LB Geno Hayes and the Bucs' defense sacked Atlanta's Matt Ryan once and intercepted him twice but also allowed 397 yards of offense
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Atlanta Falcons, 20-10, at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday in 44-degree weather, the second coldest home game in franchise history.
This being Florida, the cool weather likely won't last long. And given the momentum the Buccaneers had gained the previous two weeks in wins at Seattle and New Orleans, there are surely sunnier days in the near future for Tampa Bay's NFL franchise.
This game, however, was hard to warm up to.
The Buccaneers had hoped to get the 2010 calendar year off to a flying start after those rousing wins over the Seahawks and Saints. Instead, they'll have to rely on the final days of 2009 to provide that coveted offseason momentum, because the actual '09 season finale was an uninspiring loss.
The visiting Atlanta Falcons rode the hot arm of second-year QB Matt Ryan and Jason Snelling's power runs to 397 yards of offense. In the process, Atlanta completed a sweep of Tampa Bay this season and finishing with a 9-7 mark that gave the franchise back-to-back winning campaigns for the first time in its 44-year history. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers finished at 3-13, their worst regular-season record since also finishing 3-13 in 1991.
The Bucs won just one of their six intra-division games and finished fourth in the NFC South.
"This was obviously a disappointing game," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "You've got to sum it up like this: You had two close games against Atlanta, two close games against Carolina and you split with New Orleans. You've got to find a way to win those games. This game was never out of control. They fought all the way down."
Both teams started slow on offense, but while Ryan eventually found a rhythm and threw for 223 yards on 23-of-35 passing. Buccaneers' rookie QB Josh Freeman took longer to hit his stride, eventually completing 16 of 32 for 174 yards, one touchodwn and two interceptions. After his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to WR Antonio Bryant tied the game at 10-10, Freeman was intercepted to end each of the Bucs' next two possessions.
S Sabby Piscitelli intercepted a Ryan pass near midfield shortly after Bryant's touchdown, giving the Bucs' offense a chance to gain control. Instead, Freeman was intercepted by CB Christopher Owens on the very next play and the Falcons subsequently drove 44 yards on five plays for the go-ahead score. Ryan hit WR Roddy White on a third-down pass on the left sideline for the 12-yard score.
The Bucs responded by driving quickly into Atlanta territory, but Freeman was intercepted in the end zone by CB Christopher Grimes as he attempted to hit Bryant on a deep pass. Freeman actually targeted Bryant nine times on the day but only two of those passes resulted in completions.
Ryan was helped much more by his rushing game than was Freeman. Even without Michael Turner, the Falcons ran for 183 yards, 147 of them after halftime. Reserve Jason Snelling took the lead, gaining 147 yards on 25 carries and ripping off several long runs in the closing minutes as the Bucs' defense was trying to get the ball back. After Grimes' pick, the Falcons rode Snelling's back to a 62-yard field goal drive that put the game out of reach.
"They were able to run the ball in the end, in the four-minute drive," said Morris. "They were able to put themselves in position to use the run. Their stats showed it. They won the battle up front today."
The Bucs tried to stick to the running game as they had in their two previous wins but had difficulty opening any holes for Cadillac Williams. With fellow tailbacks Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham inactive and on injured reserve, respectively, due to injury Williams had the whole rushing load on his back against the Falcons and was able to gain just 40 yards on 19 carries. Williams also caught four passes for 35 yards and obviously fought hard for every yard but the holes were rarely there.
That might have been the biggest difference in what the team was able to do in Weeks 15 and 16 and the struggles of Week 17.
"What we were able to do at the end of the season was pretty good," said Morris. "We won two in a row then lost a tough one today. We were unable to get our running game going today. Cadillac toted the rock by himself. We weren't able to do it. Atlanta played hard on that side of the ball."
LB Geno Hayes continued his late-season hot streak, racking up 12 solo tackles to go with a sack, a quarterback hurry and two tackles for loss. Hayes finished the season with a sack in each of his last three games and was the only player on the team to record at least two sacks and at least two interceptions. LB Barrett Ruud added 17 tackles and CB Aqib Talib had six tackles and several key pass break-ups.
The Bucs' special teams got the Bucs off to one of their fastest starts of the season, as S Tanard Jackson forced a fumble by Eric Weems on the opening kickoff and RB Kareem Huggins recovered at the Atlanta 28. The resulting drive went nowhere but still netted the Bucs three points on Barth's 48-yard line drive field goal just 1:33 into the contest.
Neither team could find any rhythm on offense for the remainder of the first quarter, gaining exactly 31 net yards each and punting the ball a combined five times. The Falcons finally moved into Buccaneer territory in the second quarter, helped by TE Justin Peelle's 32-yard reception. Morris used the first of his two challenges to review a spot on a third-down completion but wasn't able to get the call overturned. However, the Bucs held thanks to Hayes' sack on third down and a failed fourth-and-15 attempt.
However, Atlanta got the ball two more times before halftime and was able to drive 53 yards on eight plays for a score each time. The first of those two ended in Matt Bryant's 36-yard field goal after a Ronde Barber interception was erased by a surprising holding call on Barber. However, the second went the distance during the final three minutes of the half as Ryan got the hot hand. A pass-interference penalty on Sabby Piscitelli put the ball at the one and two stops of Snelling by the Bucs' defense made it third-and-goal. The Falcons had no timeouts, so they snapped the ball with the clock running on what would prove to be the final play of the half. Unfortunately for the home team, Ryan threw over two defenders to find Peelle at the front of the end zone for the go-ahead score.
The Bucs' hopes for a change in momentum at halftime faded on a three-and-out to start the third quarter. Atlanta went to the hurry-up offense on their first possession of the half and maintained their rhythm from the end of the half, quickly moving into Buccaneer territory. However, S Tanard Jackson took care of matters himself by intercepting a seam pass intended for Jenkins and returning it to the Bucs' 47.
The Bucs did manage to get over midfield on a six-yard run but the drive stalled there. The good news was a Sam Paulescu punt that bounced down to the two and was downed by WR Brian Clark. That advantage was short-lived, as two pinballing runs by Snelling and Ovie Mughelli resulted in a first down at the 13. Snelling broke more tackles on the next play and got around the corner for a gain of eight. Three runs later left Atlanta in a third-and-two at the 31, a quick out to Norwood picked up eigh tmore and moved the chains. White dropped a receiver screen on the next play and a run by Norwood was bottled up by Kyle Moore. On third-and-eight, the Bucs brought a blitz and Ryan threw over the top of it for a 30-yard completion to Jenkins. Now at Tampa Bay's 29, Snelling shot up the middle untouched for 10 more. DE Tim Crowder's pressure forced an incompletion on a crack into the end zone and a false start put Atlanta into a third-and-13 at the 22. Talib's leaping break-up of a pass into the end zone forced the Falcons to try another field goal and Lynch dived to get a hand on the kick.
The Bucs took over at their own 39 and got a quick first down on a 14-yard pass to Winslow. Two plays later, Freeman found an unusual way to pick up another first down. As he scrambled right, he ran into Umpire Tony Michalek but didn't go down; just as DT Trey Lewis closed in for a possible sack, Freeman guided Michalek into Lewis with his left hand and threw with his right to TE Jerramy Stevens for a gain of 14. A five-yard run by Williams then ended the third quarter.
Two plays into the final period, Freeman threw to Williams underneath to pick up six yards and convert a third-and-two. Two plays later, Freeman zipped a seam pass between defenders to WR Maurice Stovall for a gain of 27 down to the Atlanta four. A Freeman scramble lost four yards on first down and a second down throw on the run was incomplete. On third-and-goal, Freeman threw a back-shoulder pass to Bryant who made the catch despite having a defender all over him. Barth converted the extra point to tie the game at 10-10 with 11:34 left.
Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back three plays later. Ryan tried to hit Gonzalez on the left sideline on a third-and-two pass but Piscitelli had perfect coverage and was able to step in front of the pass and intercept it at the Atlanta 43. A post-turnover foul on Talib pushed the ball back to the Bucs' 45.
Unfortunately, the Falcons took it right back. Freeman tried to throw down the field to Stovall but the Falcons had several defenders in the area and Owens picked it off at the 43, returning it to Tampa Bay's 44. Two plays later, Snelling spun out of several tacklers and rambled 22 yards to the Bucs' 16. Two more Snelling runs made it third-and-seven, but the Falcons scored when Ryan's pass to White just got past Talib's hands, allowing the receiver to walk into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
The Bucs needed to go 80 yards to answer after a touchback and chewed up much of that in their next three plays. First, Williams made a fine one-handed catch and turned up the sideline for a gain of 17. On the next play, Freeman lobbed down the left numbers to Winslow for another 18 yards. From the Atlanta 45, Freeman then hit TE John Gilmore, who stretched over LB Stephen Nicholas for nine yards. After converting the first down with a sneak, Freeman tried to hit Bryant in the end zone but Grimes stayed with him and was able to intercept it with four minutes to play.
Atlanta kept it on the ground and got a first down when Snelling burst up the middle for 11 yards on the second play of the drive. The Bucs used their first timeout after the play but Snelling ran for 21 more after the stoppage. Another 20-yard rip by Snelling set up Bryant for a 36-yard field goal that capped the scoring with one minute to play.
Game Notes: Tampa Bay still leads the all-time series against Atlanta, 18-15, but the Falcons have won three in a row. The Bucs are 11-7 against Atlanta in games played in Tampa. This is just the second time since the NFC South was formed in 2002 that the Falcons have swept the series (also 2006). … Sunday's game was the seventh regular-season contest played in January in franchise history. The Bucs are now 3-4 in those contests. … CB Ronde Barber has now started more games in team history than any other player except his former defensive teammate, Derrick Brooks. Barber recorded his 184th start on Sunday against Atlanta, breaking a tie with former T Paul Gruber and leaving him behind only Brooks' 221. … Members of the Plant High School Florida 4A State Championship football team joined the Bucs and Falcons at midfield for the opening coin toss. Among the players representing Plant was Eric Dungy, son of former Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy. … RB Cadillac Williams went over 1,000 combined rushing and receiving yards for the season on a 10-yard reception in the second quarter. Williams had 75 combined yards against Atlanta and finished the year with a team-leading 1,040. … S Corey Lynch blocked a field goal in the third quarter to keep the Bucs within a touchdown. Earlier this season, Lynch blocked a punt against the Falcons in Week 12. As a team, the Bucs have six blocked kicks in 2009, two each on punts, field goals and extra points. … WR Antonio Bryant's eight-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was the 30th of his career. Eleven of those have come in his two seasons as a Buccaneer. … QB Josh Freeman's eight-yard TD pass to Bryant was his 10th of the season, breaking the team's rookie record, set by Bruce Gradkowski at nine in 2006. ... TE Kellen Winslow's team-high five catches on Sunday gave him 77 on the year, the eighth-highest single-season total in franchise history.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Mark Bradley, WR Mario Urrutia, RB Derrick Ward, S De'von Hall, TE Ryan Purvis, T James Lee, WR Terrence Nunn and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Ward was out due to injury.
The Falcons deactivated these eight men: K Steve Hauschka, WR Troy Bergeron, RB Michael Turner, FB Verron Haynes, S Charlie Peprah, DT Thomas Johnson, DE Jamaal Anderson and designated third quarterback John Parker Wilson. Turner, Johnson and Anderson were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, CB Derrick Roberson suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter and did not return. T Donald Penn sustained a knee injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.
For the Falcons, S Thomas DeCoud sustained a groin injury in the second quarter but was able return.