Maybe now the Buccaneers can start calling matchups with Atlanta legitimate rivalries.
Tampa Bay improved its record to 2-1 and finally snapped a five-game skid against the defending NFC South champions on Sunday, holding on for a 16-13 win in front of 46,995 rain-dampened fans at Raymond James Stadium.
Raheem Morris said earlier this week that the games weren’t rivalries since his teams are winless against Atlanta in four tries. According to Morris during Sunday’s postgame news conference, though, it still isn’t. That’s because it’s a new year.
“No,” he responded bluntly. “We’re in full control. We’re at 1-0 now.”
Along with taking early control of head-to-head meetings with Atlanta, the Bucs also put themselves in the NFC South driver’s seat after Week 3. Tampa Bay is tied at 2-1 with New Orleans and is technically on top because of its 1-0 divisional record.
Rivalry or not, the victory is a big boost for the Buccaneers, quarterback Josh Freeman said. “It’s huge. It’s about time one went our way. They’ve been really close games since I’ve been here. They’ve won the first four and they’ve all been close.”
“They’re a great divisional opponent and I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys, offense and defense. They’re a good team. We’ll get I’m looking forward to that. Today was our day. We got it done.”
Carrying a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers did just enough to fend off Atlanta’s determined comeback efforts. The game was ultimately decided by Tampa Bay displaying just a little more discipline than the Falcons on a single, crucial fourth-and-1 play late. The Buccaneers had possession with 1:49 remaining at the Atlanta 44-yard line and Freeman led the offense back to the line of scrimmage in an attempt to draw an Atlanta defender offside. Thanks to Falcons nose tackle Corey Peters lunging forward on one of Freeman’s hard counts, the play worked and Tampa Bay simply had to run the rest of the clock down from there.
“It worked last year versus Detroit,” Freeman said of the play. “The hard count. The guys sold it really well. We got in the huddle, got everybody kind of ramped up [and] made it look like we were going to go for it. But it worked out.”
“It was kind of like we had a play, but not [one] particularly set,” he continued. “We were going to call time out if they didn’t jump. And then who knows, we might have come back and tried to hard count them again.”
Sunday’s game was played under cloudy skies and in 89-degree heat. Fans and players were spared from getting too wet as the day’s rain quit falling shortly before kickoff.
Starting on defense for Tampa Bay was: LE Michael Bennett, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Brian Price, RE Adrian Clayborn, WLB Geno Hayes, SLB Dekoda Watson, MLB Mason Foster, LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Ronde Barber, SS Sean Jones and FS Cody Grimm.
The Bucs lined up offensively with: WR Mike Williams, LT Donald Penn, LG Jeremy Zuttah, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood, TE Kellen Winslow, WR Arrelious Benn, RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Luke Stocker and QB Josh Freeman.
Seven Buccaneers were listed as inactive. They were CB Anthony Gaitor, S Larry Asante, WR Sammie Stroughter, RB Allen Bradford, LB Quincy Black, OT Derek Hardman and OT James Lee.
Unlike Tampa Bay’s first two games, in which the team found itself playing from behind in both second halves, the Buccaneers dictated much of the game’s tempo from the start and never trailed.
Tampa Bay won the time of possession battle 35:52 to 24:08 and initially went on top 3-0 with Connor Barth’s 49-yard field goal late in the first quarter.
Prior to Barth’s converted kick, the Bucs squandered an opportunity provided to it by linebacker Dekoda Watson and the defense. Watson sacked and stripped Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan on the game’s third play from scrimmage and cornerback Ronde Barber jumped on the loose ball at Atlanta’s 17. After picking up a first down and getting to the 4, Freeman’s pass to the back of the end zone was intercepted by safety Thomas DeCoud.
The interception was the first of two on the night for Freeman, who struggled with his accuracy throughout Sunday’s game. The third-year signal caller did finish with a 68.8 percent completion percentage (22 of 32) and 180 passing yards, but missed badly on a number of occasions and didn’t often put his receivers in quality positions to pick up yards after the catch.
Buoying Tampa Bay’s offensive production Sunday was its more balanced attack. After calling only 35 total rushing attempts through two weeks, the Bucs rushed 36 times for 115 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta. Running back LeGarrette Blount carried over some of last week’s successes in Minnesota, rushing 24 times for 81 yards. Tampa Bay averaged only 3.2 yards per carry, but did not abandon the run all day.
“Bucs offense is running the ball, setting up play action,” said left tackle Donald Penn. “That’s what we did, and when we do that we are a deadly team. I wish we could have had some of those drives back so we could finish [and] maybe get touchdowns on them.”
Penn was referring to the Bucs’ inability to post six points and instead having to settle for three Barth field goals.
“We've got to do better,” he said. “Too many red zone [visits] coming out with three. You got to get seven, so we got to improve on that and we got to start finishing off our drives.”
Penn specifically mentioned Tampa Bay’s opening drive of the second half. The Bucs staged a 70-yard, 16-play march, but stalled out at the Atlanta 10 and eventually went ahead 16-3 rather than 20-3 had the plane been broken.
Even more effective that the Bucs’ unflashy yet steady ground attack was the team’s defense against that portion of the Falcons’ game plan. Running back Michael Turner entered Sunday averaging 107 yards per game but was stuffed for only 20 yards on 11 touches.
Along with containing Turner, the Bucs also succeeded in putting pressure on the Falcons’ Pro Bowl quarterback. Entering the game with only two total sacks, Tampa Bay and its revamped defensive front put together its most productive 60 minutes of the young season. The Bucs recorded four sacks as well as seven tackles for loss. Rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn picked up his first career sack, as did second-year tackle Brian Price. Watson and middle linebacker Mason Foster accounted for the other two. Watson's was also his first NFL capture and Foster’s was his second of the season.
Ryan ended the night with 330 yards on 26 of 47 passing with one touchdown and one interception. The Falcons outgained Tampa Bay in total net yardage, 325-295.
“I remember those guys being a harassment to Matt [Ryan] all day,” Morris said of the Bucs active pass rush. “Seeing him move off his spot was a great look. We [didn’t] see that a bunch last year, and hopefully this year we get a chance to see it a little bit more. That was kind of the game for the Bucs. We got a lead, we were able to pass rush, we were able to get some third downs, get some key stops.”
After going ahead 3-0 in the first quarter, the only other time Tampa Bay wasn’t playing with a lead was during a stretch of 7 minutes and 35 seconds in the second quarter. Atlanta countered on its next drive following the Bucs’ field goal with one of its own, a 26 yarder from Matt Bryant.
Freeman and the Bucs took over from their own 20 and responded with a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped by the quarterback’s 1-yard sneak up the middle with 3:39 left in the half. Freeman was 8-for-9 passing on the drive and connected with Blount for a 13-yard pick up that represented the running back’s first reception of the season. Freeman's scoring run was also the first NFL rushing touchdown of his career.
Tampa Bay then scored on its third consecutive drive when Barth split the uprights from 26 yards out following Atlanta’s second lost fumble of the first half. Ryan again lost the handle after being sacked, this time by Clayborn, and defensive end Michael Bennett recovered at the Falcons 9. Despite the excellent field position, Tampa Bay ran three plays and lost three yards before coming away with three points and the 13-3 lead.
Atlanta wasn’t willing to give Tampa Bay its first win in the series since 2008 without putting up a fight, though. One Bucs drive after Barth’s third field goal that put Tampa Bay on top 16-3, Atlanta cornerback William Moore intercepted Freeman and returned it 27 yards. Ryan took the Falcons from the Bucs 48 all the way to the 7, but his fourth-down pass to rookie running back Jacquizz Rodgers was batted away by Tampa Bay backup safety Corey Lynch. On the roster as a strong safety behind starter Sean Jones, Lynch was forced into a larger role at free safety when Cody Grimm went down in the third quarter due to a knee injury. Also taken into the locker room on the play was linebacker Geno Hayes with what was described as an injury to his head.
Tampa Bay quickly went three-and-out and provided Atlanta prime field position at the Falcons 41 following Michael Koenen’s 43-yard punt. Even quicker than Tampa Bay’s previous series, Ryan led Atlanta into the end zone in just two plays. His first pass – the longest play from scrimmage of the day for either team – went for 49 yards down the left hash to a wide-open Julio Jones. Now at the Bucs 10, Ryan hit tight end Tony Gonzalez in the back of the end zone to bring Atlanta to within six points at 16-10.
Jones [seven targets, six receptions and 115 yards] and teammate Roddy White [17 targets, nine receptions and 140 yards], as expected, were Ryan’s most productive options in the passing game Sunday.
In what proved to be the Falcons’ final opportunity with the ball, Ryan and Atlanta put together another long drive into the Tampa Bay red zone. The Falcons reached all the way down to the Bucs 5 after a questionable roughing the passer call against defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, but fellow interior lineman Brian Price pushed Atlanta back 10 yards with his sack of Ryan on the ensuing play. Ryan’s next two passes fell incomplete to White and Atlanta decided to put three on the board with a 33 yarder from Bryant.
The Falcons placed their faith in the defense getting Ryan one more chance with the ball, but that scenario never came to fruition. Freeman and Blount executed Tampa Bay’s four-minute offense and the big fourth-down penalty against Atlanta finally sealed the Bucs’ second regular-season victory.
“It felt awesome,” Blount said of Tampa Bay’s final drive. “Just being able to run our four-minute offense knowing that we’re able to keep the ball out of their hands. They have some playmakers over there and they have some ability to make some plays in these kinds of situations. Knowing that we have control of the game, the game’s in our hands with four minutes left, we’re going to continue to do what we do – keep the ball in my hands and pound the rock.”
Tampa Bay will look to increase its winning streak to three next week when it hosts Indianapolis for a prime-time, Monday Night affair. This will be the first time the Bucs play Indianapolis since losing 33-17 on the road in 2007.