The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't need any comeback magic from Josh Freeman on Sunday at Raymond James stadium, but they did need their 23-year-old quarterback to prove once again that he is wise beyond his years.
At the critical moment of the Buccaneers' 16-13 win over bitter rival Atlanta on Sunday, Freeman came up with the biggest offensive play of a hard-fought and draining afternoon.
That play? A kneel-down.
Holding a three-point lead and the ball near midfield, and desperate to avoid giving the ball back to a suddenly red-hot Atlanta offense, Freeman lined his team up for an apparent fourth-and-inches conversion attempt. Instead, the play was designed to induce a jump offside by one of the Falcon defenders, and DT Corey Peters obliged. At the exact moment he saw the penalty committed, Freeman called for the snap and took a knee. The resulting five yards gave the Bucs a new set of downs, which they used to kneel three times and kill the clock.
"That's what we do, we win in the fourth quarter," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We finish strong. That's what we've been doing since we got here. Free didn't need a comeback today but he found a way to win. That's what the quarterback did today – he found a way to win."
Freeman's franchise-record streak of 15 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass ended in Sunday's victory, but he countered with his first career rushing touchdown on a one-yard sneak in the second quarter, giving the Bucs a lead they would never relinquish. The threat of Freeman doing the same thing at the Atlanta 45-yard line near the end of the game was obviously frightening enough to cause the Falcon linemen to believe an actual play was going to be run.
And Morris insisted that the Bucs were going to run a play had the Falcons not jumped. After the game, Morris revealed that the team was going to let Freeman end it one way or another – running or throwing – and that what happened instead was the young player remembering a specific bit of strategy he had been coached on. Why go for it instead of punt?
"You want to win the game with your guys on the field," said Morris.
Freeman completed 22 of 32 passes for 180 yards on the afternoon but was intercepted twice. The second one, on a tipped pass in the fourth quarter, ignited Atlanta's rally from a 16-3 deficit. S Cody Grimm knocked away a fourth-down pass attempt near the goal line at the end of the ensuing possession, but Atlanta got the ball back quickly and drove 59 yards for the 10-yard Tony Gonzalez touchdown catch that made it 16-10. The Falcons' next drive also penetrated the Bucs' red zone, but a timely sack by DT Brian Price – one of four on the afternoon by a charged-up Tampa Bay pass-rush – forced the visitors to settle for a field goal with four minutes to play.
The Bucs' coaching staff calls the ensuing situation – holding a lead and needing to get a few first downs to run out the clock – a "four-minute drill," and this was almost exactly that. Bruising RB LeGarrette Blount made it work by bashing his way through a waiting Falcons defense five times for a total of 23 yards. On several occasions, he picked up an important five or six-yard gain after first getting hit at the line of scrimmage. Blount finished the day with 81 yards on a season-high 24 carries and added one 13-yard catch.
"Blount, man, he's a big bruising back," said Morris. "He looked physical. He's certainly competitive."
The complexion of the game changed late in the third quarter when, on a single play, S Cody Grimm and LB Geno Hayes had to leave the game with injuries. Grimm's knee injury and Hayes' head issue appeared to occur when Hayes' helmet inadvertently hit Grimm's leg in the middle of a pile. Atlanta's offense went into hurry-up mode immediately afterward and picked up a good portion of their 325 yards on the night. There was no immediate report on Grimm's status after the game but Morris allowed that "it didn't look good."
Still, before and after the injuries Tampa Bay's defense was masterful in the red zone. Atlanta got to the Bucs' 10-yard line or closer on four occasions and came away with only one touchdown. On the final incursion, the Falcons gained a new set of downs at the six after a roughing-the-passer flag on DT Gerald McCoy after McCoy's hand lightly swatted QB Matt Ryan's facemask. Still, the Bucs held, with Price busting through for a sack despite drawing a holding call and rookie LB Mason Foster chasing Ryan into a desperate throw-away on third-and-goal.
Foster also collected one of the Bucs' four sacks and added five tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit. Rookie DE Adrian Clayborn and second-year LB Dekoda Watson both tallied their first career sacks, but it was the elder statesman on the Bucs' defense that may have come up biggest.
Fifteenth-year CB Ronde Barber secured his 41st career interception, picking off a deflected pass with an alert dive late in the first half in Tampa Bay territory. He also recovered a fumble caused by Watson's sack on the game's first possession and added four tackles, a tackle for loss and three passes defensed. On several occasions, Barber shadowed Gonzalez, another certain Hall of Famer, and the Falcons' leading receiver coming into the game finished with just two catches for 18 yards.
The Buccaneers' run defense was significantly improved from the first two weeks of the season. RB Michael Turner, coming off a 100-yard game against Philadelphia, gained just 20 yards on 11 carries and the Falcons offense as a whole ran for just 30 yards and 2.0 yards per attempt. However, Ryan kept the Falcons in it by throwing for 330 yards on 26-of-47 passing. He found WR Roddy White nine times for 150 yards and rookie WR Julio Jones six times for 115 more.
But Ryan finished with only one touchdown pass, and that wasn't enough to keep Freeman from closing it out at the end. With the win, the Bucs improved to 2-1 and stayed in a first-place tie with the New Orleans Saints, who defeated the Houston Texans earlier in the day. Atlanta dropped to 1-2, equal to the record of the Carolina Panthers after Carolina beat Jacksonville.
The win also snapped Atlanta's five-game winning streak in the head-to-head series, and it was clearly important to the Buccaneers' players to finally overcome their rivals from Georgia. However, Morris obviously took the long view after the game, as there are 13 contests left in the season and five more intra-division matchups.
"I just told the team, we didn't come into this season to beat the Atlanta Falcons," said Morris of his postgame locker room talk. "We came into the season to win our division. They just happen to be a team in our division."
The Bucs wasted a scoring opportunity in the opening minutes and missed out on a chance to grab the early momentum. Watson's sack of Ryan on third down caused a fumble that Barber, coming on a delayed blitz, alertly jumped on that the Atlanta 17. Blount's five-yard run resulted in a first-and-goal at the four, but a rollout play on first down proved disastrous. The play developed nicely but Freeman apparently didn't see S Thomas DeCoud as he tried to loft the ball to Winslow in the back of the end zone. DeCoud made a leaping interception and the game remained scoreless through most of the first quarter.
Barth broke that tie with a 49-yard field goal, his longest of the season to that point, at the end of a 37-yard drive. Williams' 16-yard catch-and-run on a sharp slant pass to the left was the key play, but the Bucs failed to convert a third-and-two at the Atlanta 31.
The Falcons responded with their first extended march of the game, driving out from their own eight-yard line and into the Bucs' red zone on the strength of 22 and 30-yard catches by White. The Bucs forced a third-and-eight at the 13 and a fake blitz – believable because the home team had spent much of the first quarter bringing extra pass-rushers, prompted Ryan to throw a quick-hitter underneath and Harry Douglas was stopped four yards short. Matt Bryant tied the game with a 26-yard field goal with 11 minutes left in the half.
The Bucs' offense responded in turn, however, using up a good chunk of the second quarter on an impressive 12-play, 80-yard drive. Rookie TE Luke Stocker turned in two of the biggest plays on the march, a 24-yard catch down the seam to get the ball into the red zone and a hard-nosed nine-yard catch-and-run that produced a first-and-goal at the eight. Graham nearly got in the end zone on a first-down middle screen but the play was reviewed and overturned, with the ball placed inside the one-yard line. From there, Freeman snuck it in over left guard to give the Bucs' a 10-3 lead with 3:37 left in the half.
The Bucs got the ball right back moments later when Clayborn hit Ryan square in the chest, dropping him for an 11-yard sack and forcing a fumble that Bennett recovered at the Atlanta nine. They didn't get much closer on three plays, however, and had to settle for Barth's second field goal, a 26-yarder just after the two-minute warning.
Ryan and the Falcons' offense used the remaining time to drive from their own seven into Buccaneers territory against a defense that was allowing underneath throws in order to drain the clock. Still, they had the ball at the Bucs' 35 with 10 seconds left and were looking for a little more when CB E.J. Biggers tipped a pass intended for White and Barber alertly made a diving interception to preserve the Bucs' 10-point lead.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Friday night's game.)
Blount lost two yards on his first carry of the second half but rendered that unimportant by bashing for 12 on the next play. Blount's next run was a pinball of a six-yard gain, and Freeman made something out of nothing after dropping a shotgun snap on third-and-four. The quarterback was able to pick it up and, just before being sacked, flip a five-yard pass to Graham at the Bucs' 41. A roughing penalty on Atlanta's William Moore tacked on 15 yards and Blount ran for six on second-and-10 to make it third-and-four at the Atlanta 38. A crossing route to Williams picked up three and the Bucs elected to go for it on fourth and about a half-yard. Morris signaled in a timeout from the sideline before the snap, however, as the Falcons essentially had their entire defense in the box. After the break, Freeman faked a handoff and then ran around right end for the first down at Atlanta's 32. Two more Blount runs into the middle led to a third-and-six, and Freeman saw an open middle field on his next drop-back. Accelerating quickly into the void, he ran to the 14 before sliding to a stop. The next two plays failed, making it third-and-11 at the 15, and Freeman could find nobody open on third down before running out of bounds at the 10. Barth banged a 28-yarder through to give the Bucs a 16-3 lead. The drive devoured eight minutes and 10 seconds off the clock and gave the home team a 13-point lead with 6:50 left in the third period.
Koenen's blast to the back of the end zone led to another touchback but Turner broke off his best carry to that point with a nine-yarder over right guard to start the drive. A rollout toss to WR Harry Douglas moved the chains and produced a first down at the 35. S Cody Grimm tackled Turner from behind after a gain of just one but Grimm was injured on the play and had to be carted off. Ryan tried to hit Gonzalez with replacement S Corey Lynch in coverage on the next play but it was overthrown. However, Ryan found a wide-open Douglas in the middle of the field on third down to gain a new set of downs at the Bucs' 48. Ryan tried to hit White deep on first down but Biggers had good coverage and it was incomplete. Ryan scrambled left on second down, however, and found enough open field to pick up 12 yards. Three plays later, Ryan dropped back on third-and-five but the shotgun snap bounced to him and before he could recover he was leveled by Foster for the Bucs' third sack of the game.
The ensuing punt was fair caught at the Bucs' 18 but the offense lost four yards on a first-down desperation pass to Blount. However, in an unusual move, Morris challenged the play to prove the ball was not caught, and it went back to second-and-10 when the call was overturned. A second-down handoff to Blount was met by a wall and lost a yard, but the Bucs converted the third down with a little luck. Freeman's throw to WR Dezmon Briscoe was a bit high but the ball tipped off Briscoe's hands and continued on to Winslow for a gain of 14. WR Arrelious Benn then took a quick toss down the line and broke several tackles to pick up 13 more to the Bucs' 44. Blount willed his way through half of the Atlanta defense on an eight-yard carry on the next snap, then stepped around left end for four more as time expired on the third period. On first down, the Bucs opened the fourth quarter in the worst possible way. Freeman's pass to Benn was too high and the receiver could only get one hand on it, deflecting it directly to Moore, who picked it off and ran it back to the Bucs' 48.
Ryan saw soft coverage on first down and audibled to an easy slant to Jones for a 16-yard gain. Another quick toss to Jones got 18 more to the Bucs' 14, but Barber blew up two consecutive plays to make it third-and-10. An eight-yard pass to Jones made it fourth-and-two and the Falcons elected to go for it at the seven. Ryan tried to hit RB Jacquizz Rodgers on a quick square-in over the middle but Lynch came up with the enormous stop just when the Bucs needed it.
That turned the ball over on downs to the Bucs at their own seven, and Tampa Bay's offense was clearly intent on draining the clock. Runs by Graham and Blount resulted in a net loss of two, and Freeman's dart to Preston Parker looked good but came up a yard shot. Koenen punted away as the clock moved inside 11 minutes and Eric Weems had to call for a fair catch at the Atlanta 41.
Ryan got the Falcons right back into the red zone with a pump-and-go bomb to Jones, hitting him for a gain of 49 yards to the Bucs' 10. Moments later, he zipped a quick pass into the hands of Gonzalez in the back of the end zone to pull Atlanta within six points with 10 minutes to play.
Parker returned the ensuing kickoff out to the Bucs' 26 and a play-action flip to Graham got a quick five. However, a successful receiver screen to Benn blew up in the Bucs' face when the receiver was penalized 15 yards for grabbing the defender's facemask. A well-designed screen to Graham got 11 yards back and made it third-and-five, but Freeman couldn't quite fit a short pass in to Winslow and the Bucs had to punt.
Atlanta had eight minutes left when they took over at their own 32 following Koenen's punt. Turner's first-down run was bottled up by S Sean Jones and he lost two yards, but Ryan threw over a blitz to White for 15 yards on the next play. Play-action and a quick slant to White got another 10, but Atlanta faced a third-and-seven moments later. Ryan found White once again for 15 more yards to gain a new set of downs, and a short pass to Jones led to a first down at the 11. White then dropped what appeared to be a potential TD pass. The Bucs appeared to have Atlanta in a third-and-10, but McCoy was flagged for roughing the passer, making it first-and-goal at the six. Price fought his way through a hold to sack Ryan back at the 15, and Biggers tipped away a pass that almost found White in the end zone. Foster chased Ryan into a throwaway and the Falcons settle for Bryant's 33-yard field goal, making it 16-13 with four minutes to play.
After a touchback, Freeman faked a handoff and took off around right end, scrambling through a seams to pick up 13 yards and a first down. Blount worked a seam over right guard for six more, then plowed around right end for eight more. Atlanta burned their first timeout with the Bucs holding a first down at their own 47. Blount pounded for three yards on first down and the Falcons used their second timeout at the 2:26 mark. The big back stepped out of a tackle at the line of scrimmage and managed to get five big yards. That brought on the two-minute warning before the third-and-two snap. Blount twisted away from one tackle and fell forward near the first-down line, but the ball was marked just short and a replay review didn't change the spot.
That's when Freeman and the Bucs' offense came out for the apparent fourth-and-one try, a play that technically never happened due to the offsides penalty. Atlanta had used all of their timeouts before that snap, so Freeman simply had to kneel three times to run out the clock.
Game Notes: The Bucs increased their slim lead in the all-time series with Atlanta to 19-17, snapping the Falcons' five-game winning streak. Tampa Bay also took the lead in the series, 10-9, since the two teams were paired in the new NFC South in 2002. … Surprisingly, QB Josh Freeman's one-yard scoring sneak in the second quarter was the first rushing touchdown of his three-year career. He has previously scored on a pair of two-point conversions. … Rookie DE Adrian Clayborn recorded his first career sack in the second quarter, forcing a Matt Ryan fumble at the Atlanta nine-yard line. Clayborn finished the game with two tackles to go with the sack and forced fumble. … K Connor Barth connected on all three of his field goal tries on Sunday and is 6-6 in 2011. Dating back to the 2010 season, he has made nine in a row. With 53 successful field goals in his Buccaneer career, he is now tied with Bill Capece for fifth place on the team's all-time list. … Atlanta's 30 rushing yards stands as the 11th fewest the Buccaneers have ever allowed in a single game.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, RB Allen Bradford, S Larry Asante, CB Anthony Gaitor, LB Quincy Black, G Derek Hardman and T James Lee. Stroughter, Black and Lee were out due to injury.
The Falcons declared these seven inactives: CB Kelvin Hayden, CB Darrin Walls, LB Stephen Nicholas, C Brett Romberg, G Mike Johnson, DT Jonathan Babineaux and DE Cliff Matthews. Babineaux, Nicholas and Hayden were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, S Cody Grimm and LB Geno Hayes were hurt on the same play when Hayes' helmet hit Grimm's knee in a pileup. Grimm suffered a knee injury and did not return; Hayes sustained a head injury and also did not return.
For the Falcons, RB Jason Snelling suffered a head injury in the second quarter and did not return. CB Dunta Robinson left with a neck injury in the second quarter but did return.