a lot of penalties today; we have to address that. That's an area we have to stay away from if want to be a factor in the league. Clearly, we were able to overcome those. Our defense played a great game."
However, Ryan and the Falcons did rally briefly against an error-prone Buccaneers squad that was guilty of 11 penalties for 94 yards on the day. One flag, a roughing penalty on rookie CB Elbert Mack came moments after Piscitelli squandered a potential game-clinching turnover. Piscitelli recovered a fumble by WR Roddy White but gave it back with an ill-advised lateral attempt just before he was tackled. Atlanta recovered, Mack's illegal hit on Ryan put the ball over midfield and the Falcons completed the long drive for a third field goal that made it a one-score game, 17-9.
However, RB Earnest Graham iced it for the Buccaneers moments later with a 68-yard touchdown run. Graham finished the game with 116 yards on 15 carries, averaging 7.7 yards per tote. Former Atlanta RB Warrick Dunn was once again the perfect complement, producing 49 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries and another 21 yards on three receptions. The Bucs gained 164 yards on 28 carries, averaging 5.9 per run.
Ryan's new running mate, Michael Turner, also found the Bucs' defense tough to crack after a stellar Falcon debut. The former San Diego Chargers running back had an incredible 220 yards in his first game as a Falcon but was held to 42 yards on 14 rushes by Tampa Bay. Of course, the Bucs' 17-3 lead in the first half impacted Atlanta's play-calling and diminished the impact of a running attack that gained 318 yards the week before.
Instead, it was the former Atlanta running back who looked like a find for his new (and former) team Dunn, who played his first five seasons in Tampa before spending the last six in Atlanta, scored on a 17-yard run in the second quarter to give the Buccaneers a 14-0 lead. It was a 17-yard run on third-and-17, as Dunn turned in an incredible effort on a draw play, weaving through traffic and finally diving over the goal line with the ball stretched just far enough in front of him for the score.
The Falcons actually had the longest-tenured quarterback in the game, in terms of consecutive starts at least. A week after Jeff Garcia started the Bucs' opener at New Orleans, Tampa Bay went with veteran Brian Griese, in his second stint with the franchise. Making his first start for Tampa Bay since October 16, 2005, Griese completed 18 of 31 passes for 160 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Griese was particularly impressive on third downs, especially a series of long ones early in the game. On the Bucs' first three drives alone, Griese converted third downs of 10, 13 and nine. His favorite target in such situations was WR Ike Hilliard, who produced a first down on all four of his grabs.
Griese was far from flawless, however. The Bucs' offense gained 311 yards, a respectable total that still left some potential big-gainers on the field when Griese overthrew open men.
"He managed the game, and I thought that was good," said Gruden. "It was his first start here in a couple years. He missed a couple guys he normally hits but he managed the game and made some timely plays on third down."
He did more than enough, though, to support a Buccaneers' defense that allowed only 234 yards and followed up its early interceptions with severe pressure on Ryan in the fourth quarter. The Bucs sacked Ryan four times, two by second-year DE Gaines Adams and another 1.5 by DE Greg White. The Falcons finished with just 129 net passing yards.
The Falcons came out throwing with their rookie passer, and it didn't go well on the game's opening possession. Ryan's first two throws were well-defended and incomplete. On third-and-15, Ryan tried to throw a little receiver screen to WR Harry Douglas but the high pass tipped off Douglas' hands and was intercepted by Talib at the Atlanta 18.
Griese's first pass was a bit of a misfire, as he overthrew wide-open TE Alex Smith on a sure touchdown pass. However, Griese rallied by finding Galloway over the middle on a third-and-11 play for a gain of 12 and a first down at the seven. Two plays later, Griese zipped a short pass in to TE John Gilmore in the front right edge of the end zone and the Bucs had a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
The Falcons did go to the ground on their next possession, and got a first down when Gaines Adams jumped offside on a third-and-four. The Falcons got another gift from the Bucs' defense on the next third down, a defensive holding on Barber that made it first down at the Atlanta 43. Turner followed with his first big gain on the ensuing play, an 18-yard run into Bucs territory. The drive died on the next third down, however, as Ryan overthrew Norwood and Jackson nearly made a diving interception. Hilliard executed a fair catch at the Bucs' 10 on the punt that followed.
The Bucs' second drive started out poorly but Griese converted another long third down when he threw a 13-yard strike over the middle to Hilliard on a third-and-13. The Bucs faced another long third down moments later but Griese's six-yard strike to WR Michael Clayton was insufficient to move the chains.
Josh Bidwell's booming, 56-yard punt helped push Atlanta back to its own 30 and the defense forced a quick three-and-out. Tampa Bay's third drive began at its own 39 and moved into Atlanta territory when Griese converted another long third down, once again finding Hilliard on a third-and-nine for the exact yardage needed. Griese and Hilliard combined to convert a third-and-four on the first play of the second quarter, with the 11-yard catch putting the ball at the Falcon 34.
Griese finally looked elsewhere on the next third down, converting a third-and-10 from the Falcons' 20 by throwing a nifty shovel pass to Dunn. Dunn barreled through a trio of tacklers at the sticks to get the first down and surge to the eight. Graham appeared to score on a sweep on the next play but the play was erased on a holding call against FB B.J. Askew. Another penalty pushed the ball all the way back to the 23, but the Bucs still managed to score, thanks to Dunn's heroics. It was 14-0 with four minutes gone in the second quarter.
Piscitelli's interception moments later, with a 22-yard return tacked on, put the ball at Atlanta's 17. The Bucs' offense failed to move the ball this time but the home team still tacked on three points with Bryant's 33-yard field goal, making it 17-0 nine minutes before halftime.
Atlanta's offense finally got untracked with six minutes left in the half. Ryan's first completion, a nine-yarder over the middle to WR Roddy White, was followed immediately by a 33-yard toss-sweep around right end by Douglas. The Bucs held again, however, and the Falcons had to punt from the 38.
Unfortunately, the Bucs' offense came up empty and the Falcons' Adam Jennings returned the ensuing punt 37 yards to the Bucs' 23. The Bucs came with an enormous blitz on a third-and-13 from the 26 with 42 seconds left and Ryan was able to exploit it for a 19-yard strike to White at the Bucs' seven. Adams' first sack of the year put Atlanta into a third-and-goal from the 14 and Ryan was forced into a throwaway. K Jason Elam came on to kick a 32-yard field goal and get Atlanta on the board just before halftime.
The Bucs had the ball to start the second half but gave it up quickly thanks to a sack and a holding penalty, but a good bounce and a holding call on Bidwell's punt pushed the ball back to Atlanta's 10. The defense nearly sacked Ryan twice, forcing a punt out of the end zone, but a huge punt and a block in the back by the Bucs' return time turned the field position around again.
The Bucs' next drive opened with a holding call but at least gained a first down thanks in part to Graham's 12-yard, tackle-breaking gain on a short pass. The Bucs eventually punted and – yet again – a flag on the return team led to a switch in field-position advantage.
Atlanta started over at its own 16 and ended up in a third-and-11 thanks to another holding call. Ryan's pass to White appeared to come up a half-yard short, but the Falcons challenged the spot and won, making it first down at the 27. A roughing-the-passer penalty on Greg White moved the ball over midfield, and a sliding, 21-yard catch by Douglas got it to the Bucs' 13. S Tanard Jackson made an outstanding solo tackle of Norwood in the backfield on third-and-three from the Bucs' six, forcing Atlanta to settle for Elam's 27-yard field goal and a 17-6 deficit.
Rookie WR Dexter Jackson got the Bucs out to the 31 on the ensuing kickoff return, and Dunn moved the sticks with a 15-yard burst up the middle on the last play of the third quarter. Dunn got the ball on the first two plays of the fourth quarter, too, and responded with a pair of six-yard runs, putting the ball in Atlanta territory. Griese then went up top, finding Gilmore wide open down the seam for a gain of 36 yards to the six.
Unfortunately, the Falcons' defense picked that critical time to record its first turnover. DE John Abraham, who had three sacks in Atlanta's opener, swept behind Griese on third-and-goal from the nine and sacked him, forcing a fumble that Atlanta recovered at the 17.
The game was interrupted by the bizarre Piscitelli-Mack play moments later. Ryan completed a 20-yard pass to White on third-and-eight from the 19, but Phillips forced White to fumble. Atlanta came up with the ball after a lengthy scrum following Piscitelli's bad pitch, and Mack was penalized for a personal foul for hitting Ryan helmet to helmet during the confusion. The upshot: Atlanta's first down at the Bucs' 48. A 23-yard catch-and-run by Robinson on third-and-six gave Atlanta a first down at the Bucs' 21.
Ryan converted another third-and-six moments later with a running 13-yard pass to Douglas at the four. The Bucs challenged the play, asserting that Ryan was over the line of scrimmage before he threw but lost the review. The Bucs managed to force another third down at the seven and finally held, forcing Ryan to throw his pass out of the back of the end zone. Elam's third field goal, a 25-yarder, made it 17-9 with 5:14 to play.
Obviously focusing on killing the clock, the Bucs started at their own 21 and gained a quick first down when Graham took a toss-sweep around left end, hurdled one tackler and picked up 10 yards to the 32 on second down. Two plays later, Graham did even better, hitting a seam over right tackle, breaking to the outside and, after rumbling down the sideline, fighting through trash inside the 10 to score on the 68-yard run. It was Graham's longest career carry, topping the 47-yarder he turned in just last week at New Orleans.
Piscitelli forced a fumble by Norwood on the ensuing kickoff return, though Atlanta recovered at the bottom of another nasty pile of bodies. Adams and Greg White combined on a sack of Ryan on first down, and a holding penalty helped make it fourth-and-14. White finished the job moments later with a quick burst up the middle for a sack of 13 yards, giving the Bucs possession at the Atlanta 12.
The Buccaneers improved to 1-1 with the win and remained a game behind by Carolina in the NFC South. The Panthers improved to 2-0 with a narrow win over Chicago (0-2), Tampa Bay's opponent next weekend on the road. The Falcons fell to 1-1 and will follow up with a home game against the 0-2 Kansas City Chiefs.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers have now beaten Atlanta three times in a row, having swept the season series in 2007. The Bucs improved to 18-12 all-time against Atlanta, and that .600 winning percentage is the best against any team that they have played at least 10 times. The Bucs are 11-6 against Atlanta in games played in Tampa. … The Buccaneers have won their home opener for the second season in a row. This is the third time in the last four years (also 2005, 2007) that the Buccaneers have lost their season opener on the road and come back to win at home in Week Two. … The Buccaneers saluted the Citrus Park Little League All-Stars during a break in the action in the third quarter. The Citrus Park 11 and 12-year-old team advanced all the way to the semifinals of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in August. The Buccaneers made the young baseball stars special guests, supplying tickets, parking passes, concessions and a pregame tailgate party. … RB Warrick Dunn's touchdown in the second quarter was his 27th as a Buccaneer, moving him into a tie for sixth on the team's all-time list with WR Mark Carrier. Dunn also tied Carrier for 12th on the Bucs' career scoring list, as both players have 162 points. ... The Bucs led the game after the third quarter and held on for victory. Tampa Bay was 8-1 in that situation in 2007 and is now 41-4 with a lead at the end of the third quarter in six-plus seasons under Head Coach Jon Gruden. … RB Earnest Graham's 68-yard run in the fourth quarter was the seventh-longest in team history and the Bucs' longest since Cadillac Williams went 71 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota on September 11, 2005. … DE Gaines Adams led the team with two sacks, which actually was the result of one solo takedown and two other split sacks. That allowed him to tie his career single-game high of two sacks, previously set at Atlanta last November 18. … LB Derrick Brooks started the game despite a hamstring injury that kept him out of practice all week. Brooks thus extended his career-long streak to 210 consecutive games played.
Inactives: The Buccaneers named the following eight players inactive before Sunday's game: QB Josh Johnson, RB Michael Bennett, LB Matt McCoy, G Davin Joseph, T James Lee, WR Maurice Stovall, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Jeff Garcia. McCoy, Joseph and Stovall were out due to injury.
The Falcons named the following eight players inactive: S Jamaal Fudge, CB David Irons, LB Tony Gilbert, C Alex Stepanovich, T Quinn Ojinnaka, TE Martrez Milner, DT Grady Jackson and designated third quarterback D.J. Shockley. Stepanovich was out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, CB Aqib Talib left the game in the third quarter and did not return. WR Joey Galloway left in the third quarter with a foot strain and did not return.
For the Falcons, T Sam Baker left the game in the second quarter after sustaining a blow to the head and did not return.