The first play of the game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense went well on Sunday in Atlanta. Matt Ryan handed off to Todd Gurley and the linebacker duo of Lavonte David and Devin White was there to meet him for a loss of a yard. The second play went well, too. Ryan threw a short pass out to the right to wide receiver Brandon Powell but cornerback Carlton Davis was on him immediately to limit the gain to two years. The third play almost went well for Tampa Bay's defense.
After the Falcons won the toss and chose to take the ball first rather than defer their choice, the Bucs nearly made the strategy backfire by getting what they wanted: a long third down. And when Ryan saw tight coverage downfield on third-and-nine and had to check the ball down over the middle to Gurley, White was in position to come up and make the tackle. However, Gurley was able to spin away from White and head upfield for just enough yardage to keep the drive alive. Ryan and the Falcons got hot from there and put together a game-opening 75-yard touchdown drive.
"We get a third-and-[nine], they throw a check-down, we miss a tackle and that leads to a long drive," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "The game changes if we make the tackle. Those little things, they keep adding up and we've got to find ways to just get out there and get it done in the first quarter."
In the Buccaneers' 26-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings the previous week, it was a single missed throw on third down by the offense that created another slow start, the team's most pressing problem in the season's second half. This time, it was a missed tackle that did the same thing as the Falcons pulled away to a 17-0 lead. The Buccaneers still won the game, 31-27, due to a massive second-half rally. The offense got the comeback started with a precision scoring drive to start the second half but the defense did it's part to, mainly by cleaning things up on third down.
Atlanta converted its first three third downs of the game but only three of 12 the rest of the way. More importantly, the Falcons were shut out completely on five tries in the second half, which is how Tampa Bay's defense forced them off the field without a single first down on four of six possessions. This is not a new thing for the Bucs' defense in 2020. Tampa Bay has allowed its opponents to convert 47.1% of their third-down attempts in the first halves of games but only 35.4% in the second halves. That leaves the Bucs right in the middle of the NFL pack, ranking 15th with an overall conversion rate of 40.9% allowed. However, the Bucs are tied for 23rd in that category in the first half and are seventh in the second half.
Though it's not the same reason every game, the Buccaneers' improved second-half performance on third down came in part due to a decision to play more man-to-man coverage.
"I think we played a little bit more man, we played some double coverage and took away the first option," said Arians. "Then, the pass rush started getting home even against the max protection. It was a good adjustment that Todd [Bowles] made and the players made. It was critical that we get them off the field and get the ball back every single time because we had to score with every possession. We knew that going into the second half."
That change also allowed one of the Bucs' most impactful defenders to make a string of big plays. White's responsibility in some of those man-to-man looks was coverage on the Falcons' running back. As Arians noted, Atlanta elected to use a lot of max protection to give Ryan time to throw, which is one of the reasons he was able to find star wideout Calvin Ridley for 10 connections and 163 yards. But when the back White was responsible stayed in to block in that max protection scheme, White knew he could rush into the backfield and try to get Ryan. And he did…three times. Two of White's sacks came on third downs and killed drives. The first stopped a scoring drive and forced Atlanta to settle for a field goal and a three-point lead in the fourth quarter, which in turn meant Antonio Brown's subsequent 46-yard touchdown catch put the Bucs ahead instead of in another tie. White's second sack came on the next drive and forced a punt with under five minutes to play. His third was on the second play of Atlanta's last, failed drive, creating a third-and-16 that Ryan couldn't dig out of.
It was White's second three-sack game of the year and, in Arian's mind, another indication of why he should be chosen for the Pro Bowl. Those all-star rosters will be announced Monday night.
"Definitely – he and Lavonte [should be chosen]," said Arians. "The Pro Bowl is going to be funny because they're both in the same position. They could split enough votes to kill both of themselves but they both belong there – that's for sure. Devin, he's had a great year. He had a great ballgame in this game, obviously. Lavonte is the main leader, but he's the rah-rah, the 'Let's go get them' guy."
White did in fact go get them, making a string of big plays after that early miss on Gurley, including a pair of passes defensed. That allowed the Buccaneers' defense to get off the field on third down with regularity, which in turn transformed a slow start into a superb, game-winning second half. Now the Bucs just need to produce those types of third-down results in both halves.
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