Bucs hang on to top Falcons, 16-13
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 26 September 2011

As he walked to the line of scrimmage for a fourth-and-1 play with 1:49 left on the clock late Sunday, Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman's thoughts drifted briefly back to a game last season against Detroit. "This worked before against the Lions," Freeman thought of the play he was about to call against the Falcons, which really wasn't a play at all. "It could work again. I just have to sell it."

Freeman sold it, all right. He changed up his cadence and the snap count and, with a little help from his friends, drew an offside penalty that helped close out a crucial 16-13 victory against Atlanta in an NFC South division game at Raymond James Stadium.

"This was huge," running back Earnest Graham said. "It's all about winning the division for us this year, and with this win we took a huge step toward that."

It was the first tangible step the Bucs (2-1) have taken in three years against the Falcons (1-2), who had won five straight against the Bucs to become something of an annoyance to them. "These guys have really been a thorn in our side," cornerback Ronde Barber said of the Falcons. "We've lost too many games like this one to them the last few years. It was nice to finally beat them."

The beating would have been a little more sound had Freeman and the Bucs offense executed some of their real plays as well as they executed that fourth-and-1 fake play. The Bucs, though, squandered several scoring chances, not the least of which came after linebacker Dekoda Watson forced a fumble by sacking Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan three plays into the game.

Thanks to Barber's fumble recovery, the Bucs took over at the Atlanta 17, but their chances of taking early control of the game vanished when Freeman's short pass for tight end Kellen Winslow was picked off in the end zone.

That pick marked the second time in as many games that Freeman has been intercepted trying to get a ball to Winslow in the end zone, but it didn't mark the end of the Bucs' offensive miscues against Atlanta. Another Freeman pick later in the game killed a drive that had moved to the Falcons 44, and while the Bucs did score after they recovery of another Ryan fumble in the second quarter, they had to settle for a field goal.

"We definitely need to clean that up," Faine said of the wasted scoring chances. "We know we're going to get a good shot from these guys the next time we face them, so we have to take advantage of those chances. But you know what, that was really the only negative in the whole game for us. Other than that, we didn't really start too slow this time, and we eventually got into a good rhythm offensively."

The defense was in a good rhythm right from the start. With the front seven providing more pressure than at any other time this year, the Bucs kept a Falcons offense that scored 45 points against Philadelphia last week in check until the fourth quarter.

And even when the Falcons did find their own offensive rhythm, scoring a touchdown on a two-play drive midway through the fourth to cut a Bucs lead to 16-10, the Bucs defense bounced right back and came up with a big stop when it was needed.

"They really got after them," Barber said of the Bucs pass rushers, which got a critical sack from Brian Price the fourth of the day for the Bucs on a third-and-goal play from the Bucs 15 that forced Atlanta to settle for a late field goal.

That field goal gave the Bucs a chance to try to run out the clock, but with more than four minutes to play they had to move the ball. They did that at first by leaning on Freeman, who scrambled for 13 yards on a first-down play that many thought should have been extended by 15 yards.

Falcons cornerback William Moore delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit to Freeman while taking him down, but no flag was thrown, and so the Bucs were left with a first-and-10 at their own 33. Two LeGarrette Blount runs moved the chains to the 47, but the drive stalled out three plays and 9 yards later.

That set up the fourth-and-1, which immediately started Freeman thinking back to a third-and-1 play that came with two minutes left in the fourth quarter of the Bucs game agains the Lions last year. "It was the same kind of situation," Freeman said. "Their backs were against the wall and it really helped that we'd gotten a QB sneak before in the game and we're actually extremely efficient in QB sneaks.

"I mean, if you get 'em with a hard count early in the game and you mix it up you can make them feel like they're getting great get-off on the ball and you'll have guys jumping (off-sides) left and right, and that's what happened."

Freeman's snap count drew off defensive tackle Corey Peters, who was distraught by the mistake afterward. "It was stupid; it was my fault," Peters said. "I take 100 percent of the blame for that. I knew not to do it. I guess I got a little excited out there. It was just stupid. It cost us the game."

In the long run, it may wind up costing them more than that.