After holding Atlanta's offense to just 49 yards rushing in November, Tampa Bay's defense allowed the Falcons to find some success via the ground attack in the first half of Sunday's game.
Led by running back Jerious Norwood, the Falcons produced several big runs, including Norwood's 29-yard run off the left side on the second drive of the game in the first quarter. That run eventually led to Atlanta's 33-yard field goal, which capped off a seven-play, 59-yard drive. Norwood, who entered Sunday's game averaging 6.0 yards per carry, finished the first half with seven carries for 56 yards (5.6 avg.).
Norwood carried the ball nine times for 73 yards (8.1 avg.) vs. Tampa Bay. Falcons RB Warrick Dunn finished Sunday's game with eight carries for 32 yards.
The Falcons produced just 95 yards of total offense and were 0-of-6 on third down tries in the first half, which allowed Tampa Bay to take a 27-3 lead into halftime.
With Atlanta down by multiple scores, the Falcons were forced to basically abandon their running attack in the second half, running the ball a total of just six times. Atlanta rushed 20 times for 106 yards (5.3 avg.) overall vs. Tampa Bay.
Bucs under tackle Jovan Haye made a critical stop on quarterback Chris Redman's scramble on third down, which forced the Falcons to kick the 33-yard field goal. Haye finished the game with two tackles.
Haye also recovered a fumble at the 6-yard line with 5:15 remaining in the second quarter after Bucs defensive end Gaines Adams sacked Redman and forced him to fumble on a third-and-9 play. Just over one minute later, Bucs running back Earnest Graham scored his 10th touchdown of the season, giving Tampa Bay a 24-3 lead over Atlanta. Adams led the Bucs defensive linemen with four tackles. Although he did not record a tackle in the second half, Adams had a solid game vs. Atlanta.
Tampa Bay DE Greg White got in the action with 1:04 remaining in the second quarter after quarterback Jeff Garcia's pass was intercepted by Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall. On Atlanta's first offensive play following the turnover, White busted into the backfield and hit RB Warrick Dunn and forced him to fumble. Not only did he force the fumble, White also recovered the loose ball at Atlanta's 11-yard line. However, a 15-yard penalty was assessed for choreographed celebration. The Bucs eventually settled for a Matt Bryant 27-yard field goal, which put the team up 27-3 at halftime. White finished the game with one tackle, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Bucs DE Kevin Carter recorded two tackles and deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage in the second half.
Tampa Bay nose tackle Chris Hovan notched one tackle. His backup, DT Ryan Sims, who saw significant playing time in the second half when the Bucs had a comfortable lead, recorded two tackles.
Tampa Bay's defense held Atlanta to just 133 yards of total offense on Sunday.
Although Tampa Bay was gashed by a few running plays in the first half, Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud was extremely active against the run, recording a team-high five tackles. He finished Sunday's contest with eight tackles and one pass defensed.
Most of Atlanta's success via the running game came near the perimeter. Bucs weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks and weakside linebacker Cato June were not as productive as usual from a tackling standpoint. Brooks notched just two tackles and June recorded one tackle vs. the Falcons.
Atlanta's offense was 0-of-9 on third downs and lost the first down battle to the Bucs on Sunday, 21 to 5.
Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber set the tone for Sunday's early. On a third-and-6 play on the first offensive drive of the game, Atlanta quarterback Chris Redman's pass to wide receiver Michael Jenkins in the flat was intercepted by Barber and returned 29 yards for a touchdown, which put the Bucs up 7-0 just one minute into the contest. Barber finished Sunday's game with just one tackle to go along with his interception and touchdown.
The second half began in a similar fashion for Redman. On Atlanta's first offensive series of the third quarter, Redman's short pass over the middle was intercepted by Bucs strong safety Jermaine Phillips at the Falcons' 23-yard line. That turnover eventually led to Matt Bryant's 34-yard field goal, which put Tampa Bay up 30-3. Phillips was extremely active against the run Sunday, notching three tackles.
Rookie free safety Tanard Jackson chipped in with two tackles.
Tampa Bay's coverage was excellent vs. Atlanta. Neither Phillip Buchanon nor Brian Kelly had a tackle at cornerback on Sunday.
Redman struggled mightily, completing just 4-of-15 passes for 34 and tossing no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Falcons' ability to convert third downs into first downs led to the Bucs dominating the time of possession, 42:59 to 17:01.
It became clear that it was Tampa Bay's day with 6:19 remaining in the first quarter when Bucs wide receiver Micheal Spurlock fielded a kickoff and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown. He field the kickoff in the middle of the field and made a great juke to the right sideline and beat Jason Snelling, , Corey McIntyre and Lewis Sanders down the right sideline for the score.
Tampa Bay had previously returned 1,864 kickoffs in its 32-year history without scoring a touchdown. Spurlock's kickoff return made a significant dent in Tampa Bay's history books and it also put the Bucs up 14-3. Spurlock finished Sunday's game with two returns for 98 yards (49.0 avg.).
The Bucs also pulled out some trickery on special teams. After Graham's touchdown run in the second quarter, Bucs kicker Matt Bryant pooch onside kicked the ball to the right side of the field. The ball ricocheted off of a player and bounced back about 10 yards, which allowed safety Kalvin Pearson to recover the loose ball at the 49-yard line. Bucs defensive end Patrick Chukwurah and Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas were each flagged for personal foul penalties, but they offset.
Despite the fact that there wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour at Raymond James Stadium, Bryant displayed an accurate leg. His first attempt came in the second quarter when he drilled a 33-yard field goal that capped off a 17-3 and capped off a 14-play, 57-yard drive. With just three seconds remaining in the second quarter, Bryant made a 28-yard field goal, which put the Bucs up 27-3 at halftime. Early in the third quarter, Bryant successfully kicked a 34-yard field goal, which gave Tampa Bay a 30-3 lead. Bryant finished the game 3-of-3 on field goal attempts.
Bucs punter Josh Bidwell pinned three punts inside the 10-yard line vs. the Falcons. However, his first punt in the first quarter was called back after linebacker Quincy Black's false start penalty. The Falcons eventually started that particular drive at the 26-yard line. Bidwell averaged 34.3 yards per punt and had a long of 54.
Tampa Bay's coverage units were excellent. Atlanta averaged just 20.8 yards per kickoff return on six attempts. Bucs rookie linebacker Quincy Black and free safety Will Allen each had three special teams tackles, while reserve safety Kalvin Pearson had two.
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden was wise to call for a heavy dose of running back Earnest Graham with winds that were as strong as 40 miles per hour and an early lead. The result was the Bucs rushing for 190 yards on 48 attempts (4.0 avg.) and one touchdown.
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin adjusted to Atlanta's successful running game early. The Bucs' tackling was sharp and the Falcons had no chance with Chris Redman at quarterback. Tampa Bay didn't allow Atlanta to convert a third down and held the Falcons to just 133 yards of offense.
Bucs special teams coach Richard Bisaccia should get a game ball along with Micheal Spurlock after Spurlock's 90-yard kickoff for a touchdown and the pooch onside kickoff call that resulted in recovered kickoff for the Buccaneers.
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