Bucs' Defense Vick-timizes Atlanta
We’d like to say, ‘Don’t get used to it,’ but maybe you should. For the fourth straight game, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense put an emphatic capper on a brilliant effort by scoring a touchdown. Not coincidentally, the Buccaneers won their fourth game in a row, downing the Atlanta Falcons by a 20-6 margin. The victory – the Bucs’ first on the road in the month of October since, incredibly, 1995 – kept the Bucs in a first-place tie with New Orleans, also winners on Sunday. The co-leaders of the NFC South are 4-1 and tied for the conference’s best record.

And we’d like to wait before saying this version of the Bucs’ defense is as good as the famed 1999 squad, but maybe we shouldn’t. Tampa Bay has now gone three consecutive road games without allowing an offensive touchdown, a ridiculous feat that has left the Bucs as the NFC’s only undefeated road team.

The timing of the Bucs’ big defensive plays are usually impeccable. In this case, Tampa Bay’s defense had just taken the field after a field goal had pushed the team’s lead to 13-6. As the players waited for the television timeout to end, DT Warren Sapp played to the crowd, inciting most of the Georgia Dome faithful to a chorus of boos. On the very next snap, DE Simeon Rice hit QB Doug Johnson as he threw, and Sapp intercepted the deflection, pitching it to LB Derrick Brooks. Brooks ran 15 yards for a score, incredibly his third of the season.

That Johnson was in the game at all was another disturbing event for the Falcons, and another unintentional trend for the Bucs’ defense. Two weeks after knocking out the league’s reigning MVP, RB Marshall Faulk, in the first quarter of a win over the St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay forced a likely future MVP, QB Michael Vick to the sideline of Sunday’s contest in the third quarter with a shoulder injury.

Despite the convincing win, Tampa Bay didn’t earn its first lead in the game until two thirds of the third quarter had elapsed. Facing a third-and-six from their own 24, just three points after Jay Feely’s second field goal had given Atlanta a 6-3 lead, the Bucs sent WR Keyshawn Johnson flying straight up the right sideline. QB Brad Johnson threw perhaps his finest pass in 21 games as a Buccaneer, a tight spiral that dropped just over CB Juran Bolden’s hands into those of Keyshawn Johnson, who was in a dead run. Bolden fell down trying to break the pass up, and Johnson ran untouched the last 45 yards into the end zone for a 10-6 Bucs lead.

That stood as the longest play of Keyshawn Johnson’s career, and it was the big-gainer in his six-catch, 131-yard day. WR Keenan McCardell added 83 yards on six catches of his own, helping Brad Johnson rack up 261 yards on 17 completions. Johnson threw 31 passes, suffering one interception.

K Martin Gramatica added two field goals, including his 22-yarder in the fourth quarter after a failed special teams gambit by Atlanta coach Dan Reeves. Perhaps feeding off the success of a surprise onside kick in the first half, Reeves called for a fake punt, with P Chris Mohr throwing down the right hash mark to TE Brian Kozlowski. Kozlowski had the ball in his hands, but was hit hard by S Dexter Jackson. CB Dwight Smith made a diving interception of the ball as it flew from Kozlowski’s grip, and the play set up a 49-yard field goal drive.

Thanks to Vick’s injury, suffered on one of Rice’s 2.5 sacks, the anticipated duel with the league’s most electrifying talent never fully played out. However, in a little over one half of work, Vick completed just four passes for 37 yards, was sacked three times and ran just once for one yard. Coming into the game, Vick was the Falcons’ leading rusher. The Bucs contained Vick by keeping him in the pocket and meeting his rollouts quickly when he did try to leave. A fine stay-at-home defense by Rice on an attempted rollout to the left by Vick in the first quarter set the tone, and sacks by Rice and DT Anthony McFarland kept up the containment.

Vick’s replacement, Doug Johnson, was intercepted three times in the second half, though two came in the game’s final desperate minutes. Smith recorded his second interception of the game – and of his career - near the three-minute mark, and Brooks picked off a ‘Hail Mary’ in the end zone to end the game.

The Bucs also offered little running room to their former teammate, RB Warrick Dunn. Dunn picked up just 14 yards on nine carries and 13 yards on two receptions. Rookie back T.J. Duckett was more successful, running hard for 52 yards on 11 carries, but the Falcons were left with just 243 yards of total offense. Michael Pittman recorded a career-best 62 yards on 19 carries, as Tampa Bay’s offense picked up 327 yards, all told.

Atlanta did score first, though it took two tries. The Falcons’ opening drive began near midfield thanks to a 47-yard kickoff return by Allen Rossum, who burned the Bucs with a game-winning punt return touchdown as a Green Bay Packer last season. Vick’s 16-yard completion to WR Willie Jackson gave the Falcons a first down at Tampa Bay’s 23, but when the speedy QB tried to run it up the middle on third-and-nine, he was sacked by Rice after DE Ellis Wyms shunted him left. Jay Feely then missed a 46-yard field goal, but he got another chance from 34 yards out three minutes later after a fumble by Brad Johnson. The Falcons immediately got the ball back with a successful onside kick, with Feely kicking and recovering the ball, but did nothing with the possession.

The Bucs evened the score in the second quarter with a 14-play, seven-minute drive that ended just shy of the end zone. Tampa Bay converted three third downs on the drive – a 14-yard crossing pass to Keyshawn Johnson, a two-yard toss sweep by Michael Pittman on third-and-one and a 13-yard catch by FB Jameel Cook on third-and-one – but the fourth attempt, a screen to Pittman, was incomplete. Gramatica booted it through from 23 yards out to knot the score at 3-3.

The Bucs had a chance to go into the break with a lead, but a promising drive at the end of the second quarter ended in an interception by S Keion Carpenter. WR Joe Jurevicius, running a quick slant similar to the one that got Keenan McCardell 30 yards in the first quarter, picked up 19 to the Falcons’ 32, but Johnson’s lob down the right sideline to Keyshawn Johnson three plays later was nabbed by a leaping Carpenter.