BUCS 31 FALCONS 10 - The game report
Scott Smith Buccaneers.com, published 22 September 2003

There were two teams in the Georgia Dome Sunday afternoon that clearly wanted to run the football. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could, the Atlanta Falcons couldn’t and the result was a runaway, 31-10 win for the visiting Buccaneers. Tampa Bay out-rushed the Falcons, 132-29 on the day, buying enough respect on the ground to set up several big plays in the passing game. RB Michael Pittman led the way in both regards, gaining 82 rushing yards and 82 receiving yards, highlighted by a 68-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter.

Tampa Bay’s defense was dominant, allowing just 136 yards, 49 of them in the fourth quarter when the Bucs had a three-touchdown lead and their second-string defense on the field, and forced five turnovers, including four interceptions. Defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland repeatedly penetrated the Atlanta offensive line to disrupt running plays in the first half, and both defenders also got into the game on offense, to great effect. More on that later.

The Bucs wanted to establish the run in hopes of exploiting Atlanta’s man-to-man coverage with some big plays, as they did last year on Keyshawn Johnson’s 76-yard touchdown catch. Eighteen minutes into the game, they did just that, but with a running back, not a receiver. On a third-and-two play with the Falcon defense stacked near the line of scrimmage, Pittman slipped behind the defense and QB Brad Johnson took a three-step drop and lobbed a ball over the defenders, hitting Pittman in stride. The agile back then out-raced two Falcon defenders to the end zone for a 68-yard touchdown, the longest scoring reception by a running back in team history.

The previous record in that category, a 60-yarder was held by Warrick Dunn, who was dressed in the opposition’s uniform on this day. The Falcons also tried to establish their running game early, but Dunn was caught in the backfield on four of his first seven carries and had just six yards at halftime, seven by the end of the game. The frustrated Georgia Dome crowd clamored for the use of bigger back T.J. Duckett, but he was largely ignored until the second half and finished with just six yards on three carries. In fact, none of the five Atlanta players who ran the ball gained more than seven yards on the day.

The Bucs’ second touchdown also victimized a stacked-in-the-box Atlanta defense, though from much closer range and to an even more surprising target. After a Dwight Smith interception gave Tampa Bay the ball at Atlanta’s 37, a superb, 15-yard catch by Keyshawn Johnson on third-and-eight helped get the Bucs down to the six. On first-and-goal, the Bucs brought in a massive package of players, putting DT Warren Sapp on the left side of the line and DT Anthony McFarland on the right. Atlanta expected run but the Bucs faked a handoff to Pittman and Sapp snuck into the end zone, where he was wide-open for a six-yard touchdown catch.

Sapp has played extensively in short-yardage offensive situations in the last two years, but that play just after the two-minute warning was his first career offensive touchdown. His end zone dance made it clear that Sapp is fond of Atlanta, and well he should be. As a rookie in 1995, Sapp recorded his only other touchdown on a five-yard return of an intercepted shovel pass against the Falcons (Oct. 22, 1995). Last year in the Georgia Dome, Sapp intercepted a pass deep in Atlanta territory and lateraled the ball to LB Derrick Brooks, who took it in for a touchdown. At halftime, the Bucs had a 177-87 edge in total yardage and the game had the feel of an impending blowout when Atlanta quickly went three-and-out to start the third quarter. That changed in a hurry, however, when RB Thomas Jones fumbled three plays later and Sam Rogers carried the loose ball back to Tampa Bay’s two. Though the Bucs made Atlanta use three plays to get it in, RB Woody Dantzler scored on a one-yard keeper on third down, making it 17-10.

That touchdown was the first one allowed by Tampa Bay in 2003, and the first offensive touchdown by a Buccaneer opponent in 18 regular-season quarters, dating back to the second-to-last game of 2002. Atlanta’s comeback proved to have a very limited shelf life. Mike Alstott, the Bucs’ second-half battering ram, scored two touchdowns in a three-minute span and Tampa Bay’s lead was inflated to 31-10. Alstott, who set up his second touchdown run with a 29-yard run to the one, finished the game with 44 yards on eight carries and the Bucs gained 132 yards overall on the ground, as compared to 150 in their first two games combined.

Tampa Bay’s defense was at its swarming best, picking off QB Doug Johnson, Michael Vick’s unlucky replacement, three times and third-stringer Kurt Kittner once. FB Darian Barnes also forced a fumble that S John Howell recovered when he flattened TE Brian Kozlowski on an ill-advised return of a short kickoff. That turnover set up the second of Alstott’s two third-quarter touchdowns. Dwight Smith, who had his first two NFL interceptions in the Georgia Dome last October, picked off two passes again, and S John Lynch had his first pick of the year on a diving play in the second quarter near Tampa Bay’s goal line.

Johnson finished the game with just 95 passing yards on 13 completions and was sacked twice, once by DE Simeon Rice. Rice already has four sacks through three games. LB Ryan Nece led the Bucs with five tackles and an interception, the pick coming after he switched from the strongside to the weakside to play on the second-team defense late in the game. The win was a critical one for the Buccaneers, who had fallen to 1-1 and 0-1 in the NFC South after last Sunday’s overtime loss to the Carolina Panthers. At 2-1, Tampa Bay stands a half-game behind the idle Panthers. The Buccaneers have now beaten Atlanta six consecutive times, dating back to 1997, and four straight times in the Georgia Dome by an average margin of 17.3 points.

Tampa Bay also shook off its placekicking woes of the week before, kicking one field goal and four extra points without incident. One disturbing point remained, however; after committing 17 penalties for 168 yards last Sunday, the Bucs were flagged 10 more times for 123 yards in Atlanta.