On a day in which the Atlanta Falcons brought their “B” game to Raymond James Stadium, the Buccaneers found yet another way to lose, going down 17-6, completing the sweep by NFC South opponents this season.
The game plan was simple — stop the league’s top ground attack and arguably the best one-two rushing combonation in football.
Falcons running back Warrick Dunn needed 48 yards to go over 1,000 for the third straight season, but he left due to injury in the third quarter with just 45.
Michael Vick needed 40 rushing yards to break the NFL single season rushing record for a quarterback. He got just five.
But the Falcons’ two best runs of the day came from neither Dunn nor Vick. Instead, they were turned in by two of the most unlikely sources, a linebacker and a seldom-used fullback.
On the Bucs’ first offensive possession of the second half, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was sacked and stripped of the ball by Falcons defensive end John Abraham. Outside linebacker Demorrio Williams scooped up fumble and raced 54 yards for the touchdown, helping to put the Falcons up 7-6.
To that point, Tampa Bay appeared to be somewhat in control, putting together two first half drives that ended in Matt Bryant field goals and thwarting Atlanta’s only legitimate scoring threat when cornerback Phillip Buchannon intercepted Vick in the end zone just prior to the half.
Gradkowski’s fumble occurred on the Falcons 34-yard line and on the 13th play of a Bucs drive that appeared destined to add to a six-point lead. Instead, it shifted momentum.
“We had some plays go our way to keep us moving, but I held the ball too long on that one,” Gradkowski said. “I have to know that it’s time to go, I can’t sit back there and hold the ball especially against a good rusher like that. That was kind of the turning point right there, that really hurt us.”
The Bucs went three-and-out on their next possession, which was characterized by a 1-yard loss by running back Cadillac Williams on first down and a false start on left tackle Anthony Davis on third. Williams continues to look for his groove this season. He carried 20 times for 48 yards against the Falcons and had a critical fumble in the fourth quarter that led to a Morten Andersen field goal.
“Right now, I’m kind of disgusted,” Williams said. “Overall, it’s another loss and another big fumble for me. So right now, I just feel frustrated.”
Atlanta took that momentum and put together its best drive of the day, going 71 yards in 14 plays. The drive ended on fullback Justin Griffith’s 21-yard touchdown run.
The irony of the touchdown was that Tampa Bay contained two of the league’s shiftiest athletes for nearly three quarters, but a 232-pound fullback, making just his seventh carry of the season, looked like O.J. Simpson in his hey day.
Two cuts and Griffith went untouched through the defensive line, racing toward the end zone with one man to beat, safety Will Allen. One juke later, Griffith was celebrating his first rushing touchdown as a pro and Allen was left searching for his shoes.
“I can’t take all the credit for that,” Griffith said. “It’s just one of those things we practice everyday. We practice everyday how to make people miss in the open field.
“Get into the guy’s area, give him the head fake, and he’s going to miss you every time.”
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said he was sure there was a breakdown on that particular play and said a man was out of his gap in their one-gap defense, which allowed Griffith to cut back.
Down 14-6 at that point, the game was technically within reach with more than a quarter to play. In reality though, record keepers were putting this one in the books, especially after Gruden elected to put in backup quarterback Tim Rattay for his first action of the season late in the fourth quarter.
Why not? The Bucs offense hadn’t scored a touchdown since the second quarter of the Dallas Thanksgiving game. It ended it’s last game knocking on the Steelers door in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, but Gruden elected to kick a field goal on the game’s final play to avoid the shutout.
In nearly identical circumstances against Atlanta, a last ditch effort to score highlighted the offense’s frustrations. Rattay’s pass to wide receiver Joey Galloway came up two yards shy of the end zone, a place that seems as far away as the North Pole these days for the struggling Buccaneer offense, which now extends its touchdown drought to 10 quarters.
Gradkowski and company have been outscored 75-19 over the last three games. Sunday’s loss marked the seventh game this season in which the team has failed to score more than 10 points.
“We’re just not playing very good offensive football right now, running the ball, pass protecting and throwing,” Gruden said.
Not since 1977 has a Buccaneer team gone winless in its division. Sunday’s loss to Atlanta makes it 0-6 against the NFC South, a division the Bucs won last year, going 5-1.
As a team, Atlanta came in to Sunday’s game averaging over 200 yards rushing. They finished with 139, most of which came late in the fourth quarter running down the clock.
In a first half that the Bucs appeared in control, the defense held the league’s best rushing attack to 60 yards and the Falcons offense to just 2-of-8 on third down conversions. Gradkowski finished 13-of-24 for 121 yards with no interceptions and no touchdowns.
“You know coach made a decision out that and after I fumbled that one, we really weren’t moving the ball,” he said. “That’s his decision and I have to go with it.”
Defensive captain Derrick Brooks and his unit have taken their share of criticism this season, but Sunday’s game can hardly be hung on them. The offense gave Atlanta 10 points and produced just six of its own. Afterwards, Brooks said the team failed to take advantage of its opportunities and that he hates to use the word frustrating. He opted for “disappointing.”
At 3-10, with three difficult games to go still, the team is running out of polite words and the fans are running out of patience.
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