The Tampa Bay Buccaneers might want to petition the NFL to move their early-season bye week up a week. After a 0-2 start, thanks to a 14-3 loss at Atlanta that was a lot worse than the score indicates, the Bucs sure could use it.

Instead, Tampa Bay will have to host an equally desperate 0-2 Carolina Panthers team next Sunday before getting its much-needed bye week to address a host of problems.

The litany of issues that need to be fixed include:

• Scoring touchdowns. The Bucs have only scored one field goal in eight quarters of play and 23 offensive possessions, and have been outscored 41-3 in the last two games.

• Getting better quarterback play. Chris Simms is off to a horrendous start to the 2006 season with six interceptions, close to 10 batted balls at the line of scrimmage and no touchdowns. Half of Simms’ picks this year came at Atlanta.

• Stopping the run. Tampa Bay’s defense looked horrifically old, slow and sloppy in allowing Atlanta to rush for a franchise-high 306 yards on the ground.

• Making field goals. After making 84 percent of his field goals in 2005, Matt Bryant made only one of his first three attempts in the 2006 campaign.

Think Tampa Bay’s 27-0 loss in the season opener was bad? The Bucs’ loss at Atlanta was even worse because of breakdowns in all three phases of the team – offense, defense and special teams. Last week, Tampa Bay’s special teams played well and its defense wasn’t nearly as bad as it was this week.

What is stunning is that Atlanta left 12 more points on the field as kicker Michael Koenen missed two field goal attempts and had two blocked (by safety Jermaine Phillips and defensive end Dewayne White), and the Falcons played without three of their top playmakers on defense in middle linebacker Edgerton Hartwell and ends John Abraham and Patrick Kerney. The outcome could have been much worse for Tampa Bay.

After the game, head coach Jon Gruden didn’t know which phase of his team concerned him the most, an anemic offense that couldn’t score more than a field goal despite three trips inside Atlanta’s 10-yard line, or a defense that gave up more rushing yards than any Bucs defense in creamsicle uniforms ever did.

“To be honest, we’re 0-2 and we’ve been beaten by I think two good football teams and we need to re-group and go home and play a hell of a team next week in Carolina,” Gruden said. “I’m not going to publicly present the illusion that I’m in the tank, but I’m very disappointed, certainly in myself. I’d like to be playing better right now, but obviously we have a ways to go.”

The Bucs were baffled by Atlanta’s top-ranked running game that featured quarterback Michael Vick, who was 10-of-15 for 92 yards and a touchdown with one interception, and Warrick Dunn running the option. Vick rushed for 127 yards on 14 carries (9.1 avg.), while Dunn led the Falcons with 134 yards on 21 carries (6.4 avg.). Rookie Jerious Norwood added 45 yards on nine carries (5.0 average). A week after an eye-opening rushing day against Carolina with 252 yards, the Falcons ran for 306 against Tampa Bay.

“Offensively, what they did today speaks for itself,” Gruden said.

In fact, Gruden wishes he had just half of the Falcons’ ground production. Running back Cadillac Williams has yet to resemble the player he was last year when he won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, perhaps due to lingering back spasms which limited his practice time this week. Williams gained just 37 yards on 15 carries (2.5 avg.) against Atlanta, and has only 59 yards rushing on 23 carries on the year.

But as concerned as Gruden may be with getting his running game going, his troubles at the quarterback position may be even more pressing. Opposing defenses continue to anticipate Simms’ throws due to his long wind up and are batting down his passes at the line of scrimmage and intercepting him. Aside from his three picks, Simms completed 28-of-53 passes for 313 yards, but had a passer rating of 47.1.

“We had some chances, there’s no question about that,” Gruden said of his offense. “We just have to take a good look at it and go from there. We had many opportunities today to make a play here or make a play there and that’s what you have to do. We’ll do all we can to remedy this situation and improve it because we’re not scoring.”

On one of those opportunities, Simms hit wide receiver Joey Galloway, who had nine catches for 161 yards after not catching a pass last week, for a 55-yard gain off play action in the third quarter. But Galloway had to dive for the ball, which was thrown just off target, and was touched down at the 9-yard line. Instead of scoring a touchdown on the possession, the Bucs turned the ball over three plays later when Simms was intercepted at the goal line by defensive back Kevin Mathis.

“The one to Galloway, it’s a touchdown if I throw a good ball,” Simms said. “It just slipped out of my hand. There’s really no excuse for it.

“We didn’t take advantage of opportunities. I made some dumb plays and had some bad luck.”

Aside from almost connecting with Galloway for a touchdown, Simms missed a wide-open Ike Hilliard in the end zone right before the end of the half. Tampa Bay had to settle for a field goal instead.

“I’m just disappointed in myself,” Simms said. “The one to Ike before the half, I was throwing the ball away and as I was throwing it away I saw him pop open on the other side of the ‘backer. I was literally throwing it away when I saw him open and I tried to readjust the throw, but it was too late.

“There were just so many opportunities that we had all day long and whether it was a penalty, an interception by me or a receiver falling on a route – we just haven’t gotten any breaks this year.”

With his quarterback having thrown six interceptions in two games, Gruden was asked if he was contemplating a change at the position.

“I’m not contemplating anything right now except whether or not I should … never mind,” Gruden said. “I’m not contemplating a quarterback change at this time, but I will address the future of the quarterback position as we move forward.”

Simms said he knew that Gruden was disappointed in his play, but didn’t know what to make over his batted balls.

“I’m sure he is,” Simms said. “He wants to win. I want to win. Hopefully he hasn’t lost confidence in me. I know I can play better.

“I don’t know what to tell you [regarding the deflected passes]. I changed my arm angle and they still got it. It’s just being talked about it a lot and the other team that we’re playing that week, they’re reading it and they’re becoming aware of it. It’s just one of those things right now.”

Phillips stymied Atlanta’s first offensive drive by drilling wide receiver Roddy White at the Bucs’ 22-yard line and forcing a fumble. Phillips recovered the loose ball at the 13 and returned it to the Tampa Bay 20. The Bucs offense picked up two first downs and got down to the Atlanta 28, thanks in part to a 25-yard pass play by Galloway, but bogged down after an incompletion to Mike Alstott on third-and-3. Matt Bryant missed a 45-yard field goal to the right.

After gaining 35 yards rushing on Atlanta’s first drive, Vick continued his running ways on the Falcons’ second drive with a 16-yard gain to move his team into Tampa Bay territory. A 34-yard pass interference call on cornerback Ronde Barber on receiver Michael Jenkins set up Atlanta with a first-and-goal on the Bucs’ 10. Three plays later, Vick scored a 1-yard touchdown on a bootleg to put Atlanta up 7-0 with 4:11 left in the first quarter.

Tampa Bay’s offense couldn’t get untracked on their next possession, which featured two more of Simms’ batted balls. Without any points on the board in the first quarter, the Bucs have failed to score a point in five straight quarters. Atlanta, who entered Sunday’s game as the NFL’s leading rushing team with 252 yards against Carolina last week, had 90 yards on the ground by the end of the first quarter and averaged 7 yards per carry.

Atlanta chewed up even more yardage on the ground on its next possession, getting into field goal range with runs of 13 and 11 yards, while Vick added 16 more on a scramble. But at the 9:31 mark in the second quarter, Koenen’s 30-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Phillips.

However, any momentum the Bucs got from that play was quicked dashed when Simms threw an interception deep in Tampa Bay territory. Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall was the culprit and returned Simms’ pass intended for Michael Clayton to the Tampa Bay 12. Three plays later, Vick hit fullback Mike McCrary in the right flat for a 4-yard touchdown. McCrary ran over linebacker Derrick Brooks on the play to give Atlanta a 14-0 lead with 8:25 left in the second quarter.

Atlanta had a chance to add to its lead, but Koenen missed a 30-yard field goal to the right with 3:32 left in the half. That sparked a Tampa Bay scoring drive that covered 70 yards, but only resulted in a 22-yard field goal by Bryant to end the half with the Bucs trailing 14-3.

Simms completed his first six passes on the drive, including a 19-yarder to Clayton, but was only 1-of-6 on his next throws as the Bucs bogged down inside the Falcons’ 10-yard line. On third-and-goal from the Atlanta 9, Simms missed a wide-open Hilliard in the end zone. Although the Bucs got a first-and-goal situation at the Atlanta 4 after a Falcons penalty, they ran out of time and had to bring out Bryant with one second left before halftime.

The second half was about missed field goals and missed opportunities. Simms not connecting with Galloway for a touchdown in the third quarter on a 55-yard pass play cost Tampa Bay points as the drive ended when his pass intended for tight end Alex Smith in the end zone was tipped by Demorrio Williams hand, deflected by Lawyer Milloy’s leg and eventually picked off by Jason Webster at the Atlanta 1.

The Bucs lost another prime scoring opportunity thanks to a questionable block in the back call on linebacker Ryan Nece that nullified a 63-yard interception return for a touchdown by Brooks in the third quarter. To make matters worse, Bryant missed his second field goal of the day – a 43-yarder – to cap off the drive.

Two possessions later, Simms would throw his third pick of the day as Hall stepped in front of Galloway in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.

The 0-2 Buccaneers need a week off right now to correct their mistakes and bend their shaken confidence. Instead, they are in danger of falling to 0-3 on the season and 0-2 in the division as NFC South rival Carolina comes calling. Meanwhile, Atlanta is off to a 2-0 start, including a 2-0 lead in the division.

“We just need to get that first touchdown,” Simms said. “That will take a big load off our whole offense. We can’t continue to depend on our defense. We have to capitalize. We can’t get down to the 5-yard line and not come away with touchdowns. That’s heartbreaking.”


Copyright 2006

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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: [email protected]
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