The Bucs had Atlanta's potent rushing attack largely bottled up until one key turnover turned the game around for the Falcons
Rarely will one witness a better example of a sudden momentum change than the one that defined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 17-6 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
The moment is simple to pinpoint: Five minutes into the third quarter, Bucs leading 6-0, Gradkowski dropping back to pass on third-and-four. The rookie passer may have held the ball a bit longer than was wise and the end result was a sack from behind by DE John Abraham, a fumble and seven points for the Falcons. Cue the shift of momentum and a second-half Falcon runaway.
Before it was over, the Falcons had scored 17 unanswered points and rushed for 139 yards despite injuries to both tailbacks, Bruce Gradkowski had taken a seat on the bench and Atlanta CB DeAngelo Hall had entertained himself with a series of celebratory backflips in the Bucs' backfield. Worse yet, the 3-10 Bucs had finished up their first winless run through the NFC South, going 0-6 against Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans.
"It's hard to swallow that one," said Gruden of the loss. "Defensively, I thought we did a very good job for the most part. Offensively we started good. The turnover to start the second half and a couple missed opportunities in the passing game hurt us. We're just not playing very good offensive football right now, running the ball, pass-protecting and throwing."
Before Abraham's sack, the Bucs had the game's only two scores, were leading in total yardage, 163 to 149, had the game's only takeaway, had held Atlanta's potent rushing attack to 60 yards and were just on the fringes of scoring territory again.
Post-fumble, the Bucs struggled mightily to move the ball, gaining just one more first down on the next three drives before Gradkowski (13 of 24 for 121 yards) was pulled for veteran reserve Tim Rattay. After the game, Gruden declined to indicate whether the switch to Rattay would extend into next Sunday's game at Chicago.
"We will address that in the next couple days," said Gruden, who did rule out the possibility of going with the team's other reserve, Luke McCown. "I just think there were a couple situations where [Gradkowski] looked tentative, a little bit unsure, out of rhythm. There were a couple of plays there he's good enough to make and he's got to make to beat the Atlanta Falcons. I thought a change in quarterbacks could possibly give us a spark."
Seeing his first regular-season playing time as a Buccaneer, Rattay completed nine of 13 passes for 83 yards and led a last-minute drive that reached Atlanta's two-yard line before time expired. Unfortunately, Rattay's first drive at the helm ended in a Cadillac Williams fumble that led to Morten Andersen's game-clinching 23-yard field goal. The Falcons had built a 14-6 lead in the third quarter with their only extended scoring drive of the game, a 71-yard march that ended in Justin Griffith's 21-yard touchdown run.
Griffith carried the running game load for most of the second half, gaining 57 yards on 12 carries after both Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood left the game in the third quarter with injuries. In the first half, the Bucs had largely stifled a running attack that gained an incredible 306 yards in the September meeting between these two teams. A big reason for that was the team's containment of QB Michael Vick, who gained just five rushing yards while passing for 155 yards.
More frustrating for the Bucs was their own rushing attack, which was given every opportunity to succeed. Cadillac Williams took 20 handoffs but gained only 48 yards, as the Bucs offense ran 29 times overall for 80 yards.
"I was disappointed in the running game today," said Gruden. "We tried many different ways to get it going. It wasn't good enough today and that puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback."
The Bucs spent 30 minutes building a first-half lead, only to see it evaporate in seconds. On the aforementioned key play, Abraham circled around behind Gradkowski and sacked the quarterback just as he was winding up for a throw. Davis alertly dived on the resulting fumble but the ball managed to squirt away from him, leading to an easy recovery and 54-yard touchdown ramble by LB Demorrio Williams.
The play caused a long delay in the game. Gruden attempted to challenge the play, claiming Davis had been touched down before he lost the ball, but was initially told that the play was not reviewable. Before the extra point, the officials huddled in the end zone and changed their minds, allowing the review. Unfortunately for the Bucs, all that meant was a lost timeout, as the referee stood by the initial ruling.
Thus, leading in most statistical categories halfway through the third quarter, the Bucs still had to mount a comeback. It didn't start well. Tampa Bay's next two drives stalled almost immediately and were sandwiched around Griffith's score. After Gradkowski's third-down slant pass to WR Joey Galloway was broken up by an exultant Hall (his backflips came later, in celebration of Williams' fumble), Gruden went to Rattay.
Even with the strong start, the Bucs got an early indication that this might not be their day. Return man Allen Rossum muffed the opening kickoff but was able to grab the rolling ball just before coverage arrived. Rossum coughed it up again when he was hit a moment later, but the ball shot diagonally out of bounds before any Bucs could get to it.
Still, the Falcons had to start at their own nine, and their eventual punt gave the Bucs decent field position, at their own 31. From there, Gradkowski launched a 45-yard field goal drive, getting 25 of those yards on a third-down middle screen to RB Michael Pittman down to Atlanta's 41. The Bucs also converted their next third down on a rugged three-yard run by FB Mike Alstott, but a third-and-three pass from the Atlanta 24 was batted away by DT Rod Coleman. The Bucs had to settle for Matt Bryant's 42-yard kick and a 3-0 lead eight minutes into the game.
Alstott, who also caught a three-yard pass on that first drive, got more than a first down on his only carry of the march. Alstott was visibly upset after the play, and replay revealed why: After the tackle, LB Edgerton Hartwell appeared to deliberately jab his hand through Alstott's facemask into his face.
The Falcons responded with their own drive into Buccaneer territory, but a defensive stand at the end of it helped preserve Tampa Bay's lead and get the crowd into the game. LB Derrick Brooks initiated the cheering by knocking Norwood off his feet with a hard tackle, then Shelton Quarles and Ryan Nece combined for a sack on the next play. DT Ellis Wyms dropped Vick on the next snap, too, though it was a designed run and thus not a sack. The forty-six-year-old Anderson came on to try a 45-yard field goal but Boone Stutz's snap was low and mishandled by holder Matt Schaub, aborting the attempt and giving the ball back to the Bucs at their own 38.
Alstott was prominently involved in the ensuing drive, as well. His 17-yard gain on third-and-one from the Atlanta 41 got the Bucs into field goal range and simultaneously pushed the fan favorite past another significant milestone. That run put him over 5,000 yards in his 12-year career; he finished the game with 20 yards on the day and 5,082 in his career. A beautiful toe-dragging catch by Pittman at the Atlanta 10 made it first-and-goal but the drive stalled when a draw play to Pittman on third-and-five failed to catch the middle of the Atlanta defense napping. Bryant gave the Bucs a 6-0 lead with his 24-yard field goal.
Another quick stop by the Buccaneer defense put the ball back in Tampa Bay's hands at their own 38, and they once again moved quickly into Atlanta territory. Gradkowski missed an attempt to hit Galloway in an open zone down the middle of the field, but made up for it with a sharp slant that the speedy receiver turned into a 22-yard gain to the Falcons' 35. When the drive stalled at the 33, Gruden sent the punting unit out, then reconsidered before the snap and used a timeout. After the break, he gave Bryant a chance to hit a 51-yarder but the kick sailed just wide to the right.
Unfortunately, that set Atlanta up for a quick drive into Buccaneer territory, though this one too came up empty. Warrick Dunn got 18 yards on a little pass over the middle to start it, though Vick had to absorb a very hard hit from LB Ryan Nece in order to deliver it. Dunn also converted a fourth-and-one at the Bucs' 32 with a nine-yard gain.
Atlanta receivers have taken a lot of heat in recent weeks for dropped passes, but Ashley Lelie made a stunningly good catch of a high pass from Vick for 12 yards down to the Bucs' 10, taking a very hard hit from S Kalvin Pearson in the process. However, on third-and-goal Vick tried to throw a fade pass to Lelie in the right corner and the 6-3 receiver couldn't fight off CB Phillip Buchanon, who located the ball and made a remarkable spinning interception in the end zone.
The Falcons had one more first-half possession but it failed too, thanks to a hard tackle by Quarles on a third-and-one run by Dunn with 43 seconds left in the second quarter. The halftime stats were fairly similar – Atlanta had 149 yards to the Bucs' 137 and a 61-60 rushing edge. However, the Bucs' inability to finish their scoring drives – they haven't scored a touchdown since the opening possession against Dallas on Thanksgiving – kept the game well within reach for the Falcons.
Atlanta moves to 7-6 with the victory while the Bucs dropped to 3-10. Tampa Bay heads to Chicago next weekend to face the NFC North champion Chicago Bears.
Halftime Note: The Buccaneers culminated their first-ever Alumni Weekend with a halftime ceremony to honor returning players. Approximately 120 players representing three different eras took the field during the game's intermission, including such former stars as Lee Roy Selmon, Hardy Nickerson, Tony Mayberry, Scot Brantley, Mark Cotney, Jimmie Giles, Kevin House, Richard Wood, Donnie Abraham and many more. Selmon, Nickerson and Mayberry served as honorary captains during the coin flip before the game.
Game Notes: Fifth-year CB Phillip Buchanon made his first start as a Buccaneer, opening the game at left cornerback in place of Juran Bolden. Buchanon, who broke up Michael Vick's first pass of the game, finished with three tackles, an interception and two passes defensed. … K Matt Bryant's 42-yard field goal in the first quarter was his 10th successful attempt in a row, dating back to the Oct. 22 game against Philadelphia. He stretched the streak to 11 with a 24-yarder in the second quarter, then saw it snapped when just missed a 51-yard attempt later in the same period. Overall, Bryant has made 13 of 17 field goals this year. … LB Shelton Quarles matched his career high for sacks on Sunday, against the same team that let him set it originally. Quarles had 1.5 takedowns of Vick in Sunday's contest, matching the total he had against the Falcons on Nov. 14, 2004.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: CB Alan Zemaitis, S Donte Nicholson, C Nick Mihlhauser, T Donald Penn, TE Doug Jolley, WR Mark Jones, DE Charles Bennett and designated third quarterback Luke McCown.
The Falcons named the following eight players inactive: CB Jason Webster, FB Corey McIntyre, S Nick Turnbull, G P.J. Alexander, T Frank Omiyale, TE Daniel Fells and DT Tommy Jackson.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DT Jovan Haye sustained a thumb injury in the second quarter but was able to return to the game.
For the Falcons, RB Warrick Dunn suffered a left calf injury in the third quarter and did not return. RB Jerious Norwood also suffered a right knee injury in the third quarter and did not return.