On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers collectively turned their attention to the Atlanta Falcons and left any lingering emotions from Sunday's comeback win in Minnesota, good or bad, behind. However, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy still had one play from that Vikings game stuck in his mind, because it was good reminder of what can't happen this coming Sunday if the Buccaneers are to snap their seven-game losing streak to their division rivals.
The play occurred five minutes into the second quarter, with the Vikings in the midst of a long march downfield. The Bucs' defense had forced a third-and-13, and that usually is the beginning of the end for any drive. To illustrate, Tampa Bay opponents were forced into 35 third-down tries in 2010 and only three of them were successful.
On this occasion, however, quarterback Donovan McNabb was flushed out of the pocket and began scrambling to his left. It appeared as if there were a handful of Buccaneer defenders that would get him before he could run all the way to the first-down marker, but somehow the wily veteran slipped along the sideline for just enough yards before running out of bounds untouched.
That preserved a possession that ended in a field goal as part of Minnesota's dominant 17-0 first half. The Buccaneers fortunately had another ridiculous comeback in them, rallying for the 24-20 win, but McCoy knows it is moments such as those – breakdowns that could be avoided – that have contributed to the Bucs' run of defeats against Atlanta.
"McNabb last week, getting a 20-yard run…we've either got to get him out of bounds or get him on the ground," said the second-year defender. "Third-and-long, red zone, fourth-and-one…those are plays we've got to make. We realize that, we recognize it and we're going to put in all the preparation necessary."
The Buccaneers took care of it in time in Minnesota, doing all the little things right during a dominant second half. The Vikings actually converted two third downs of 11 or more yards in the first half, but they missed on two more in the second half and were 0-4 overall in that situation after the intermission. Tampa Bay also converted an incredibly important third-and-four in the final minute, succeeded in the red zone, got the ball back in the fourth quarter with perfect four-minute defense and avoided any killer miscues in the kick-and-return game.
Last year the Buccaneers played the Falcons to a pair of fourth-quarter nail-biters, but they did not succeed in those key situational moments. In a 27-21 loss in the Georgia Dome in November, the offense failed on a fourth-and-one run at the Atlanta two-yard line, forfeiting a chance to take the lead in the final two minutes. In the rematch at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay held a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter but promptly gave up a 102-yard kickoff return touchdown to Eric Weems. Weems spent what seemed like an eternity dancing on the sideline around his own 30, but no Buccaneer cover man was able to get him out of bounds. Just minutes later, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan converted a third-and-20 with a 25-yard completion to Roddy White, keeping the game-winning touchdown drive alive.
"A play here and there," said McCoy. "Those plays, those fourth-and-ones, those kickoff returns, those third-and-longs, the red zone plays that we gave up – we remember them. We haven't forgotten them but we just have to eliminate those plays. When we get into those situations we have to have, make sure we have a different outcome this time. Because they kept us out of the playoffs last year, whether we want to admit it or not, with those two losses. I think we kind of owe them a little bit."
Just like last year, the Bucs are the NFL's youngest team, but McCoy thinks they are more mature in 2011. They are now something of a young but experienced team. The second and third-year players who now make up the core of the team's talent have absorbed plenty of valuable lessons from those close losses to Atlanta last year.
"We were in both games," said wide receiver Mike Williams, who contributed a touchdown catch in each of those Falcon contests. "We could have won either one of the games. One play we were a yard away, the other play I think they converted on a third-and-20 or something like that. Two plays away and we're in the playoffs. We've got to get that together and know that we can play with these guys and get a win."
On the other hand, the Falcons have also had another year to gel, and they bring back very much of the same team that had the NFC's best record last year at 13-3. Yes, the Bucs could have won 11 or 12 games, and maybe even the division, had they made those few plays against the Falcons, but they didn't, and Atlanta did. Cornerback Brent Grimes, for example, had a back-breaking interception in the fourth quarter of each of those games, off a quarterback who threw a total of only six picks all season.
"We can't call it a rivalry yet; we haven't won it yet," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. These guys have been dominant. We've played them tough but you get no moral victories. So we've got to go out and try to win some of these games in order to win our division."
The Bucs know the task hasn't gotten any easier, even if they feel better prepared to handle the most important moments.
"We looked at last year's tape and what we can do better," said guard Davin Joseph. "It's still the same group on their defense and the same group of guys here on offense, so it will be a very similar battle. We just have to be able to finish."
And if the Bucs can take any other lesson from the win in Minnesota to apply to their clash with the Falcons, it's just that – they can succeed in crunch time.
"We want to start fast because we know we can finish now," said Williams. "With us knowing we can finish, if we get a good start we think we can beat anybody."
Challenges Come in Threes
Minnesota sack-master Jared Allen dropped Josh Freeman on the first play of Sunday's game at Mall of America Field, and that could have been a sign of a very long day for the Bucs' offense. Instead, while Allen was his usual non-stop self and he did make contact with Freeman a few times, Tampa Bay's protection was pretty good for most of the afternoon, especially considering how frequently they had to throw the ball during a catch-up second half.
Call that the first out in a very difficult inning for Buccaneers left tackle Donald Penn.
"We came out on the first play of the game and gave Penn the opportunity to be aggressive and cut him," said Morris of the battle with Allen. "And he cut him. And Free held onto the ball too long and he was able to get up and go get him. That set him off, right from the beginning. This thing has been going back for a long ways. Those guys playing college ball together and then Penn coming here undrafted to Minnesota, so he had a little emotion running through him. But he settled down. He played a little bit better. He probably gave up two hits on Free. Other than that, he played pretty decent."
If he's going to be as thorough as Mariano Rivera, however, Penn will still have to hold his own against two more of the league's premier pass-rushers, Atlanta's John Abraham this Sunday and Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney the following Monday night.
"These three weeks right here are going to be probably one of my toughest three weeks in the league," said Penn. "I just came from Jared Allen, now I've got Abraham next week and then I've got Freeney. These three weeks are going to be tough. But I'm up for the challenge. I'm taking it game by game."
If you take Abraham's play against the Bucs game by game since Donald Penn moved into the starting lineup in 2007, you'll definitely see a trend. In the first four matchups between those two in 2007 and 2008, Abraham racked up a total of six sacks, with at least one in each outing. In the three meetings in 2009 and 2010 (Abraham missed one due to injury), Penn held his opponent without a sack.
However, Penn still holds a deep respect for Abraham and refuses to crow about the shift in momentum, lest the pendulum suddenly swing back.
"I still want to be mellow, like I am," said Penn. "I really don't want to get ahead of myself, because it could change just like that. As fast as it changed to me, it could go back the other way, and I want to make sure it doesn't. So I'll go in there calmly and take the same approach as I did before. I don't want to get too big-headed and too confident because then – boom, boom – something happens. I'm going to go in there studying, like I'll be studying all year. It's going to be a battle. He knows that. We talked at the Pro Bowl. He's one of the guys I love to play against and I'm one of the guys he likes to play against."
Penn went into last Sunday's game with a healthy respect for Allen, too. He says the specifics of the challenge will be different this week, however, because Abraham is more of a pure speed rusher while Allen is a "technician and a hustle guy," and pretty quick too.
"Jared Allen, I see him every single play," said Penn. "John Abraham, they're going to throw him in 100% fresh on third down. He won't play first or second but he'll come in on third down fresh after I just played all those plays and I have to stop him. He's a great player. He used to give me problems in the past and I've studied him hard. I have a lot of respect for him. It's going to be a challenge. I'm focused on Abraham. I'm going to watch a lot of film on what I did to him last year because I was pretty successful last year. So I'm going to watch a lot of that tape last year and watch the first two games this year to see if he's doing anything different. He's one of those guys that can win the game just by himself. So I've to got to contain him a little bit and give Josh a little bit of time so he can make something happen."
Injury and Roster Updates
The Bucs held four players out of practice on Wednesday, but only one was a new injury situation.
LB Quincy Black was the new addition to the injury report, having hurt his ankle in Sunday's win over the Vikings. Morris said his status for the next game against Atlanta isn't yet clear, but that he is hopeful Black will return to the field soon.
Rounding out the Bucs' first injury report of the week were tackle James Lee (knee), wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) and tight end Kellen Winslow, who is not actually injured but had to be listed per NFL rules because he didn't practice on Wednesday. The Buccaneers commonly hold Winslow out one day a week as part of a plan that has kept him in uniform for all 34 game days since his arrival. Lee missed the Minnesota game after experiencing swelling in his knee and Stroughter is out for several weeks due to the minor surgery that was performed on his foot one day after the season opener.
If Black is unable to play against the Falcons, second-year man Dekoda Watson would step in at strongside linebacker. The Bucs would have to make several other adjustments, as well, since Black is responsible for calling plays for the rest of the defense and also joins weakside linebacker Geno Hayes as the two linebackers in the nickel package.
Both of those jobs would fall to rookie linebacker Mason Foster. Indeed, both tasks are commonly the province of the middle linebacker – they were during the tenure of Foster's predecessor, Barrett Ruud – but Morris had purposely lightened the rookie's load early in the season. Foster has been impressive through the first two games, however, and Morris thinks he's ready to take on the additional responsibilities if that becomes necessary.
Noticeably absent from the injury report was cornerback Myron Lewis, who missed the first two games due to a preseason hamstring injury. Lewis practiced on Wednesday without limitations.
Tampa Bay also made a switch to its eight-man practice squad on Wednesday. The Bucs re-signed rookie linebacker Derrell Smith, who had been with the team throughout training camp and the first week of the regular season. To make room for the former Syracuse standout, the Bucs released rookie linebacker Ross Homan, who had taken Smith's spot on the squad a week earlier.