Key 1: Continue Running Game Momentum
As Jeff Faine told me in the locker room after Tampa Bay’s win over Atlanta, the running game wasn’t glamorous or necessarily pretty, but it was effective.
With just 115 yards on 36 carries (3.2 average) Tampa Bay was able to effectively milk the clock, keeping the quick-strike Falcons on the sidelines, and also help the Buccaneers win the time of possession battle (35:52 to 24:08).
Blount finished the game with 81 yards on 24 carries, and while he was never able to get off the long, SportsCenter-type highlight run, the second-year running back did keep the chains moving, and several Falcons went for rides courtesy of Blount’s back.
Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman chipped in 35 yards on ten carries and scored his first career NFL touchdown on the ground.
Much credit must be given to offensive coordinator Greg Olson for sticking to the game plan and helping the Buccaneers to the “ugly” win. But don’t describe it that way to Tampa Bay’s offensive linemen.
Final Grade: B+
Key 2: Don't Let Tony Gonzalez Beat You
The matchup that was talked about as much as any over the past week at One Buccaneer Place was 5-foot, 9-inch Ronde Barber on 6-foot-5 future Hall-of-Famer tight end Tony Gonzalez.
While Barber did spend some time battling Gonzalez it was more of a coverage-by-committee game plan with linebackers Dekoda Watson, Mason Foster and a rotation of safeties helping out over the top. Minus the one touchdown, Tampa Bay held Gonzalez in check giving up just two receptions for just 18 yards.
In the previous five matchups against Tampa Bay since coming to Atlanta via a trade with Kansas City midway through the 2008 season, Gonzalez has tallied 30 receptions for 285 yards (average of six catches, 57.0 yards per game).
Gonzalez did score his first career touchdown as a Falcon against the Bucs (the Falcons only touchdown of the day) Sunday, but Tampa Bay was successful in keeping their objective to not let Gonzalez be a difference maker.
Final Grade: B+
Key 3: Finally Get A Sack From The Front Four
It took nine quarters of football but the Buccaneers defensive line finally achieved its first quarterback takedown when Adrian Clayborn rocked Matt Ryan in the third quarter. The first round draft pick had been nearly non-existent on the stat sheet through two games but has showed brief glimpses of his speed and power that enamored the Bucs' front office when hey decided to take him with their first round pick in last April’s 2011 NFL draft.
Sunday, with Atlanta deep in their own territory, Clayborn used a bull rush power move to overwhelm Falcons left tackle Sam Baker and drilled Ryan who coughed up the ball. Michael Bennett recovered the fumble and Tampa took advantage of the turnover, converting it into three points and a 13-3 lead. Clayborn finished with two tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
Brian Price added another defensive line takedown, this one maybe even more important. The second year nose tackle sacked Ryan on first down for a loss of 10 yards and the Falcons ended up settling for a field goal three plays later. Price finished the game with two tackles for loss and two quarterback pressures.
Clayborn and Price’s sacks were the first of both their young careers.
Final Grade: A
Key 4: Score A First Quarter Touchdown On Offense
Handed a golden opportunity by the Tampa Bay defense, Josh Freeman and Co. squandered the perfect chance to get on the board with a touchdown.
After a forced fumble by Dekoda Watson on a sack of Ryan and a Ronde Barber recovery, the Buccaneers’ offense began their first drive just 17 yards from breaking their 57-game streak of not scoring more than seven offensive points. After two plays the Buccaneers were on the Falcons 4-yard line first and goal but Freeman, who looked as if he could have scored had he kept it, instead tried to force a pass to Kellen Winslow that was picked off.
Freeman has now thrown three interceptions through three games in the end zone, two of them looking for Winslow. In training camp, Freeman tended to look to Winslow first and the chemistry shown was dynamic. Of course this was usually going against the second and third team defenses, and perhaps Freeman gained a littler overconfidence in his ability to connect with Winslow with the success they had during camp.
Final grade: F
Key 5: Use Koenen As A Weapon
Statistically Bucs’ punter/kickoff specialist Michael Koenen had a solid game. Averaging 43.3 yards per punt, and placing two of his three kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks [although Weems returned two from behind the goal line], on paper Koenen did everything his coaches asked of him. But two of his kickoffs were knuckle balls, and while some might have thought them to be squib kicks, from the look of Koenen’s body language they were mishit balls.
But the objective was to keep Falcon’s return man Eric Weems in check and Koenen and the Bucs did that for the most part. Weems averaged 19.3 yards on kickoffs and even more impressively only 8.0 yards on two punt returns.
Part of general manager Mark Dominik’s decision to sign Koenen was watching Weems go 102-yards for a fourth quarter touchdown return last December, effectively keeping Tampa Bay out of the playoffs.
Final Grade: B
Cook’s Prediction: Falcons 24, Buccaneers 21
Actual Score: Buccaneers 16, Falcons 13
With a not-so pretty formula on offense and an outstanding defense, the Buccaneers will finally be able to call this game a rivalry according to head coach Raheem Morris. Sure Julio Jones and Roddy White combined for 255 yards receiving and Atlanta was able to move the ball through the air to a tune of 330 yards, but the defense came up big in the redzone and limited the Falcons to just one touchdown and two field goals. And with a battered Peyton Manning-less Colts team coming to town next Monday night, Tampa Bay is in primed position to start the first quarter of the 2011 season 3-1.
Josh Freeman was not his sharpest throwing the football and easily could have had two more passes intercepted to go along with the two that were, but Tampa Bay’s signal caller did just enough to lead the Buccaneers to victory Sunday.
22-of 32 for 180 yards, and no touchdowns through the air Freeman's stat sheet won’t impress many but s the cliché goes, the only stat that matters is the win. And Freeman wouldn’t trade that for a Cam Newton 400-yard pass day for a million dollars.
Freeman’s leadership under pressure kept drives moving and despite his two interceptions, the Bucs’ third-year quarterback was the perfect game manager for Greg Olson’s offense Sunday.
Averaging just 3.5 yards per carry many may think the Buccaneers ground attack was non-effective. But for those watching in the stands it was obvious it was one of the biggest factors in Tampa Bays 16-13 win over Atlanta.
Blount wasn’t a human highlight reel but he effectively moved the sticks and took what the defense was giving. Sometimes a back has to take a one or two yard gain and live to play another down. Blount did just that, not trying to make too much out of nothing. And by the second half more and more holes were emerging and it helped to swing the time of possession in the Bucs’ favor.
The Buccaneers offensive line played their most well rounded game of the young 2011 season helping lead the rushing attack to 115 yards on the ground but maybe more importantly keeping Freeman upright and virtually untouched as they gave up zero sacks.
Two early-season defining moments for the offensive line both came in the second half. Freeman and the offense came out on their first drive of the half and marched 70 yards in 16 plays while eating up 8:10 of clock time.
And to end the game the Buccaneers took over with 4:06 left and ran out the clock converting three first downs and not allowing the Falcons back on the field to attempt a tying field goal or game-winning touchdown.
There was no Preston Parker-type standout receiver this week, but keeping with the win-ugly theme, the Buccaneers receivers were solid, if not spectacular.
Mike Williams responded from his worst career game last week at Minnesota to lead Tampa Bay with eight receptions for 43 yards. Arrelious Benn added four catches for 19 yards and Preston Parker had one reception for 11 yards.
While no one receiver will make any fantasy football owner too happy the coaches and fans of the Buccaneers won’t complain.
Luke Stocker made amends for his touchdown drop against the Lions in Week 1 with two receptions Sunday against Atlanta for 33 yards. Stocker’s 24-yard reception in the second quarter helped lead the Buccaneers to their first and only touchdown of the day and was the longest gain for the Buccaneers’ offense all game.
Kellen Winslow added two catches for 20 yards and drew a lot of attention from the Falcon’s secondary helping open up opportunities for the other receivers. Both Stocker and Winslow contributed blocking for Blount and helped the pass protection that didn’t allow a Falcons’ sack.
One of the brighter spots of Sunday’s win against Atlanta was the solid play of the defensive line as they contributed their first two sacks of the season when Adrian Clayborn and Brian Price took down Matt Ryan.
Along with the entire defensive the run support was above average limiting the dangerous Falcons’ running back Michael Turner to just 18 yards on 11 carries and allowing just 30 total yards on the ground.
The Buc’s defensive line ended up with nine tackles on the day, to go along with their two sacks, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Micheal Bennett only recorded one official tackle on the day but spent several plays in the Falcons backfield harassing Turner and Ryan, especially in the first half.
The linebacker play was also impressive in my opinion, as they must be given as much or more of the credit for slowing down Atlanta’s solid running game.
Rookie Mason Foster is making fans of Barrett Ruud forget about No. 51 and for his second game in a row recorded a sack. Foster was beaten along with safety Sean Jones on Tony Gonzalez’s fourth quarter touchdown reception but the linebacker has plenty of company in that category.
Geno Hayes suffered a head injury when he collided with fellow teammate Cody Grimm and didn’t return after the play in the third quarter. Up to that point Hayes was the leading tackler finishing the game with seven stops.
Dekoda Watson who filled in for the injured Quincy Black officially recorded just one tackle, his first quarter sack and forced fumble of Ryan. Tampa Bay used Watson coming off the edge several times and he was part of the constant harassment of Ryan throughout the game.
While Tampa Bay surrendered 330 yards through the air, and 225 yards to Jones and White, the secondary did their part keeping both out of the end zone.
It appeared Tampa Bay’s corners, Aqib Talib, E.J. Biggers, Myron Lewis, Elbert Mack and Ronde Barber was content to allow the Falcons receiver to work the underneath and prevent the cheap touchdown as safety Sean Jones told me after the game. When I asked Aqib Talib about the Buccaneers secondary playing off the receivers he flatly told me, “to re-watch the game, ad you will see them playing man most the game and then I will re-word my question.”
The play of Sean Jones was solid (seven tackles and one TFL) as he helped defend the deep ball, and Cody Grimm was playing well up until the third quarter when he was injured in a collision with teammate Geno Hayes and had to be carted off the field. Corey Lynch, who told me after the game he asked to play more of Grimm’s position in practice last week, filled in well and had a key pass breakup to prevent a touchdown on a fourth-down attempt by the Falcons.
Like most of the Buccaneers’ units, special teams did their part contributing in Tampa Bay’s 16-13 victory Sunday.
Koenen kicked well, the coverage units limited Eric Weems in the return game (8.0 per punt return, 19.3 on kickoffs) and Preston Parker was his dependable self returning two punts for a 14.5 yard average and adding a 24-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter.
Dwayne Stukes has my early vote for assistant coach of the year, as Tampa Bay's special teams have been outstanding through the preseason and the three regular season contests.