DE Greg Spires felt the Bucs kept QB Michael Vick bottled up for much of the game
The ever-intensifying rivalry that is Michael Vick vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense added another chapter on Sunday, and you'd have to declare Vick the winner this time around, if only because he made the game's three biggest plays and, of course, because his team won.
Vick did take a bit of a beating, absorbing five sacks and taking a few extra seconds to get up after a hard combination hit by linebackers Shelton Quarles and Derrick Brooks after a two-yard scramble in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Bucs' NFC South title hopes took a more damaging blow. Still, both sides lived to fight again. And that fight will resume in just three weeks, when the Atlanta Falcons visit Tampa for the December 5 rematch.
"There isn't really anything we can identify as the prime reason for this loss," said defensive end Simeon Rice, who had one of the five sacks and disrupted several other Vick plays. "It's a lot of things. But one thing is for certain: we play these guys again in less than a month, and things will be different. Next time, we will be working together instead of against each other, playing smarter."
Rice echoed the sentiments of Brooks, who felt the Bucs were confused defensively for a good portion of the afternoon, hurting themselves by being out of position and struggling with rotations. That appeared particularly true in the first quarter, when the Falcons scored 10 points on their first two drives and took their third march into Buccaneer territory. That last drive, a methodical, seven-minute possession that ended in another touchdown and a 17-0 lead, finished five minutes into the second quarter and appeared to put the Bucs in an enormous hole.
At that point, however, the Bucs' defense battled back, and looked a lot more like the on that contained Vick extremely well in two memorable 2002 showdowns. In fact, after Atlanta's second touchdown, Vick's offense followed with six straight three-and-outs (one ended on a Ronde Barber interception). Those six drives produced a total of 14 yards of offense.
During that period, the Bucs seemed to be waiting for Vick on every rollout, and they closed quickly whenever the super-elusive scrambler tried to break out of the pocket and upfield.
"We contained Vick for most of the game," said defensive end Greg Spires. "We did an excellent job bottling him up. But we let the tight end loose at the end of the game for a touchdown, and it killed us."
Spires refers to Alge Crumpler's 49-yard touchdown catch down the middle of the field in the fourth quarter, the game-clinching score. It came three plays after the Bucs, on the edge of scoring territory and trailing by three points, had failed on a fourth-and-one run. Vick may not have stung the Bucs for a full two quarters, but he had one big play left in him to put the game away. It was his third 40-plus-yard play of the contest, following a 45-yard pass to Crumpler on the game's first drive and a 41-yard sprint around right end on the Falcons' next possession.
"Starship Seven, as I call him, made a couple big plays," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. "If you run a naked bootleg and just miss your contain by that much, this guy runs a 4.2 and can outflank you and make you pay - and he did do that. He made a big play on an audible to Alge Crumpler down the middle on the opening series. It's a credit to Vick: he's very fast, very talented and he made some plays early in the game. We were able to come back and make it a three-point game, but we just didn't have enough stuff today."
Vick, who rushed for 73 yards – more than in his first three meetings with the Bucs combined – completed only eight passes for 147 yards, threw an interception and was harassed constantly by Tampa Bay's rush. The Bucs blitzed effectively, with Quarles recording a career-best two sacks. Still, the game's two big swings of dominance indicate that any meeting between these two teams can go either way.
"We got off to a great start in the first half, then they started to gain momentum," said Vick. "In the second half, we were able to come away with some big plays and then they got away from their game plan. We kept fighting and fighting on offense. There comes a point in time in the game where you have to make a play. You have to put everything that has happened bad to that point behind you and look forward and that was what we were able to do."
Now the Bucs have to do the same thing in regards to the balance of their season. No one at One Buccaneer Place is going to claim that 3-6 is a good position in which to be, but neither is the team going to concede. And as for it's ongoing rivalry with Vick, that's not likely to lose its intensity any time soon.
"It's always a dogfight when you come to Atlanta," said safety Jermaine Phillips. "They are a conference opponent. These games are big. Right now, we just need to keep on fighting. This was a tough loss today, but we need to keep moving forward, take one game at a time, and see if we can turn this thing around permanently."