When the defense scores, as they did Sunday in Atlanta on Ronde Barber's fumble return, the Bucs win
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't lose games like this.
In a hard-hitting, intra-division contest characterized by turnovers and long scoring plays, the Buccaneers crushed their most bitter division rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, by a 31-7 score. A swarming defense that forces the opponent into mistakes and an efficient, ground-based offense that avoids them? That has been a Buccaneer formula for success for more than a decade.
The Buccaneers built an early lead based on WR Joey Galloway's 44-yard touchdown catch and CB Ronde Barber's 40-yard fumble return for a touchdown. That second score, in particular, was a harbinger of good things for the Buccaneers, who have now won eight straight games in which they scored on defense.
The Bucs ran away with it in the second half thanks to two more breakaway touchdowns, a 21-yard catch by TE Alex Smith and a 26-yard run by RB Earnest Graham. Graham's score came on the first play of the fourth quarter and gave the Bucs a 31-0 lead.
The Bucs improved to 6-4 on the season and, in addition to pushing the Falcons (3-7) three back in the division race also gained a game on their other two NFC South rivals. New Orleans lost at Houston, 23-10, and Carolina fell at Green Bay, 31-17, leaving both the Saints and Panthers with 4-6 records and two-game deficits in the division.
Graham finished the game with 102 yards on 17 carries, giving him his second career 100-yard rushing game and his second in a row. He is the first Buccaneer back to produce back-to-back 100-yard rushing games since Cadillac Williams ran up three straight to start the 2005 season. Graham averaged 6.0 yards per carry, mostly running between the tackles.
QB Jeff Garcia completed 10 of 20 passes for 159 yards, including three to Smith for 51 and two to Galloway for 63. Garcia's two touchdowns and no interceptions helped him compile a passer rating of 110.2 before he was relieved by second-year man Bruce Gradkowski with 10 minutes to play.
The duel between Galloway and Falcons Pro Bowl CB DeAngelo Hall figured to be one of the game's most important matchups, and the first blow went the Buccaneers' way. On first-and-10 from the Falcons' 44, Garcia got Hall to bite on a pump-fake, leaving Galloway sprinting alone down the left sideline for an easy touchdown. That marked the fifth touchdown of 35 or more yards by Galloway this season and gave him a score in three consecutive games.
It was the Buccaneers' defense that keyed the victory, however, nearly producing its first shutout since a 27-0 win over Atlanta on December 5, 2004. Atlanta scored in the game's final minute on an 82-yard drive against a defense populated mostly by reserves and laying back to prevent the long play.
Barber's touchdown was the high point of that effort, clearly the high point of the season for the Bucs' D. Tampa Bay set season highs for turnovers (four) and sacks (four) and allowed Atlanta just 275 total yards and 3.9 yards per play. The Bucs turned their four turnovers into 17 points, also a season high in that category.
RB Warrick Dunn found little open space to run, gaining 32 yards on 15 carries as the Falcons' running game produced just 49 yards overall. That made things more difficult on QB Byron Leftwich, as did the Bucs' most relentless pass rush of the season.
The Falcons waited until 90 minutes before the game to reveal that Leftwich was replacing Joey Harrington in the starting lineup. Leftwich completed just 15 of 28 passes for 106 yards, no touchdown and two interceptions and was not sharp in his first game in three weeks, frequently skipping passes in front of his receivers. In a reverse of his experience during four tough years as Detroit's starter, Harrington heard the crowd chant his name beginning early in the second quarter. The Falcons' fans got their wish with five minutes left in the third quarter when Harrington replaced Leftwich.
By that point, the Falcons were down 24-0, as the Bucs had tacked on 10 third-quarter points on two short drives. A failed fourth down by Dunn near midfield set up a 49-yard field goal drive, and an interception by DT Chris Hovan led to Smith's score.
The Bucs blitzed Leftwich frequently and put a lot of heat on the former Jacksonville starter, who is not particularly mobile. That pressure paid off twice in the first half, once when a well-timed hit led to an interception, and once when a Greg White sack forced the fumble that Barber returned for the game's second touchdown. It was the 10th regular-season touchdown of Barber's remarkable career (he has an 11th in postseason play) and his ninth on defense, both team records.
The game had a sloppy beginning offensively as both teams saw early drives short-circuited by surprising drops. Pittman couldn't hold on to a perfect third-and-six pass that would have moved the chains on Tampa Bay's first drive and wide-open Atlanta WR Michael Jenkins let a pass slip through his hands to negate a gain of at least 20 yards on the next possession. The drops got worse for the Buccaneers on the ensuing drive, as this time Pittman held on to a pass long enough to get credit for the reception, then fumbled it to the defense at the Bucs' 31.
Fortunately, Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back on the very next play. DT Jovan Haye buried Leftwich just as he tried to throw, resulting in a floater that LB Barrett Ruud easily intercepted.
Three plays later, the Bucs were in the end zone. After a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty on DE John Abraham got the ball over midfield, Garcia and Galloway ran their pump-and-go and the Bucs had a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
The Bucs kept the heat on Leftwich on the next drive, and LB Derrick Brooks' third-and-11 blitz resulted in a hit on the quarterback and an errant pass. After the Falcons' punt went into the end zone, Tampa Bay's offense drove down to Atlanta's 37 but hurt itself with a false start on third-and-short and had to punt.
Atlanta's offense didn't do much else in the first half, though they got into Buccaneers territory again after a bizarre exchange of loose balls. First, a fumble by Dunn was overturned by a Falcon replay. On the next snap, a Roddy White fumble was scooped up by CB Brian Kelly, but Kelly lateraled the ball to LB Cato June and June fumbled at the end of a short return, with Atlanta recovering near midfield. A sack by Hovan moments later kept the Falcons from capitalizing on that turn of events.
After the ensuing punt, the Buccaneers' drove back into Atlanta territory, aided by Smith's 23-yard catch. A third-down sack by Abraham was erased by an illegal-contact flag downfield, but the Bucs didn't do anything with the new set of downs, in part because Garcia tried to call a timeout even though he had none left at his disposal. Josh Bidwell did punt the ball down to Atlanta's five, helped by an acrobatic tip-back of the ball by WR Maurice Stovall before it could land in the end zone.
White's second sack killed Atlanta's ensuing drive and the Bucs let the last 58 seconds of the half run off to take their 14-0 lead into halftime.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half but did little with it. After an offsides penalty on the Falcons gave Bidwell a second chance to punt, he blasted a 61-yarder that pushed Atlanta all the way back to its own 16. However, an unnecessary roughness call on Barber helped Atlanta reach midfield, but they faced a fourth-and-inches decision moments later at the Bucs' 45. The Falcons went for it and elected to pitch it to Dunn for a run around the end. Barber's hard knock on the back stopped him cold at the sideline and gave the ball back to the Buccaneers.
Taking over at the Bucs' 46, Garcia made a quick 19-yard strike to Galloway on a deep slant, then put the ball in Graham's hands. The Falcons had lost both of their starting defensive tackles to injury in the first half, and Graham ran up the gut four straight times for 30 yards to get the ball to the five. The Bucs couldn't punch it in from there but Matt Bryant padded the lead with a 23-yard field goal.
Two plays later, the Buccaneers got the ball back on Hovan's interception, the first of his career. Hovan reacted quickly to a little floater after DE Gaines Adams swatted Leftwich's arm as he threw. Hovan's pick put the ball at the Atlanta 27 and Garcia needed just three plays to get it back into the end zone. On third-and-four, Garcia stood tall in a collapsing pocket and waited for Smith to come free down the right seam. Garcia's pass was high and hard, but Smith made a leaping grab and held on in the end zone despite being hit hard.
Harrington came in on the next series but couldn't move the Falcons out of their end. The ensuing punt by Michael Koenen reversed field to the Atlanta 45 and Graham ran it in from there. Graham ran four times for 39 yards on the drive, capping it with his 26-yard touchdown burst around left end.
Atlanta's best chance to score to that point was erased moments later by a holding penalty on LB Stephen Nicholas, a University of South Florida product. RB Jerious Norwood had broken free on the kickoff return and scored untouched, but the penalty brought the ball back to Atlanta's 30.
The Falcons had one more methodical drive to drain the rest of the fourth-quarter clock, throwing a series of underneath passes against a sagging Bucs' defense. Tampa Bay brought in a group of defensive reserves for that drive, including S Will Allen, S Kalvin Pearson, LB Ryan Nece, DT Ryan Sims and CB Sammy Davis. The Falcons got down to the Bucs' five when Buchanon tried to jump a quick pass and then had to chase down WR Laurent Robinson down from behind. The Falcons scored three plays later on Harrington's seven-yard touchdown pass to WR Adam Jennings. That drive accounted for 82 of Atlanta's 275 yards on the day.
The Buccaneers return home next weekend for a November 25 meeting with the Washington Redskins.
Game Notes: C John Wade made his 100th NFL start on Sunday, 66 of which have come as a Buccaneer. … The Buccaneers are now 16-12 all-time in games against the Falcons, including 7-6 in contests played in Atlanta. … TE Jerramy Stevens made his second start as a Buccaneer when the offense opened in a two-TE, one-WR set. Stevens replaced WR Ike Hilliard in the lineup. … WR Joey Galloway's 84-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter was his 28th as a Buccaneer, moving him into sole possession of third place on the franchise's all-time list in that category. He had been tied with WR Mark Carrier; Galloway is now just three TD receptions behind Kevin House for second place on the list. … CB Ronde Barber's 40-yard fumble return in the second quarter gave him nine regular-season defensive touchdowns on his career. That ties Barber for first place among all active NFL defenders, matching Minnesota's Darren Sharper. … DE Greg White recorded the first multi-sack game of his career, the first by a Buccaneer this season. The last to do so was Greg Spires, who had two against Cleveland on Dec. 24, 2006. … P Josh Bidwell ripped a 61-yard punt in the third quarter, his longest of the season. On the day, Bidwell averaged 42.2 yards on five punts. … The Bucs have won all six of their games this season in which they led at halftime. They are 0-4 when trailing at the break. … TE Alex Smith's leaping, 21-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was his third of the season and the eighth of his career. It was also the longest scoring grab of his three NFL seasons.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: RB Michael Bennett, CB Keiwan Ratliff, LB Jeremiah Trotter, G Dan Buenning, TE Keith Heinrich, DE Greg Spires, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Luke McCown. Spires was out due to injury.
The Falcons declared the following eight players inactive: RB Artose Pinner, T Terrance Pennington, OL D'Anthony Batiste, T Harvey Dahl, TE Courtney Anderson, WR Joe Horn, DT Tim Anderson and designated third QB Chris Redman. Horn was out due to injury.
Injuries: The Bucs did not report an injury from the sideline during the game. LB Barrett Ruud missed a handful of snaps in the first half after getting kicked in the leg but was able to return.
For the Falcons, DT Trey Lewis suffered a sprained knee in the first quarter and did not return. Atlanta's other starting DT, Rod Coleman, suffered an arm injury in the second quarter but was able to return in the second half. Starting left tackle Todd Weiner sustained a knee injury in the second quarter and did not return.