It’s time for PewterReport.com’s 2-Point Conversion post-game column, which features two statements, two questions and two predictions based on the latest Bucs game. Tampa Bay rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit to beat the Falcons, 31-27, in Atlanta to improve to 9-5 behind Tom Brady’s 390 yards passing and two touchdowns. It was the second-largest comeback in team history as the Bucs outscored the Falcons 31-10 in the second half.
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2 BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1. Brady, Bucs Come Back To Stun Falcons
There are a few certainties in life – death, taxes and the Falcons choking in the fourth quarter.
We all know about Atlanta blowing a 28-3 lead against Tom Brady and New England in Super Bowl XLI, losing 34-28 in overtime to the Patriots four years ago. Since then, the Falcons have perfected the art of the choke, blowing fourth quarter leads against the Cowboys, the Bears, the Lions, the Vikings, the Chargers and now the Bucs, who rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit and trailing 24-7 in the third quarter to stun Atlanta, 31-27.
Some of those fourth quarter failures cost general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn their jobs earlier in the season, and could cost Raheem Morris his in a few weeks, as he’s now 4-5 as interim head coach thanks to Brady. After completing just 10-of-16 passes for 70 yards in the first half, Brady and the Bucs offense – which was missing running back Ronald Jones II and left tackle Donovan Smith due to COVID-19 – caught fire in the second half.
Brady finished the game completing 31-of-45 passes for 390 yards, which was a season-high, and two touchdowns with 320 passing yards and both scores coming in the second half. Mike Evans had six catches for 110 yards and Chris Godwin added three catches for 32 yards and a score, but it was Brady’s 46-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, who finished with a season-high 93 yards on five catches, that gave Tampa Bay its first lead with 6:14 left and provided the winning score.
The Bucs produced just 60 yards of total offense in the first half, but finished with 416 yards, including 356 yards after halftime in the team’s amazing comeback.
Defensively, the Bucs surrendered 261 yards in the first half, but limited the Falcons, who were playing without Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones, to only 108 yards in the second half. Tampa Bay outscored Atlanta 31-to-10 in the second half, and went to more man coverage to help limit the effectiveness of wide receivers Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage.
It was a curiously quiet game for edge rushers Shaquil Barrett, who had three tackles, and Jason Pierre-Paul, who didn’t record a single statistic, but inside linebacker Devin White came through with a game-high 12 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks and two pass breakups.
Tampa Bay, which also trailed earlier in the year by 17 points to the Los Angeles Chargers, are now 9-5 on the season and one win away from clinching the team’s first playoff berth since 2007 thanks to Brady’s brilliance. But Brady hasn’t been perfect when it comes to comebacks, falling short in the final minutes against the likes of the Bears and the Rams.
While the Bucs have shown they can mount comebacks against the likes of the Chargers, Panthers and Falcons, they haven’t been able to do that against playoff-caliber teams like the Saints, Rams and Chiefs. At least not yet.
STATEMENT 2. Bowles Needs To Scrap Soft Zone Defense
Todd Bowles’ penchant for playing soft zone defense has been a culprit in the Bucs’ slow starts this year, and that remained true on Sunday in Atlanta. It’s time Tampa Bay stops starting the game in zone coverage and plays more aggressively out of the gate.
Bowles did play some man coverage against Kansas City and Tyreek Hill burned the Bucs for doing so, but Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator seems so shell-shocked by that game that he’s resorted back to playing an abundance of zone coverage, which the team’s young safeties, cornerbacks and linebackers struggle with.
I understand that Bowles can’t call man coverage every play and needs to mix up coverages to keep opposing quarterbacks and offenses honest. But the Bucs general manager Jason Licht drafted three press-man cornerbacks in Carlton Davis III, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, and those players aren’t being allowed to play to their strengths, which is disappointing.
Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley had 76 yards and a touchdown in the first half, mostly against zone coverage, and finished with 10 catches for 163 yards. Russell Gage had 54 yards and a TD in the first half, and ended up with 68 catches on five catches once the Bucs defense played more man coverage in the second half.
“I was not happy when they answered the drive with a touchdown,” said Bucs head coach Bruce Arians. “Then, we figured it out, started playing pretty [well]. They made the one drive, but overall the fourth quarter is when we really played well – I thought – defensively. [We] got [Matt Ryan] on the ground and got him back there. They did a great job of max protection – I think Dirk [Koetter] had a great game plan. They max protected [and] got two guys going down. Finally we just doubled both of them and got home.”
Playing more man coverage also allowed inside linebacker Devin White to get to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan three times in the second half. White now has a career-high eight sacks this season, which is third on the team, and Tampa Bay has 43 sacks for the year collectively.
“It was a situation where he had the back man-to-man and they were max protecting, so it gave us another free rusher and he found two gaps,” Arians said. “He’s so quick – when he sees a gap, he can shoot it and got him on the ground both times. They were big, big sacks.
“We played a lot of two man and different ways of playing two man. We had two deep safeties and everybody [else] is playing man-to-man. They kept the back in, which was letting Devin free to blitz and he found some good creases and got home.”
It would be really interesting to see just how much better the Bucs could play if Bowles would actually start the game off by playing press man coverage instead of resorting to it when the team begins to trail.
2 PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Why Does The Offense Continue To Be Awful In The First Quarter?
I don’t know, and nobody knows. The Bucs continue to be awful in the first quarter, especially on offense. Tampa Bay has been outscored 97-65 in the first quarter this season, including trailing 7-0 in Sunday’s game at Atlanta.
In fact, the Bucs have been outscored 76-17 in the first quarter over their last 10 games. That’s stunningly bad, and led to Tampa Bay falling behind 17-0 at halftime, as the Falcons out-gained the Bucs 261-60 yards in the first half.
“It’s the way we’re capable [of playing] – that’s the way we should be playing,” said Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians. “My comments to the team after the game [were], ‘If we can play 30 minutes like that, why can’t we play 60?’ It’s frustrating.”
The last time the Bucs had a lead in the first quarter was 10-0 at Chicago in a 20-19 loss to the Bears back in Week 5. Tampa Bay has not scored any points in the first quarter since its touchdown at Carolina on November 15. The Bucs trailed 14-7 in that game, before pouring it on in the second half for a 46-23 win over the Panthers.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to play our best for 60 minutes as opposed to 30,” said Bucs quarterback Tom Brady. “It was a good win by us. Everyone loves winning, but we also want to play better. We want to play our best and I think next week gives us another opportunity to try to do our best. It’s a tough week because it’s Christmas, but [we have] got to focus on what we’ve got to do. We’ve worked pretty hard to get to this point, but there’s still a lot left ahead of us.”
QUESTION 2: Do The Bucs Have To Replace Murphy-Bunting?
Yes. It’s unfortunate, but Tampa Bay simply can’t count on cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting in 2021. Not the way he’s played this year, as he’s often been the worst cornerback on the field for the Bucs.
Coming into Sunday’s game, Murphy-Bunting had given up 49 passes for 608 yards and four touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. On Sunday he surrendered the Falcons’ first two touchdown catches to Russell Gage and Calvin Ridley, unable to keep up with Gage in man coverage and looking lost in zone coverage against Ridley. Murphy-Bunting also allowed a 33-yard catch-and-run to Ridley in the fourth quarter.