Defending Their Turf: Bucs Run Down Falcons
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 15 September 2008

You would have sworn he was talking about Jeff Garcia. After all, his initial assessment of Brian Griese's first start was, word for word, precisely the same. "I thought he missed some throws he normally hits," Jon Gruden said.

He did. It didn't matter. Griese will start next week at Chicago. Barring an injury, he probably will start the week after that and the week after that and the week after that as well. Such is the reward that comes with winning, even when your role in the victory is pretty much a secondary one.

The Bucs got back to even Sunday and sidestepped the abyss that would have been an 0-2 start in their division by leaning mostly on their defense in what proved to be a 24-9 rout of the Falcons. "We are accustomed to that leaning on the defense, and our defense did play well today," said Gruden, whose team got 10 points off two defensive takeaways while limiting the Falcons to 234 total yards.

The Falcons ran for more than that in their opener a week ago, gaining 318 yards on the ground against Detroit, but the Bucs limited them to 105 yards on 28 carries and put the game on the shoulders of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan didn't respond very well. After an impressive debut last week he completed only 13 of his 33 passes and took four sacks to finish the day with a quarterback rating of 29.6. "Our line did a great job of pressuring him," said Sabby Piscitelli, the second-year safety who had one of the Bucs two takeaways, an interception on the Falcons' fourth offensive series.

That and rookie Aqib Talib's interception on the fourth play of the game helped the Bucs take an early 17-0 lead. It also helped re-establish the Bucs defense as one of the league's pre-eminent defensive units. Their reputation for being that was tarnished a bit last week at New Orleans, where the Bucs allowed the Saints to break off three big plays during an uncharacteristic 24-20 opening-day loss.

The three big plays all came against a Bucs secondary that ranked first overall in the league a year ago and put an emphasis this week on making big plays, not giving them up. "We weren't about to let those three plays we gave up last week define us," said veteran cornerback Ronde Barber. "We had to bounce back this week and we did. But that's what great defenses do."

The Falcons aided the Bucs in their rebound attempt. In a move that surprised many on the Bucs sideline, the Falcons ignored their top-ranked running attack and came out throwing. "I'd say that backfired on them a little bit," said Barber, who watched as Ryan misfired on each of his first nine throws of the game. "They played right into our hands."

Nevertheless, the Bucs couldn't quite put the Falcons away. They were still in the game in the fourth quarter and mounting a comeback of sorts when Earnest Graham broke off a 68-yard touchdown run to close the deal. That gave a more impressive look to the final score and the final stat sheet, but up to that point the Griese-led offense had produced just 222 yards (32 yards less than the Falcons). Penalties were a big part of the problem. The Bucs were penalized six times for 45 yards on offense through the first three quarters. But poor execution was part of the problem, too.

The Bucs struggled early on to run the ball, particularly on early downs. Griese, meanwhile, struggled to hit some of his receivers, completing 18 of 31 passes for 160 yards. When he needed to be, though, Griese was solid. He was particularly sharp on third down, connecting with Ike Hilliard on three plays that kept drives alive and he found a new target in tight end John Gilmore. Gilmore caught a 5-yard pass from Griese to account for the Bucs' first touchdown and he finished off a seam route by grabbing a 36-yard Griese pass to set up another scoring chance.

Like Garcia a week ago, he chalked his inconsistencies up to rust. Unlike Garcia, it looks like he will get a chance next week to continue looking for the rhythm that wasn't quite there Sunday. "There are some things that I think we can improve on and I look forward to that opportunity," Griese said. "I'm excited about that opportunity."

Thanks to his defense, there's plenty for the Bucs to still be excited about.