Here are some of Scott Reynolds' observations from the Bucs' 28-24 loss to the visiting Atlanta Falcons:
We learned that Josh Freeman is not playing like Josh Franchise.
Although Freeman has thrown two touchdowns and just one interception over the past two weeks in losses to Baltimore and Atlanta, he has suffered from completing less than 50 percent of his passes. Heading into the Baltimore contest, Freeman had been completing 60 percent of his passes this season in leading the Bucs to a 7-3 start.
Against Atlanta, Freeman completed 19-of-38 passes (50 percent) for 181 yards with one touchdown and one pick. That interception was by Atlanta cornerback Brent Grimes, who had an earlier interception called back due to a successful instant replay challenge. Grimes jumped in front of Mike Williams on a stick route to end the Bucs’ chances of a comeback with them trailing the Falcons, 28-24.
“It was a quick read and I was on a three-step and got it out,” Freeman said. “Say what you want. He made a great play. If I could have recognized that he got such a good jump on it I would have sailed it out of bounds. It didn’t happen. It’s on me as the quarterback. I have to get the ball in position to the guys that make plays. In the end I didn’t do that. I would have like to have leaned out and given him a go route. He would have stuttered him and gone right by him and it would have been a touchdown and a different day. But we didn’t and we have to live with it. We’ll be right back next week ready to go.”
After the game, Freeman was clearly disappointed in the fact that the Bucs had lost two straight games and that he was unable to pull off his fifth fourth quarter comeback of the season. Freeman became agitated when a member of the media suggested that the Falcons were the better team, despite the fact that the Bucs were swept this year and have lost five straight against Atlanta.
“We don’t feel like that,” Freeman said. “We feel like they just came out and found a way to win. I feel like it was just a couple plays. I wouldn’t say they were the better team. They found a way to win. It’s tough. It’s a game of inches and a number of things happened throughout the course of the game. It was a rough one today.”
In order for the Bucs to win next week in Washington and to pile up enough victories to make a playoff run, they will have to shake off their two-game skid and get back on track. The same holds true for Freeman. He has to revert back to his old ways of being a more decisive, accurate quarterback when he was playing the role of Josh Franchise.We learned that offensive coordinator Greg Olson rebounded from Baltimore with a good game against the Falcons.
Olson was awfully creative with his play-calling against Atlanta. On Tampa Bay’s first touchdown drive, he inserted quarterback Josh Johnson in at quarterback to run an option on third-and-2 from the Bucs’ 22. Johnson was under pressure and didn’t make a great pitch to wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who juggled the ball but managed to hold on as he slid to the ground and picked up two yards for the first down.
He also deployed a misdirection end around to Arrelious Benn for a 3-yard gain in the first quarter and called for Benn to carry the ball on another end around for seven yards on third-and-1 in the second quarter. That carry picked up a first down on Tampa Bay’s touchdown drive right before halftime.
“To me it was just part of the game plan and how the game unfolded,” Olson said. “Every week it unfolds differently.
“We had done some things with Josh Johnson in the wildcat and we’ll continue to expand on that. We practiced the Earnest Graham halfback pass for probably five or six weeks now.”
In the fourth quarter, Graham took a handoff and ran to the right before finding a wide-open tight end John Gilmore in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown. Olson also called for a delayed throwback to a wide-open tight end Ryan Purvis in the third quarter, but Freeman’s pass was off the mark.
“The throwback to the tight end is another one we have been practicing and we felt good about it,” Olson said. “We felt in that time of the game it was the right time to make the call.”
At the end of the day, yards don’t win games. Points do. But credit Olson for not being afraid to mix it up and pull out the stops while the Bucs rolled up 325 yards of offense, outgaining Atlanta's 290 yards.We learned that LeGarrette Blount might not be an ideal short-yardage back.
After struggling in short yardage situations in Atlanta and at Baltimore last week, Blount failed to capitalize on two opportunities in short yardage situations. On third-and-1 from the Atlanta 41, Blount was stopped for zero yards. Inexplicably, head coach Raheem Morris elected to punt rather than doing a quarterback sneak.
In the fourth quarter, Blount was given the ball on first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, and was stuffed for no gain. Despite a great game outside of those plays, rushing for 103 yards on 20 carries, the rookie running back’s short yardage struggles have concerned Morris and Olson.
“We hope that we get LeGarrette Blount out there on third-and-1 that he can be a big battering ram that you like,” Morris said. “He could be a big, 250-pound guy that would go straight through the hole. Unfortunately, that might not be him. The only way you find those things out is to go out there and give them experience and get him to go out there and try to do it. The coaches teach him what you want, but the thing he is, he’s a patient runner. Sometimes he doesn’t [get the necessary yards] and sometimes he goes for 17. But on third-and-1 sometimes it frustrates you because you just want him to get downhill and get the two or get the three [yards] and move the chains. We have to look at which direction [we want to go] in those situations.”
When asked if Earnest Graham might be more of a factor as a running back in short yardage situations in the future, Olson indicated he would be.
“Yeah, definitely,” Olson said. “We just discussed that this morning. We certainly have a lot of faith in Earnest Graham and what he can do for us. He’s been that guy in the past. Part of it is the fullback situation and what we’re going to do there. We recognize that as well.”We learned that Jeff Faine’s season might be in jeopardy.
Faine, Tampa Bay’s center, suffered a triceps injury in the fourth quarter and the prognosis doesn’t look good. Although Morris did not have an update during Monday’s press conference, Faine suffered a torn triceps in 2009 that caused him to miss four games.
With four games left in the 2010 season, if Faine suffered another triceps injury it could sideline him for the season on injured reserve. Jeremy Zuttah has played well at center in relief of Faine and that might be more of his natural position than guard. But the chain reaction for Tampa Bay is concerning because with Zuttah in at center, he is flanked by two inexperienced rookie guards in Ted Larsen, who has played well at times this year, and Derek Hardman, an undrafted free agent who just saw his first NFL action against Atlanta in the fourth quarter.
Hold your breath for Faine’s injury status on Tuesday, but don’t expect a good outcome.WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCS DEFENSEWe learned that the Ryan-to-White connection on third-and-20 in the fourth quarter was a back-breaker for the Bucs.
If Morris is second-guessing himself over any defensive call from Sunday night, it might be not sending more pressure on Ryan on third-and-20 from the Atlanta 23 with 7:40 left in the fourth quarter. The Bucs rushed just three defensive linemen and dropped eight defenders in coverage, but the Falcons ran a Cover 2 beater play and Ryan dropped a beautiful 25-yard pass in between cornerback E.J. Biggers and free safety Corey Lynch on the right sideline for the first down. Linebacker Geno Hayes was also close to White, but couldn’t make a play on the ball.
Tampa Bay was in zone coverage and in hindsight, Morris would have been better off playing man coverage and sending more pressure at Ryan to force a quicker throw.
“You hate to see it, man, but that’s the sign of a good team,” said Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. “They know how to do it when they need to and they did. We’re done using ‘Oh, we’re young …’ We’re past all that. We just have to get it done.”
After the Falcons picked up that first down, the Bucs defense lost its composure. Ronde Barber was flagged 10 yards for a pass interference penalty on tight end Tony Gonzalez on third-and-1 at the Tampa Bay 43, and linebacker Quincy Black was penalized 10 yards for a horse collar tackle on Michael Turner, which gave the Falcons 15 yards en route to the game-winning touchdown.
After notching 10 sacks over the past two weeks and 12 over the last three, Tampa Bay failed to record a sack in this game and only had a handful of quarterback pressures. The defensive line, which had recorded eight QB captures over the last two games, must be more consistent in getting to the quarterback. In a big game like Sunday’s contest against Atlanta, a few sacks here and there against Ryan could have made the difference.We learned that the Bucs run defense is for real.
There is no way the Bucs will make the playoffs if the team’s run defense reverts back to form from earlier this season when Tampa Bay was surrendering 147 yards on the ground. What gave the Bucs a victory in San Francisco and kept them close in two losses to better opponents in Baltimore and Atlanta was improved run defense.
Over the last three weeks, no opposing team has rushed for 100 yards or more against Tampa Bay, including Atlanta on Sunday. Turner was held in check with 88 yards on 24 carries (3.7 avg.) and one touchdown, but his longest run was just 11 yards. The Falcons finished with 85 yards on 27 carries (3.1 avg.).
The Key to beating the Falcons’ ground game and stopping Turner is strong interior play by the defensive tackles and getting tackles for loss – the Bucs recorded five of those on Sunday. Against San Francisco, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recorded a career-high seven tackles. Last week against Baltimore it was nose tackle Roy Miller’s turn with a career-high nine stops. On Sunday, Miller came through with three stops, including another tackle for loss.We learned that E.J. Biggers is a starting cornerback in the NFL.
With Aqib Talib leaving the game for good early in the second quarter with a right hip injury, Bucs defensive coordinator and head coach Raheem Morris often put Biggers on White throughout the rest of the game when Tampa Bay went into man coverage.
With the exception of his 25-yard gain on third-and-20 in the fourth quarter, White was contained for most of the game and finished with seven catches for 74 yards. Biggers, who has excelled as Tampa Bay’s nickel corner this year, did an excellent job for the most part and finished the game with seven tackles and one key pass breakup on third down in the first half on a pass intended for White.
Biggers now has 27 tackles, eight pass breakups and one interception on the season and has to give Tampa Bay’s coaching staff and front office a good deal of confidence moving forward that he can be an eventual replacement for starter Ronde Barber, whose contract is up at the end of the season. The 35-year old Barber is still playing at a high level and deserves a one- or two-year contract extension.
But when Barber’s playing days are over, Biggers has proven this year, and especially on Sunday against Atlanta, that he is ready for a starting role on defense with rookie Myron Lewis replacing him as the nickel corner.We learned Corey Lynch can play free safety.
Rookie Cody Grimm struggled in his first NFL start, giving up a touchdown pass to Mike Wallace against Pittsburgh, and Lynch, who was replacing the injured Grimm, also had a few plays he wish he could have back. Lynch could have had a wider landmark and was a bit late coming over on White’s 25-yard touchdown pass against Cover 2 on third-and-20, and he also didn’t do enough to trip up Ovie Mughelli on his 17-yard touchdown reception. Lynch went after the Falcons fullback’s legs and managed to cause Mughelli to stumble, but he never lost his balance. Yet Lynch, who is known for having great hands, did record one of two interceptions against Ryan on Sunday, which keyed a Tampa Bay touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
“It’s one of those things where an interception is great if you win the game, but if you lose the game it’s pointless,” Lynch said. “Thank God that I got it, but we didn’t win so it stinks.”
Yet the thing that was most impressive about Lynch’s first NFL start was how well he supported the run and came in for a few big hits. He was usually relegated to playing centerfield in Cover 3 or back deep in Cover 2 while Sean Jones was the designated walk-up safety. Yet Lynch, who is not known as a hitter, got in a few good licks in the running game, finishing with three tackles and also contributing two tackles on special teams.
“If you just get a chance to get on the field whether it’s third downs or fourth downs or every down you get more and more comfortable with every play,” Lynch said. “I was getting comfortable, just like I was a starter again. My comfort level is going up and up.”WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCS SPECIAL TEAMSWe learned that Maurice Stovall and a host of other Bucs had a chance to tackle Eric Weems.
During Weems’ 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, at least six Bucs have a reasonable shot at tackling him or at least pushing him out of bounds. Cornerback Elbert Mack is the first to dive for Weems as he begins to break to the outside. Wide receiver Sammie Stroughter follows suit right near the sideline.
As Weems gets to the sideline, 6-foot-5, 230-pound Maurice Stovall slows up a bit and goes to push the Falcons return man out of bounds but misses. Linebacker Adam Hayward comes in low and lunges for Weems as he begins to cut outside just as cornerback Myron Lewis overshoots him. Kicker Connor Barth gets caught a bit flat-footed as Weems makes another cut, but virtually gives no effort to make a tackle or attempt to push him out of bounds, which was incredibly disappointing.
Yet reviewing the play, Stovall, normally one of the team’s best special teams tacklers, had the best shot at Weems and wasn’t physical or aggressive enough to make the play.
“I didn’t let up,” Stovall said. “It was just a missed tackle. I didn’t ease up. I didn’t slow down – none of the above. I went full speed and I just missed that opportunity.
“I’m pissed off about it, as is the rest of our team. He’s a player and he made a play on the ball. It’s a credit to him. At the same time, that’s a routine tackle that we make every day in practice and we were able to make in games. You can’t have missed opportunities in a big game like this. I was there. That’s on me. That was a missed tackle and you can’t do that. It’s a huge game and you have to make that play.”We learned the Bucs can’t stop committing costly penalties on special teams.
The Bucs have been one of the least penalized teams in the NFL, but recently a majority of Tampa Bay’s infractions have come on special teams. None bigger on Sunday than a holding call on Lewis, which wiped out a 58-yard punt return by Michael Spurlock in the second quarter that would have set the Bucs up deep in Atlanta territory.
Lewis was a vice player on the outside and was matched up on cornerback Chris Owens. Not only did Lewis have a handful of jersey on Owens’ back on the play, he was clearly controlling him by holding and made the cardinal sin of not releasing the hold as Spurlock went by.
Sometimes officials will allow momentary holding as long as it’s a catch-and-release type play where the defender actually has a chance to make a play on the return man. Yet Lewis had Owens locked up so bad that it was an easy call to make on the egregious hold.
Between Weems’ kickoff return touchdown and Lewis’ hold on Spurlock’s return, Tampa Bay’s special teams really let the Bucs down on Sunday.
“It was one of those things where an inch over here and an inch this way or an inch that way,” Stroughter said. “We’ll go back to the drawing board and get better in every phase of the game. It’s football and you have to understand that you can never relax. You have to finish the plays. We learned a lot. Next time we get that opportunity we have to cash in.”WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THIS BUCCANEERS LOSSWe learned that the Bucs likely have to win out to make the playoffs.
Tampa Bay is 7-5 and two games behind 9-3 New Orleans and a full game behind two other NFC wild card contenders in Green Bay and the New York Giants, which have 8-4 records. In the top heavy NFC, it’s likely that a 10-win team will be left out of the 2010 playoffs. That could be Tampa Bay.
It’s safe to say that the Bucs’ best shot of making the post season is to up the ante on Morris’ “Race to 10” slogan and finish 11-5. Sunday’s loss to Atlanta took away any margin for error. The Bucs have to win out, which means four straight wins, including a loss at New Orleans, which barring a collapse down the stretch, is all but assured to make the playoffs.
After dropping back-to-back games for the first time all year with losses to Baltimore and Atlanta, their improbable playoff march begins in earnest in Washington next week against the 5-7 Redskins.
“We have to win out,” said wide receiver Arrelious Benn. “We’re not hiding from it. We’re not running from it. That’s the truth. We have to win out. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to buckle up and get ready. It was a tough loss and we’ll learn from this. We’ll move on from this and get ready for Washington.”We learned the Bucs aren’t an upper echelon team yet.
One hand, this team, which is the youngest in the NFL and is in the midst of rebuilding, has already exceeded the expectations of most by winning seven games and by putting itself in position to post a winning season and have a shot at the playoffs. While it would be a disappointment to unexpectedly come this far only to miss the postseason, this season must be considered a success even if the Bucs fall short of the playoffs.
On the other hand, this is a Bucs team that has not notched a signature win against a playoff-caliber opponent, outside of perhaps St. Louis, which is now 6-6. Tampa Bay is winless against Atlanta (twice), Baltimore, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Until they prove they can beat a playoff-caliber team, the Bucs probably don’t deserve a playoff berth. So prepare yourselves Bucs fans for a 9-7 or 10-6 finish that may not result in a trip to the postseason.
Yet, if the Bucs win out, and that means a season finale win at New Orleans, a likely playoff-bound foe, an 11-5 Tampa Bay team that will head to the postseason will be validated by a victory over the defending Super Bowl champions. We’ll see what happens, but it will likely all come down to the Saints game being a must-win scenario for the Bucs to have any chance at making the playoffs.
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