LB Geno Hayes and the Bucs' defense played inspired football for much of the day but couldn't get the stop it needed in the closing minutes
For 58 heady minutes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense restored its roar, looking much like the stingy, swarming versions of years past. Unfortunately, the Bucs' 2009 tendency to wilt in the closing minutes reared its head again and a near-upset of bitter rival Atlanta slipped away in the last 30 seconds.
QB Chris Redman threw a five-yard touchdown pass to WR Roddy White on fourth-and-goal with 23 seconds remaining to give the Falcons a 20-17 victory. White's catch capped a 15-play, 59-yard drive that followed a missed 51-yard field goal try by Buccaneers K Connor Barth at the 2:30 mark.
The Falcons needed seven plays to get the ball in from the Bucs' 10-yard line, and they were aided by a defensive holding penalty on rookie CB Derrick Roberson on a third-and-goal incompletion on the opposite side of the field.
The Buccaneers fell to 1-9 with the loss and continue to look for their first victory on the road in 2009. The Falcons improved to 6-5 and avoided falling into a difficult hole in the postseason race, though they must now be concerned with injuries to several key players.
The intra-division contest with Atlanta was Tampa Bay's first outing since Head Coach Raheem Morris made the difficult decision to assume play-calling duties on defense, taking those responsibilities from Defensive Coordinator Jim Bates. Tampa Bay came into the game ranked 29th overall on defense, and 32nd against the run, and had allowed an average of 29.4 points per game through the first 10 contests.
The defense responded to Morris' leadership with perhaps its finest effort of the season. The Bucs allowed just 297 yards of offense, including just 101 yards during an impressive second half before the Falcons' final drive. The Bucs matched their season high with six sacks and hurried Falcon quarterbacks all day, while also allowing a season-low 75 rushing yards.
DE Stylez G. White led the charge into the backfield with 2.5 sacks, and DE Tim Crowder added 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery. CB Ronde Barber, who proved during the first 10 games that he could thrive in Bates' more aggressive coverage system, looked at home in the revamped system as well, recording five tackles, including two for a loss, one sack and one quarterback hit. His sack in the third quarter made him just the second player in NFL history to record at least 25 sacks and 30 interceptions in his career; he has 25 and 37, respectively, joining Rodney Harrison, who finished his career with 30.5 sacks and 34 interceptions.
The Bucs' swarming, hard-hitting style of defense was certainly a welcome sight, but it also had the unintended consequence of knocking Atlanta QB Matt Ryan out of the game in the first quarter and sidelining RB Michael Turner in the third quarter. It would be disingenuous to suggest that those losses didn't affect Atlanta's offense, although Turner had been held to just 33 yards on 12 carries. He had 18 yards on the play on which he was injured and another 11 on his first carry of the game but was also dropped in the backfield for losses on four occasions.
Ryan left after just one series due to a toe injury suffered on the game's first sack, a combined effort by White and Crowder. Backup Redman performed quite well in Ryan's absence, though he absorbed five of the Bucs' six sacks. Redman completed 23 of 41 passes for 243 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Making his fourth career start, Buccaneers rookie QB Josh Freeman had another impressive outing, hitting on 20 of 29 throws for 250 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked just once and also ran for 14 yards. Freeman helped the Bucs rally from a 10-0 second-quarter deficit with a 42-yard touchdown pass to WR Antonio Bryant, then put the visitors ahead, 17-10, in the third quarter with an eight-yard scoring strike to RB Cadillac Williams. Williams' touchdown came just two plays after S Corey Lynch blocked a punt and recovered the ball at Atlanta's eight-yard line.
The Buccaneers took a lead into the fourth quarter for the first in 2009 but couldn't hold it. Falcons kicker Jason Elam made a 37-yard field goal in the third period to cut the deficit to 17-13, but then misfired on a 45-yard try in the fourth quarter. That killed one Atlanta drive, and another one was stopped when LB Barrett Ruud forced a fumble by RB Jason Snelling that was recovered by Crowder. However, the Bucs couldn't quite get the stop they needed after Barth's narrow miss; it didn't help that CB Aqib Talib missed that final drive with a hamstring injury.
Tampa Bay's defense, perhaps feeling comfortable in its new scheme, was inspired at the start of the game. The Bucs forced a quick punt on Atlanta's first possession, thanks in part to a third-down sack by White and Crowder. Atlanta's second drive also appeared to fizzle around the Falcon 40, but LB Quincy Black jumped offsides on the punt and the penalty gave the Falcons a new first down just inside Tampa Bay territory. From there the Falcons drove to the Bucs' 18 before another White sack forced them to settle for Elam's 45-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
The Bucs' special teams, a strength for much of the year, put the defense in a bad position again minutes later when a 30-yard punt by Dirk Johnson gave Atlanta great field position. A six-play, 58-yard touchdown drive followed, capped by a shovel pass to Norwood that proved to be the perfect call. Norwood broke through the line and into a wide-open field for a 22-yard touchdown.
The Buccaneers answered immediately with Bryant's touchdown, on which he caught a deep pass on the left sideline over the hands of a Falcon defender and fell to the ground at the three. Bryant got to his feet and ran it in for a touchdown; there appeared to be contact with the defender during the catch, but even if Atlanta had wanted to challenge Bryant being down by contact they didn't have the option, having already used all three of their first-half timeouts. The drive took just two plays and 51 seconds, as Freeman began it with a 38-yard strike to Bryant over the middle.
After a quick three-and-out, keyed by White's third sack, the Bucs moved immediately back into Atlanta territory on a 21-yard reception by TE Kellen Winslow, who caught seven passes for 81 yards on the day. The drive progressed all the way to Atlanta's 15-yard line but the Bucs had to settle for Barth's 39-yard, game-tying field goal with 20 seconds left in the half.
Because they deferred after winning the toss, the Bucs got the ball to start the second half and drove close to midfield on the strength of a 15-yard catch-and-run by RB Earnest Graham. However, another short punt by Johnson, this one covering 35 yards, allowed Atlanta to take over at their own 22. The Bucs defense held, however, twice denying long pass attempts to White, and that's when the Bucs' special teams came back with a big play. Lynch knifed through the protection and blocked Koenen's punt so resoundingly that he actually landed on the football at the Atlanta eight.
Freeman again needed just two plays to get it into the end zone, hitting Williams for an eight-yard score on second-and-goal. That gave the Bucs a 17-10 lead four minutes into the second half, marking the first time since Week Four at Washington that Tampa Bay had a scoreboard advantage at any point in the third quarter. The Bucs took a 10-0 lead out of halftime against the Redskins but then gave up 16 third-quarter points.
Turner's 18-yard run got the ball over midfield on the ensuing possession but the Falcon back was injured on the play. Redman got another 18 yards on a pass down the middle to Jenkins, resulting in a first down at the Bucs' 22, but a holding penalty pushed the Falcons back to the 28. A perfectly-timed blitz by Barber gave him a six-yard sack and the Falcons had to settle for Elam's 37-yard field goal.
Atlanta's defense then turned up the heat, inducing a holding penalty and then dropping Ward for a loss of two on first-and-20. A second-down bubble-screen appeared to be set up well but Bryant dropped the pass, making it third-and-22 from the 10-yard line. A pass over the middle to Winslow came up well short of the sticks and the Bucs had to punt from deep in their own end. Johnson's kick traveled only 35 yards before stopping at the Atlanta 48.
Another catch over the middle by Jenkins, this one for 11 yards, made it first down at the Bucs' 41. Two plays later, however, Ruud forced a fumble by Snelling and Crowder recovered at the Bucs' 25. Tampa Bay faced a third-and-two from the 33 moments later and converted when Winslow made a shoestring catch for a gain of 15. The Bucs failed to convert their next third down, however, and punted from the Atlanta 47 as the fourth quarter began.
The special teams crew rose to the occasion once again, downing Johnson's 46-yard punt at the Atlanta one-yard line. WR Maurice Stovall batted the ball back as he jumped over the goal line, and LS Andrew Economos appropriately shoveled it through his legs to CB Torrie Cox at the one. The play was challenged but upheld as Cox could be seen reestablishing himself in the field of play after initially stepping on the goal line.
An incompletion and a run for just one yard by FB Ovie Mughelli left Atlanta in a third-and-nine from the two. Hayes timed a hit on TE Tony Gonzalez perfectly on a third-down throw to break up the pass and force a punt out of the end zone. Koenen blasted a 60-yard punt but Clifton Smith was able to return it 21 yards to the Atlanta 41. Unfortunately, Atlanta dialed up blitzes on first and third down and the Bucs gave it back after gaining just two yards. Worse, a gutsy fake punt call failed when Johnson could find no open men to throw to. That gave Atlanta possession at their own 39 with 12:48 left in the fourth quarter.
Redman immediately threw a 15-yard out to White on a play-action rollout, putting the ball into Buccaneer territory. Tampa Bay's defense stiffened at that point, however, forcing a punt when Roberson knocked away a pass intended for White over the middle. Koenen's punt was fair caught by Smith at the Bucs' seven.
Freeman and Winslow gave the offense some breathing room with an 18-yard connection on first down. Two runs up the middle by Williams made it third-and-six as the clock ticked down to nine minutes left, and third down was a disaster. First, Freeman was sacked and forced to fumble by DE Jonathan Babineaux. Though Freeman recovered the loose ball, the Bucs lost eight yards on the sack and another six on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on T Jeremy Trueblood, who threw his helmet to the ground in anger after he was pulled from the pile by the back of his pants. With Johnson injured, the Bucs had to send on Barth to punt, and he impressively blasted a 46-yarder. However, the coverage was missing in the middle of the field and Eric Weems got 18 yards back to the Bucs' 40.
Tampa Bay's defense held strong, forcing a fourth-and-four at the 34, and the Falcons elected to go for it. A blitz forced a quick throw to Gonzalez, and the veteran tight end pulled it in despite having S Tanard Jackson all over him. Two more incompletions made it third-and-10 and Crowder tipped the ball out of Redman's hand on third down just as he was starting to throw over the middle. Elam, who has struggled more than usual in 2009, making 10 of 16 coming into Sunday's game, promptly hooked a 43-yard try to the left.
There was 6:38 left in the game when the Bucs took over again at their own 33, and an 11-yard out to Bryant moved the chains and kept the clock running. Three plays later, on a critical third-and-five, Freeman found Stroughter down the right seam for a 10-yard gain and a first down at the Atlanta 39. Two Ward runs gained only three yards but forced Atlanta to use their last two timeouts. After Ward gained three more yards on third-and-seven, the Bucs gambled on a 51-yard field goal try and Barth just missed to the right.
That gave Atlanta a first down at their own 41 with 2:30 left to play. Redman looked for Gonzalez on first down but threw it wide. Another pass to Gonzalez was complete, gaining eight yards, and a five-yard pass to Weems gained five more and made it first down at the Bucs' 46 as the two-minute warning arrived.
Two plays later, a sliding catch by Gonzalez made it first down at the Bucs 35, and a slant by Jenkins picked up 10 more to the Bucs' 25. Redman spiked the ball with 1:19 left. Two more Gonzalez completions took the ball to the 10, where Redman spiked it again with 49 seconds left. Redman zipped a pass in to WR Marty Booker at the two-yard line on second down but a hit by Hayes jarred the ball loose. S Sabby Piscitelli made an incredible diving break-up of a pass intended for Gonzalez on third down but it was for naught as Roberson was flagged for defensive holding on the other side of the field.
That made it first-and-goal at the five with 36 seconds left, and Roberson atoned with a diving tip-away of a near-TD pass to White on the next play. After an incompletion, Piscitelli provided tight coverage on Gonzalez and Redman's third-down pass was incomplete, too. On fourth-and-goal from the five with 26 seconds left, after the Bucs used their final timeout, Redman managed to fire through several defenders to White, who made the catch for the game-winning touchdown.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers still lead their all-time series with the Falcons, 18-14. They are 7-8 in games played in Atlanta, including a 7-5 mark in the Georgia Dome. … TE Kellen Winslow made his 50th career start on Sunday. He finished the game with seven catches for 81 yards. … DE Stylez G. White tied a career high with 2.5 sacks, matching the total he posted at Houston on Dec. 9, 2007. It was also White's second multiple-sack game at the Georgia Dome; he had two against the Falcons on Nov. 18, 2007. … Brad Johnson, Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Buccaneers in 2002, was on hand for Sunday's game. … S Corey Lynch's block of Michael Koenen's punt in the third quarter was the fifth block of a kick by Tampa Bay this season. The Bucs' special teams have blocked two punts, two extra points and one field goal in 2009. Since Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia joined the team in 2002, the Bucs have blocked a total of 17 kicks. … On an eight-yard run in the third quarter, Tampa Bay RB Derrick Ward surpassed 2,000 rushing yards in his career. He had 29 yards on 13 carries against Atlanta and now has 2,022 in his career.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Yamon Figurs, G Shawn Murphy, T James Lee, WR Terrence Nunn, WR Brian Clark, DT Dre Moore, DE Kyle Moore and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
The Falcons deactivated these eight men: WR Troy Bergeron, S Charlie Peprah, LB Spencer Adkins, T Garrett Reynolds, G Quinn Ojinnaka, WR Brian Finneran, DT Trey Lewis and designated third quarterback John Parker Wilson. Finneran is out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Michael Clayton sustained a knee injury in the first quarter and did not return. P Dirk Johnson sustained a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter and did not return. CB Torrie Cox sustained a hip injury in the fourth quarter and did not return, except to hold on a placekick. CB Aqib Talib sustained a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.
For the Falcons, QB Matt Ryan sustained a toe injury on Atlanta's first drive and did not return. G Harvey Dahl suffered ankle and Achilles' heel injuries in the first quarter and did not return. RB Michael Turner sustained an unspecified injury in the third quarter and did not return.