LB Derrick Brooks had a 63-yard touchdown return of an interception nullified by a penalty
History suggests the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will recover from their 2006 season-opening malaise, but the present looked as troublesome as the recent past on Sunday in the Georgia Dome, particularly in the first half. Playing their first intra-division game in defense of their 2005 NFC South title, the Bucs fell hard to the Falcons, 14-3, and dropped to 0-2 on the season. The first-place Falcons are now 2-0 overall and 2-0 in division games.
Atlanta, which gained a league-high 260 rushing yards in their opening-week win over Carolina, stuck to that formula and both RB Warrick Dunn and QB Michael Vick had perhaps their best outings against Tampa Bay. Vick threw only 16 times and had just 76 net passing yards, but he ran for 127 yards and a touchdown as Atlanta piled up 306 yards on the ground. Dunn added 134 yards on 21 carries and the Falcons' overall rushing total of 306 yards was both the most in Atlanta history and the most the Buccaneers have ever surrendered in a single game. The previous mark against Tampa was 299, rolled up by Eric Dickerson and the Los Angeles Rams on November 25, 1984.
The Bucs are not a radically different team than the one that went 11-5 in 2005 and finished with the league's top-ranked defense, suggesting the talent is in place to rebound quickly. First, however, the Bucs must solve persistent problems in such areas as run-blocking, run defense, turnovers, missed field goals, third-down defense and the frustrating matter of passes being batted down at the line of scrimmage. That happened at least four more times on Sunday, contributing heavily to the Bucs' first-half troubles.
In truth, the Bucs don't have to look to the past to gain hope for the near future. That could also reasonably spring from the Bucs' offensive surge just before halftime, which continued into the second half with a succession of drives that nearly got the visitors back into the game but for a demoralizing turn of bad luck. The Bucs had just 74 yards of offense before their last drive of the half but finished with 351, including 311 through the air.
Trailing 14-0, the Bucs ran an impressive two-minute drill to put three points on the board just before halftime. On the opening possession of the second half, a 55-yard completion to WR Joey Galloway put the Bucs back inside Atlanta's 10-yard line, but a third-down pass tipped off on Falcon's hands and another one's lower leg before shooting directly into the hands of CB Jason Webster for a drive-killing interception.
A few minutes later, LB Derrick Brooks secured his 22nd career interception and appeared to return it 63 yards for a touchdown. Instead, most of the return was nullified by a block-in-the-back penalty on fellow LB Ryan Nece. Replays seemed to show Nece standing still as RB Warrick Dunn backed into him, but what would have been Brooks' seventh-career touchdown (eight counting the playoffs) was called back. The Bucs' offense did take that possession 25 yards into Atlanta territory, but K Matt Bryant missed a 43-yarder, the second one he pushed right on the day, and the score remained 14-3. The Bucs wouldn't get any closer as the Falcons backed off defensively and guarded against the big play.
Simms finished with 28 completions in a career-high 53 attempts for a career-best 313 yards but was intercepted three times, though one was on that bizarre deflection and another came on a desperation heave into the end zone late in the game. He did enjoy much improved pass protection, absorbing just one sack (and two roughing-the-passer penalties), which allowed him to get the wide receivers much more involved than a week ago. WR Joey Galloway led the way with 161 yards on nine receptions while Ike Hilliard added six grabs for 53 yards and Michael Clayton pulled in five for 62.
The Bucs also converted seven of 14 third-down attempts but once again failed to establish the run. RB Cadillac Williams gained 37 yards on 15 carries as the Bucs picked up only 40 ground yards overall. The Falcons converted five of 13 third down tries in part because they could run the ball, especially with Vick. His designed sprints around the end uncharacteristically worked against the Bucs' defense all afternoon.
The Bucs' struggles a week ago started with the opposition's opening drive, as the Tampa Bay defense uncharacteristically allowed a clock-chewing touchdown march to the Ravens and never really recovered. It appeared to be an ominous sign when Atlanta did the same thing, although this march was built on Vick's sometimes-unstoppable scrambling.
A 12-yard dash on third-and-nine was followed immediately by a 16-yard slalom into Buccaneer territory. In all, Vick ran for 34 yards on the drive and completed two of three passes for 23 more. However, the second completion, a strike over the middle of the field to Roddy White on third-and-long, ended the drive as safety Jermaine Phillips crushed White after the catch, forcing a fumble that Phillips also recovered and ran back 17 yards to the Bucs' 30.
The Bucs' offense, on the other hand, got off to a decidedly different start from a week ago, though it too squandered a scoring opportunity.
After running two straight bootlegs to little effect against the Ravens, the Bucs chose to establish the run right away against Atlanta. And it worked, on that drive at least, thanks to the rugged running of Williams, who gained exactly 10 yards on three consecutive carries. Two snaps later, Galloway caught his first pass of the season, taking a well-executed bubble screen 26 yards down the right sideline. Clayton and RB Michael Pittman provided the perfect seal blocks on the play and Galloway accelerated down the field to Atlanta's 34. The drive stalled on an incompletion at the 27, however, and Bryant pushed his 45-yard try to the right.
Unfortunately, that allowed Atlanta to crack the scoreboard first, though it came courtesy of the second surprising pass interference call on CB Ronde Barber in two weeks. Barber tripped while covering WR Michael Jenkins deep and was flagged for a 34-yard infraction, putting the ball at the Bucs' 10. Three plays later, Vick ran a naked bootleg to the left and just beat LB Derrick Brooks to the corner.
History nearly repeated itself on the Bucs' next drive, as DT Darrell Shropshire dropped a potential interception. Shropshire alertly jumped a swing pass to FB Mike Alstott near midfield and got his hands on the ball, with nothing but open field in front of him. Fortunately for the Bucs, the big linemen dropped the ball, preventing Atlanta from taking a 14-0 lead on a defensive touchdown, as Baltimore did the week before. Unfortunately, the drive ended on the next snap when DT Rod Coleman batted down a Simms pass at the line of scrimmage, yet another issue carried over from the opener.
Even worse, the Falcons' offense took the ensuing starting spot of their own 11 and rather easily marched 77 yards into field goal range. Consecutive runs of 13 yards by Dunn and 16 yards by Vick put the ball at the Bucs' 14, but a Ryan Nece sack helped force a 30-yard kick and Michael Koenen pushed it to the right. The Falcons surely felt good about their running game, however, with 128 yards already at the 9:30 mark of the second quarter. They easily led the NFL in rushing in their opening-day win over Carolina, racking up 260 yards of ground gain.
They felt good about their defense, too, when CB DeAngelo Hall intercepted Simms on the next play and returned the ball 18 yards to the Bucs' 12. Three plays later, Vick threw a four-yard touchdown pass to FB Fred McCrary, giving Atlanta a 14-0 lead at the 8:25 mark. Koenen missed another field goal, a 36-yarder, on Atlanta's next drive, which gave the Bucs a chance to pull within one score before halftime.
Simms made the most of that chance, leading a spirited two-minute drill with a succession of medium-range passes to Galloway, Clayton and Hilliard. Hilliard's 11-yarder on third-and-four in Buc territory kept the drive alive and Clayton's 19-yarder got it down to the Atlanta 31. An underneath catch-and-run by Galloway put the ball at the nine, but four cracks from there (one after an Atlanta penalty in the end zone) came up empty and the Bucs settled for a 22-yard field goal at the halftime buzzer, marking their first points of the season.
On the first drive of the second half, Simms executed a perfect play-action fake, hiding the ball on his hip, and found a wide-open Galloway running a deep post for a gain of 55 yards. That was the second of three incursions inside the 10-yard line for the Bucs, none of which resulted in any points.
The game was filled with a collection of hard hits by both defenses. Phillips provided several of them and led the team with a career-best 13 tackles, also contributing two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Nece, Dewayne White and Juran Bolden all had sacks of Vick and LB Shelton Quarles played through a tweaked groin to post eight tackles. Bolden started the game at left cornerback with usual starter Brian Kelly inactive due to a turf toe injury.
The 0-2 Bucs will continue with their divisional run next weekend with a Sunday home game against the Carolina Panthers.
Game Notes: Even with Sunday's loss, the Buccaneers have won seven of their last nine road openers, dating back to the 1999 season. The only other defeat in that stretch was the first game of 2004, a 16-10 loss to Washington at FedEx Field. Since '99, the Bucs have won road openers, in order, against Philadelphia, New England, Dallas, Baltimore, Philadelphia again and Atlanta. … The Bucs had their three-game winning streak against Atlanta snapped with the loss. However, Tampa Bay has won 10 of its last 13 against the Falcons and six of its last eight in the Georgia Dome. … The deactivation of TE Dave Moore (rib injury) allowed LB Derrick Brooks to catch Moore on the Bucs' all-time games played list. Brooks played in his 178th Buccaneer game on Sunday in Atlanta – he has never missed a game in his 11-plus seasons with the team – tying Moore for second on the list. Both players are now just five games behind T Paul Gruber (183) for first place in team history. Brooks is also just eight games behind Gruber on the franchise's career starts list, 183 to 175. … Rookie T Jeremy Trueblood saw his first action on offense early in Sunday's game. Trueblood came in as an eligible third tight end on a heavy run-blocking play. Williams ran to the other side for no gain on the snap. … WR Joey Galloway's 55-yard reception in the third quarter was the Bucs' first completion of 50 or more yards since November 6, 2005. That was also a Galloway grab, a 50-yard touchdown against the Carolina Panthers. … Both RB Warrick Dunn (134 yards) and QB Michael Vick (127) went over the 100-yard rushing mark on the day, marking the first time the Bucs had surrendered two 100-yard rushers in the same game since December 19, 1999. Oakland's Napoleon Kaufman (122) and Tyrone Wheatley (111) pulled off the feat that day in a 45-0 Raider victory. … Atlanta K Michael Koenen missed four field goal attempts in the game, the last one blocked by DE Dewayne White. White is the same player who blocked a short overtime attempt by Atlanta K Todd Peterson to prolong the last meeting between the two teams, a 27-24 OT win for the Bucs. White now has three career field goal blocks.
Inactives: Each team was required to declare eight players inactive 90 minutes before the game. Two of the Bucs' inactives were starters sitting out due to injuries: G Davin Joseph and CB Brian Kelly. The other six were CB Alan Zemaitis, LB Jamie Winborn, WR Paris Warren, WR Maurice Stovall, TE Dave Moore (also out due to injury) and designated third quarterback Tim Rattay. The Falcons' eight inactives were WR Kevin Youngblood, S Cam Newton, LB Edgerton Hartwell, DE John Abraham, T Frank Omiyale, G Tyson Clabo, TE Daniel Fells and designated third quarterback D.J. Shockley. Hartwell and Abraham were starters unavailable due to injury.
Injuries: LB Shelton Quarles, who missed the season opener with a groin injury, left for a period in the second quarter but did return to the field a short time later. DT Chris Hovan and CB Juran Bolden also missed portions of the game but returned later.
For Atlanta WR Roddy White went to the Atlanta locker room for X-rays in the second quarter after suffering an injury to his ribs. He did not return.