Atlanta quarterback Joey Harrington, fresh off a two-game winning streak, was the conference call participant with the Tampa Bay media on Wednesday. By the time Harrington hung up the phone, new Atlanta coach Bobby Petrino had named Byron Leftwich the starter. That would prove to be a costly mistake as Leftwich was sacked three times, fumbled twice times and threw two interceptions to a hungy and opportunistic Tampa Bay defense in the Buccaneers’ 31-7, blowout win in Atlanta.

Harrington replaced Leftwich with 4:43 left in the third quarter once Tampa Bay was up 24-0, but didn’t do much except for leading Atlanta to a garbage time touchdown to prevent a shutout with 1:10 remaining in regulation.

The Buccaneers defense was dominant, scoring 21 points off four turnovers, forcing five three-and-outs and preventing the Falcons from converting either of their two fourth down conversions. The Falcons, who fell to 3-7 on the season, added to their futility by committing 11 penalties for 105 yards and dropping eight passes.

Tampa Bay improved to 6-4 on the season and 3-0 in the NFC South. After New Orleans and Carolina lost during the Bucs’ bye week last Sunday, the Buccaneers benefited from another round of losses on Sunday by the Panthers (4-6) and the Saints (4-6) in addition to another loss by the Falcons (3-7).

Any concerns about the Buccaneers coming out flat after a bye week were dispelled rather quickly. The Bucs defense asserted itself in the first quarter and the offense did its part throughout the game. Quarterback Jeff Garcia completed 10-of-20 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns, while running back Earnest Graham rushed for 102 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown for a ground game that racked up 149 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry.

Tampa Bay’s running game was aided by the return of halfback Michael Pittman, who rushed for 44 yards on 10 carries after missing four games due to a high ankle sprain. But things didn’t start out great for him as Pittman dropped a pass on the Bucs’ first drive, then fumbled the ball to Atlanta at the Tampa Bay 32 after catching a slant pass from Garcia. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden threw the red flag to challenge the play, but instant replay supported the call on the field. But on the next snap, Jovan Haye, who was playing nose tackle on the play, absolutely drilled Leftwich, which caused his pass to flutter and get picked off by middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.

That turnover would prove to be huge as the Bucs took the lead on its next offensive possession. After taking over at the Tampa Bay 28, the Bucs covered 72 yards in three plays with the drive lasting just 1:02. After a 6-yard run by Graham on first down, tight end Alex Smith caught an 8-yard pass to move the chains. But at the end of that play Falcons defensive end John Abraham was flagged 15 yards for a low hit on Garcia in the pocket. With Tampa Bay having a first-and-10 at the Atlanta 44, Garcia used a pump fake to sell the slant to Falcons Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who bit on the fake, while Galloway blew down the left sidelines wide open to haul in a 44-yard touchdown pass. With 7:43 left in the first quarter, the Buccaneers had a 7-0 lead.

On third-and-10 from the Atlanta 37, Leftwich stepped up into the pocket and was sacked from behind by defensive end Greg White, who forced a fumble. Cornerback Ronde Barber came in from the secondary at full speed, scooping up the ball and sprinting 44 yards for a touchdown that put Tampa Bay up 14-0 with 10:42 left in the second quarter.

Tampa Bay almost recorded another turnover on the next series when linebacker Derrick Brooks forced a fumble with a hard hit on Warrick Dunn after a short pass. Linebacker Cato June recovered the ball, but Atlanta head coach Bobby Petrino successfully challenged the play, which was overturned by instant replay.

Then on the next play, Falcons wide receiver Roddy White fumbled when hit by June. The fumble was recovered by Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly, who lateraled it back to June. June tried to pitch the ball to June, but fumbled the ball back to Atlanta. Gruden challenged the play, but specified that he wanted to challenge whether the first person that recovered the ball was down by contact. That would have been Kelly. What Gruden should have said was that he wanted to see whether June was down by contact, which he was. Because of that mistake, the call on the field was upheld and the Falcons retained possession. But Atlanta couldn’t take advantage of its fortune and punted the ball back to Tampa Bay just a few plays later.

Following a great tackle by Barber and Ruud on fourth-and-1 at the Tampa Bay 45, the Bucs took over on downs with 9:57 left in the third quarter. The Bucs drove 49 yards in eight plays before the drive stalled at the Falcons 5. The drive started with a bang with a 20-yard pass play by Galloway. Graham got into the act with 30 yards on four straight carries, but two straight incompletions by Garcia led to a 23-yard field goal by Matt Bryant on fourth-and-goal from the Atlanta 5. With 6:35 left in the third quarter, Tampa Bay led 17-0.

On the second play of Atlanta’s next possession, Bucs rookie Gaines Adams came off the right end to hit Leftwich’s arm as he was throwing the ball. Nose tackle Chris Hovan juggled the ball about four times but came down with his first career interception and gave the ball back to the Tampa Bay offense at the Atlanta 27 with 6:20 remaining in the third quarter.

Three plays later, Garcia found Smith with a 21-yard touchdown pass down the seam. With 4:51 left in the third quarter, Tampa Bay had a commanding 24-0 lead.

That lead would swell to 31-0 after yet another touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter, this one by Graham, who scored from 26 yards out on a toss to the right. The 45-yard play took six plays and was led by Graham, who accounted for 38 yards on the ground and seven yards on a catch.

Atlanta’s Jerious Norwood returned the ensuing kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown, but the score was called back on a holding call by linebacker Stephen Nicholas.

The Falcons did put a score on the board when Adam Jennings caught a 7-yard pass from Harrington with 1:10 left in the fourth quarter to make the final score 31-7.

The Buccaneers were dominating the Falcons, but with the score favoring Tampa Bay, 14-0 in the third quarter, the game was still within reach for Atlanta. The Falcons decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Tampa Bay 45, but cornerback Ronde Barber and middle linebacker Barrett Ruud stuffed running back Jerious Norwood for no gain on a toss to the left. Tampa Bay took over with 9:57 left in the third quarter and drove down for a field goal to make it a three-score game at 17-0. That failed fourth down conversion seemed to suck the life out of Atlanta, especially when the Bucs turned that drive into a field goal with 6:35 left in the quarter. After that, the rout was on.

Tampa Bay’s pass rush has been a consistent sore spot for the Buccaneers this season. But not today. Tampa Bay’s defensive line came through in a huge way against Atlanta, sacking quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Joey Harrington four times (Greg White had two sacks, nose tackle Chris Hovan and defensive end Gaines Adams each having one), forcing two fumbles (both by White), forcing two interceptions with hard hits (Adams and under tackle Jovan Haye) and picking off one pass (Hovan). Because virtually every defensive lineman played great against the pass and the run (Haye had seven tackles), the entire defensive line gets the honors of’s Pewter Players of the Game.

• Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer running back Warrick Dunn needed 58 yards against his former team to reach the 10,000 rushing yard mark in his career. The Bucs held him to 32 yards on 15 carries (2.1 avg.) with a long gain of just six yards.

• Since 1970, 58 percent of the teams that have started 6-4 have made the postseason. Guess what? The Bucs are 6-4 with a commanding 3-0 record in the NFC South division. Tampa Bay has a two-game lead over New Orleans (4-6) and Carolina (4-6), including the tie-breakers against both teams.

• Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden is now 7-3 lifetime after a bye week. His record with the Bucs after the bye is now 3-3. With the victory, Gruden’s head coaching record in Tampa Bay improves to 45-45.

• Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber is still waiting for his elusive record-breaking 32nd career interception, but in the meantime, he scored his 11th career interception on a 41-yard fumble recovery against Atlanta. That score marked Barber’s fourth fumble return for a touchdown in his 11-year NFL career.

• Tampa Bay had a 14-0 lead at halftime and is now 6-0 leading at halftime this season. The Bucs are 0-4 when trailing at halftime in 2007.

Tampa Bay wide receiver Joey Galloway led the Bucs with 63 yards on two catches, including a 44-yard touchdown, which was his sixth of the season. … Tight end Alex Smith led all Bucs receivers with three catches for 51 yards and one touchdown, his third of the year. … Tampa Bay middle linebacker Barrett Ruud recorded his second career interception of the season against Atlanta. … Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan recorded his first career interception on Sunday in addition to his first full sack of the year. … With 9:56 left in the fourth quarter, Bruce Gradkowski replaced Jeff Garcia at quarterback with Tampa Bay up 31-0. … Bucs rookie fullback Byron Storer caught his first NFL pass, a 2-yarder from Gradkowski. … Tampa Bay running back Earnest Graham led all rushers with 102 yards on 17 carries (6.0). Graham has rushed for back-to-back 100-yard games. … Bucs rookie defensive end Gaines Adams forced an interception and recorded a sack against Atlanta, which brings his career total to 2.5. … Bucs defensive end Greg White had two forced fumbles and two sacks against the Falcons and now has a team leading 4.5, moving him past under tackle Jovan Haye, who has four sacks. … Linebacker Cato June led all tacklers with nine stops and a forced fumble. … Bucs defensive end Patrick Chukwurah returned to action against Atlanta after missing several games. He led Tampa Bay with two special teams tackles and one tackle on defense.

Starting offense:

WR Joey Galloway
LT Donald Penn
LG Arron Sears
C John Wade
RG Davin Joseph
RT Jeremy Trueblood
TE Alex Smith
TE Jerramy Stevens
FB B.J. Askew
RB Earnest Graham

Starting defense:
LE Kevin Carter
UT Jovan Haye
NT Chris Hovan
RE Gaines Adams
WLB Derrick Brooks
MLB Barrett Ruud
NCB Brian Kelly
LCB Phillip Buchanon
FS Tanard Jackson
SS Jermaine Phillips
RCB Ronde Barber

Starting specialists:
K Matt Bryant
P Josh Bidwell
LS Andrew Economos

Bucs Inactives: RB Michael Bennett,
LB Jeremiah Trotter, TE Keith Heinrich, DE Greg Spires, G Dan Buenning,
DT Greg Peterson,
CB Keiwan Ratliff and QB Luke McCown (emergency quarterback).

Falcons Inactives:
RB Artose Pinner, OT Terrance Pennington, OL D’Antony Batiste, OT Harvey Dahl, TE Courtney Anderson, WR Joe Horn, DT Tim Anderson and QB Chris Redman (emergency quarterback).

Bucs defensive end Greg Spires is the only player who was out due to injury. Spires has a calf strain and is expected to be out for the next week or two. No other Buccaneers injuries occurred during the game.

The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Falcons game at the Georgia Dome was 69,480, but it looked less than full capacity.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-4) will host the Washington Redskins (5-5) next week at Raymond James Stadium on November 25. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at:
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