DE John McLaughlin had a big night on special teams
Like a Derrick Brooks hit popping the helmet right off RB Jamal Anderson, some of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers top performances on Sunday happened fast and furious.
Three more Shaun King touchdown passes got top billing in the Bucs' victorious visit to the Georgia Dome, but here's a quick take on some of the players who shared the spotlight.
DE John McLaughlin
A season slowed by a knee injury and five games on the inactive list has started to pick up speed for McLaughlin, the Bucs' secret weapon on special teams last year. The 6-4, 250-pounder is once again using his unique size-speed combination to wreak havoc on opposing punters and return men.
McLaughlin, in fact, may have turned in the single biggest play of Sunday's 27-14 win over the Falcons in the second quarter, when he blocked a punt by Atlanta's Dan Stryzinski, giving the Bucs possession at the three-yard line, going in.
The Buccaneers were leading 7-0 at the time but struggling to move the ball on offense. Meanwhile, the Falcons had put together several solid drives but had been thwarted by interceptions deep in Tampa Bay territory. McLaughlin's block, and the touchdown it led to two plays later, gave the Bucs a 14-point lead, which was almost the exact winning margin at the end.
McLaughlin got to Stryzinski by bulling his way right up the middle of the formation, which is the shortest route to the punter. The second-year man had, in fact, done the exact same thing on Stryzinski's previous punt, but had chosen not to dive at the last second and had just missed blocking that effort. This time, McLaughlin dove and met the ball just as it came off the punter's foot.
That wasn't the entire sum of McLaughlin's contributions. He also led all players with three solo tackles on special teams and was generally the first man down on punt coverage for the Buccaneers. That's an important role against the Falcons, who feature two very dangerous return men in Tim Dwight and Darrick Vaughn.
With the Bucs punting from their own 44 in the second quarter, McLaughlin got downfield quickly enough to trap Dwight at the 10-yard line. Dwight also lost his handle on the ball, though it was after the whistle. Most of the players in the vicinity didn't realize the play was over and Atlanta's Gerald McBurrows picked up the ball and tried to run with it. McLaughlin tackled him, too, and McBurrows reacted angrily, throwing the ball at McLaughlin. That resulted in a penalty against the Falcons and even worse field position.
CB Donnie Abraham
You certainly noticed Abraham on Sunday, as he set up the Bucs' first touchdown with an interception and ended a Falcon threat with another pick, all in the first quarter.
What you might not have realized is that, with Sunday's performance, Abraham has put himself in position to catch several records that seemed just slightly out of reach this season.
Abraham's second two-interception game of the season gave him six on the year, just one of his career high of seven, set last year. Abraham is now just three picks short of the Buccaneers' single-season record of nine, set almost 20 years ago by Cedric Brown in 1981.
Abraham is also closing in quickly on Brown on the team's all-time pick list. His six interceptions this year give him 24 in his five-year career. Brown's career mark is 29, and former S Mike Washington is one back on the list with 28. Abraham is on pace to pick off 10 passes this season, which would surpass the single season record and put him in a tie with Washington.
By the way, both Brown and Washington took nine seasons to record their career marks.
Years from now, a survey of Dunn's game-by-game numbers won't turn up Sunday's game as one of the highlights of his career. After all, his final stats showed a fairly routine 77 rushing yards and no touchdowns.
However, it's doubtful that Dunn has had many better days in the NFL since his breakout rookie season of 1997. With the Bucs jumping out to an early lead and looking to play a ball-control game, Dunn, not FB Mike Alstott, became the workhorse. Running between the guards and off tackle most of the night, Dunn rarely broke a long run but was almost never denied positive yardage.
And that was the genius of Dunn's performance. Time after time, Dunn got the handoff and was almost immediately confronted by Falcon tacklers. And time after time, Dunn spun or sliced away from the early danger to get two, four or six yards. Those types of efforts were critical to the Bucs' ability to keep the ball moving, as the third downs were much more manageable from four yards than 10.
The afternoon's work also underlined Dunn's importance to the Bucs' chances at success. Dunn has rushed for 50 or more yards five times this season and Tampa Bay is 4-1 in those contests.
Mark Royals and Damien Robinson
It's official, Robinson is Royals' favorite target.
In two years, Royals has thrown three passes on fake punts as a Buccaneer. Two of them have been complete, both to Robinson.
The play looks so simple when it is executed. Royals drops his hands as if he is putting the ball out to be punted, then pulls back up and tosses a pass over the middle to Robinson, who has released from the line. Robinson hauls it in and heads upfield until the would-be return men bring him down.
But it's a pressure-packed situation, fraught with possibilities of disaster. The Bucs actually ran this fake from their own end, meaning a failure would be an instant scoring opportunity for Atlanta. Royals, as he did last year against the Green Bay Packers on December 26, threw the pass perfectly and Robinson was wide open. That one went for 17 yards, Sunday's was good for 36.
Of course, Royals also boomed all four of his punts for a gross average of 48.3 and a net average of 40.0. His kicks were so consistently long and high that the Bucs' coverage units were able to contain Dwight before he got started.
Meanwhile, Robinson had two picks in the game, although only one of them counted. After his first was called back by a penalty away from the play, he still stopped the same Falcon drive when he intercepted another pass in the end zone in the final 20 seconds.
Robinson, Royals, Dunn. Abraham. McLaughlin. There were many unsung stars for the Buccaneers on Sunday. Together, they engineered a two-touchdown victory on the road and helped the Bucs get back over .500 and back on track for the playoff hunt.