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DEFENSIVE LINE Tampa Bay's defense completely dominated Atlanta's offense in the Georgia Dome en route to the Bucs' 31-7 win over the Falcons.
The Falcons produced just 275 yards and one touchdown. Only 49 of those yards came via the ground game and Tampa Bay produced four turnovers vs. Atlanta, each of which can be directly attributed to the play of the Buccaneers' defensive line.
The Bucs initially struggled to get pressure on Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was starting in place of benched QB Joey Harrington. However, that all changed on the third series of the game with the Falcons on the Bucs' 31-yard line. Leftwich dropped back to pass and was drilled by defensive tackle Jovan Haye, whose punishing hit caused Leftwich's throw to pop up in the air and fall into the arms of middle linebacker Barrett Ruud for the interception. Tampa Bay's offense capitalized on that turnover when quarterback Jeff Garcia hit wide receiver Joey Galloway for a 44-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Haye was absolutely dominant against Falcons running back Warrick Dunn, who rushed for 32 yards on 15 carries (2.1 avg.). He tackled well and led Tampa Bay's defensive linemen with seven takedowns on Sunday.
The Bucs worked several players into their starting rotation in this game, including defensive lineman Greg White, who raised plenty of havoc in Atlanta's offensive backfield. In the middle of the second quarter Leftwich dropped back to pass and was forced up in the pocket by White, who chased the signal caller down for a sack and forced him to fumble. That play allowed cornerback Ronde Barber to scoop up the loose ball and return it 41 yards for a touchdown, which put the Bucs up 14-0. Late in the second quarter, White came through again, this time from the right end position, by sacking him and forcing him to fumble. However, Atlanta managed to recover that loose ball. White finished the game with two tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles.
Bucs rookie defensive end Gaines Adams started at right end in place of injured DE Greg Spires (calf), and he turned in the best performance of his young career. Adams was excellent in pursuit vs. the ground game and showed some impressive pass-rush moves. In the middle of the third quarter, Adams raced around Falcons left tackle Quinn Ojinnaka and hit Leftwich's throwing arm, which tipped the ball up in the air and allowed Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan to haul it in for an interception at the Falcons' 27-yard line. That turnover led to Garcia's 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Alex Smith, which put the Bucs up 24-0. Late in the fourth quarter, Adams beat the second-year left tackle again, this time sacking Harrington, who replaced Leftwich in the fourth quarter. On the same drive, Adams drew a holding penalty from Ojinnaka. Adams finished Sunday's game with two tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one tipped pass that led to an interception.
Hovan was a physical force against the run and proved to be quite disruptive. He notched four tackles, the interception and a sack on Leftwich that resulted in a 6-yard loss in the middle of the second quarter.
Kevin Carter started at left end for the Bucs. He recorded one tackle. Tampa Bay backup DE Patrick Chukwurah returned from a shoulder injury and recorded one tackle on defense.
Tampa Bay's defense recorded four sacks and four turnovers, three of which led to touchdowns for the Buccaneers on Sunday.
LINEBACKERS Tampa Bay's defense was extremely quick in terms of its pursuit of the ball carrier vs. Atlanta, and the linebackers performed quite well and accounted for several key plays in this game.
Strongside linebacker Cato June led Tampa Bay's defense in tackles with nine. He made some great open field tackles, especially near the sidelines. In the middle of the second quarter, June's tackle forced Falcons wide receiver Roddy White to fumble, which allowed cornerback Brian Kelly to recover the ball. Kelly lateraled the ball to June, who appeared to fumble the ball and give the Falcons possession again. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden challenged the play, citing his belief that Kelly was down by contact before he lateraled the ball to June, but replay showed that Kelly was in fact not down. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they probably would have retained possession had they contested that June was down by contact as that appeared to be the case.
Bucs weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks came up with some big hits of his own Sunday, including one on Dunn after the running back hauled in a short pass across the middle of the field. That contact appeared to force Dunn to fumble, which allowed June to recover the loose ball. However, the Falcons challenged the ruling on the field and replay overturned the call since Dunn didn't appear to demonstrate possession. Still, that play resulted in an incomplete pass thanks to Brooks' coverage and hit. Although he struggled a bit to put himself in position to make a few tackles on Dunn, who hauled in eight passes for 40 yards, and running back Jerious Norwood near the sideline in the second half, Brooks still finished Sunday's contest with six tackles and had an overall good game.
Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud hauled in an interception in the first quarter after defensive tackle Jovan Haye drilled Leftwich and forced his pass to fall well short of the intended receiver. The offense took advantage of that turnover by scoring a touchdown. Ruud finished the game with four tackles, one interception and one pass defensed.
SECONDARY Atlanta's offense struggled throughout Sunday's game, which prompted the Falcons to bench Leftwich and replace him with Harrington in the fourth quarter.
Leftwich completed 15-of-28 passes for 106 yards and threw two interceptions. He was also sacked three times.
Harrington completed 16-of-20 passes for 139 yards and threw one touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter.
The Buccaneers allowed WR Michael Jenkins to haul in nine passes for 73 yards, but he averaged just 8.1 yards per reception.
Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber made the biggest splash play this unit had on Sunday. In the middle of the second quarter, Bucs defensive lineman Greg White sacked Leftwich and forced him to fumble, which allowed Barber to race in, scoop up the loose ball and return it 41 yards for a touchdown. At the beginning of the third quarter, Barber was flagged for a personal foul penalty, which gave the Falcons an automatic first down. However, he made up for that penalty on the same drive when the Falcons elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Bucs' 45-yard line. Atlanta called a toss sweep play to Dunn, who was met near the sideline and before the first down marker by Barber, who made the tackle that led to the Falcons turning the ball over on downs. Tampa Bay's ensuing offensive drive led to a 23-yard field goal by kicker Matt Bryant. Barber recorded four tackles, recovered one fumble and scored a touchdown vs. the Falcons.
Although he did not play as much as Phillip Buchanon, Tampa Bay CB Brian Kelly made a significant impact in the team's secondary. In the first quarter, Kelly made a solid open field tackle on Dunn on third down to force the Falcons to punt. In the middle of the second quarter, Kelly recovered WR Roddy White's fumble, which was caused by June. His decision to attempt to lateral the ball in traffic was suspect, but June's fumble was not Kelly's fault. Kelly notched two tackles, one fumble recovery and one pass defensed.
Buchanon was extremely active Sunday, notching seven tackles. He played the run well run, evidenced by his ability to race into the offensive backfield on the fourth series of the game and make an open field tackle on Norwood for a 1-yard loss. However, Buchanon's play wasn't flawless. Late in the fourth quarter with the Bucs attempting to preserve a shutout, Buchanon guessed wrong on WR Laurent Robinson's route, which allowed the rookie to get open and haul in a pass from Harrington for a 33-yard gain down to the Bucs' 5-yard line. Atlanta capped that drive 13-play, 82-yard drive off with Harrington's 7-yard touchdown pass to WR Adam Jennings, which killed the Bucs' hopes of notching the shutout.
Bucs CB Sammy Davis came up huge on the fourth offensive series of the game when he defended a deep pass down the sideline and into the end zone from Leftwich to Robinson. The pass fell incomplete. On the same drive, Davis blitzed from the slot on third-and-11 and drilled Leftwich, which forced an errant pass and incompletion. He finished the game with two tackles.
Tampa Bay's safeties Jermaine Phillips and rookie Tanard Jackson notched three and two tackles, respectively. Jackson added one pass defensed. Backup S Will Allen saw action late in Sunday's game and notched two tackles.
The Bucs' secondary received a few breaks in this game where coverage appeared to be blown deep downfield but either the quarterback missed the intended target or the receiver dropped the ball. In fact, Atlanta had eight dropped passes vs. Tampa Bay on Sunday.
The Falcons converted just 1-of-9 third downs in the first half. Atlanta converted 5-of-16 (31 percent) of its third down tries during the entire game.
SPECIAL TEAMS Bucs kicker Matt Bryant drilled a 23-yard field goal after Tampa Bay's 8-play, 49-yard drive stalled in the third quarter. That field goal put the Bucs up 17-0.
Tampa Bay punter Josh Bidwell had an outstanding outing vs. Atlanta. Late in the second quarter Bidwell got off a punt that landed inside the Falcons' 10-yard line. That allowed wide receiver Maurice Stovall to tap the ball out of the end zone and for the Bucs to down the ball on the 4-yard line. Stovall made the tackle on Adam Jennings' 17-yard punt return in the third quarter. But an offsides penalty allowed the Bucs to punt again, and Bidwell got off a 61-yarder and linebacker Quincy Black made a great tackle on Jennings after a short gain. It proved to be a 31-yard difference in field position as the Falcons started the drive on their own 16-yard line. Bidwell averaged 42.2 yards per punt on five attempts.
Tampa Bay's punt return game was ineffective in the first half. The Bucs used cornerback Phillip Buchanon and wide receiver Ike Hilliard to return punts. Neither player was effective. The Bucs averaged just 1.0 yard per punt return on Sunday.
Bucs wide receiver Michael Spurlock did not return a kickoff until the opening of the third quarter. Spurlock's return put the Bucs offense on the 21-yard line.
Early in the second quarter tight end Anthony Becht was called for holding on one of Bidwell's punts. That penalty put the Falcons offense on their 26-yard line instead of the 16-yard line.
Defensive end Patrick Chukwurah made a great open field tackle on Jennings' punt return in the first quarter. He finished the game with two special teams takedowns.
Atlanta averaged just 19.7 yards per kickoff return and 3.8 yards per punt return vs. Tampa Bay.
COACHING Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden didn't have any luck in terms of challenging plays and keeping his timeouts vs. Atlanta.
On the first offensive series of the game, Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia used a timeout due to the fact that the offense had the wrong personnel out on the field for a third down play.
On the second offensive series of the game, Bucs running back Michael Pittman fumbled the ball after hauling in a short pass from Garcia. Replay showed that Pittman clearly fumbled the ball, but Gruden still challenged the play. They lost the challenge.
Perhaps Gruden's biggest error in terms of challenging plays came in the middle of the second quarter when linebacker Cato June forced wide receiver Roddy White to fumble the football, which allowed cornerback Brian Kelly to recover the loose ball. Kelly lateraled the ball to June who fumbled the ball and gave it back to the Falcons. Gruden challenged the play and claimed Kelly was down by contact before he lateraled the football. While replay showed that Kelly was not down by contact, it did show that June was. Had Gruden challenged that specific part of the play instead of Kelly's part the Bucs likely would have retained possession. Instead, the Falcons retained the ball and the Bucs lost their final timeout of the first half.
Gruden's decision to deactivate RB Michael Bennett probably was in question when RB Michael Pittman, who was making his return from an ankle injury, struggled early. However, Gruden's offensive game plan was effective, especially in the second half. Tampa Bay rushed for 149 yards on 31 carries (3.9 avg.) and one touchdown while quarterback Jeff Garcia tossed two touchdown passes. The Bucs offense took full advantage of the turnovers created by Tampa Bay's defense.
Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's group did a solid job vs. the Falcons offense. He had his troops prepared coming off of the bye. They recorded four sacks and created four turnovers en route to being 1:10 away from pitching a shutout. Atlanta entered Sunday's game with a plus-9 turnover ratio, which makes Tampa Bay's four-turnover outing even more impressive. Kiffin also did a nice job of mixing up some blitzes when the front four was struggling to get after the quarterback in the first quarter.
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