There is no denying the fact the Atlanta Falcons are a wounded bird. Without quarterback Michael Vick, their offense has no wings with which to fly and their undersized defense has no claws with which to stop a running attack. But the Bucs entered Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome an equally wounded animal. In losing last week to the Carolina Panthers, they looked bad on offense and even worse on special teams. What a difference plugging the ``A-gap'' makes.
With that problem and a few others corrected by some minor personnel changes, the Bucs shot down the Falcons with a 31-10 victory that appeared to re-establish Tampa Bay not only as the team to beat in the South Division, but the entire NFC. ``The sign of a good team is when you can come back and play well after a tough loss and we were able to do that today,'' Jon Gruden said. ``I was very happy with our team today.''
There was a lot to be happy about. After two worrisome outings, the running game looked as it did at the end of 2002. And despite the absence of red-zone target Joe Jurevicius, the Bucs had little trouble converting their scoring chances inside the red zone, where a new star emerged. ``Two-way'' Warren Sapp, no longer just a blocker in the Bucs' short-yardage and goal- line offense, scored the first offensive touchdown of his career by hauling in a 6-yard pass from Brad Johnson late in the second quarter. That play has been in the offense since before we went to San Diego for the Super Bowl,'' Sapp said. ``But I'm much more into taking a football away from a quarterback than I am catching one from him.''
You wouldn't have known it from watching Sapp's celebratory dance. Before being mobbed by his teammates, he hopped up and down like a kid jumping rope, then lifted the ball up over his head as if it were a trophy. Later, though, Sapp made it clear that he was happiest about the job he and his fellow defenders did stopping the Falcons' running game. After allowing Carolina's Stephen Davis to run for 142 yards against them last week, the Bucs limited Atlanta rushers to just 29 yards on 19 carries. ``We take it personal when a team wants to run against us,'' Sapp said. ``But once we get a team's running game under control, we can beat anybody and we were ready to roll from the first snap today.''
Hurried and harassed into making poor choices with the ball, Vick fill-in Doug Johnson threw three interceptions before he was pulled in the fourth quarter. ``We got [Johnson] talking back at us and whenever you can do that to a quarterback you know you've got him,'' said free safety Dwight Smith, who had two interceptions. ``We really got him frustrated.''
The only Falcons player who didn't seem to get frustrated by the Bucs was Woodrow Dantzler. He had a 12-yard run and scored a touchdown on a 1-yard option play early in the third quarter after lining up under center. The TD was the first scored against the Bucs' defense in 17 quarters, but it was more the result of their lone mistake on offense - a fumble by running back Thomas Jones that Atlanta linebacker Sam Rogers returned 37 yards to the 2. ``I still thought we were in it when the defense got that turnover and we scored [to make it 17-10],'' Falcons coach Dan Reeves said. ``But they drove right back down the field and scored and then we fumbled the ensuing kickoff.''
Tight end Brian Kozlowski fumbled the kick return, and while credit for forcing it and recovering it went to Darian Barnes and John Howell, respectively, credit for creating it had to go to special teams coach Richard Bisaccia. Bisaccia spent a good part of the day ordering Martin Gramatica to kick away from dangerous Falcons return man Allen Rossum, and on that play his strategy worked. That wasn't Bisaccia's only call that worked. After watching Carolina block two field goals and an extra point in last week's overtime loss, he altered his protection unit. With John Wade replacing Cosey Coleman as the left guard and Sean Mahan taking over at right guard on the field goal unit, Gramatica nailed his only field goal try and was good on each of his four extra point attempts. ``We have to give the man good looks,'' Gruden said of Gramatica. ``We can't take the bat out of his hands. Our pride was on the line there today and I thought our guys delivered.''
The line delivered on offense, too. After being penalized repeatedly a week ago, that played a much cleaner game Sunday and allowed the Bucs to run for 132 yards. It also allowed quarterback Brad Johnson to manage the offense better, and with the time he was given to look for options, he performed splendidly. Johnson completed 16 of 24 passes for 192 yards, 68 of which came on a soft toss to Michael Pittman, who beat linebacker Keith Brooking's coverage and ran untouched down the left sideline for a second quarter, tie-breaking touchdown. ``We felt like we had to keep things manageable this week and we did that,'' Johnson said. ``I mean, there's a lot we can do in this offense if we stay away from penalties. We proved that today.''
It wasn't the only thing they proved. Just as they did last year, the Bucs proved they're hard to beat two weeks in a row. They're now 5-0 after a loss under Gruden and to many that speaks volumes. ``Last year, when we did stub our toe and lost, we always came back and won,'' safety John Lynch said. ``And there's no doubt that losing last week was on our mind. So to win today like we did, well, that's just what champions do.''