Defense unable to deliver the big stop on third downs
Ira Kaufman, The Tampa Tribune, published 8 November 2010

The NFL's money down cost the Buccaneers big time Sunday. An inability to shut down Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan on third down helped dig an early hole at the raucous Georgia Dome, where the Falcons assumed sole possession of first place in the NFC South by hanging on for a 27-21 triumph.

"Third down killed us today,'' defensive end Stylez G. White said after the Falcons converted on eight of 14 third-down situations. "Ryan's a pretty good quarterback and he definitely took advantage of his opportunities. We've got to do a better job of getting off the field.''

Atlanta grabbed a 14-0 advantage as Ryan kept finding open targets in the clutch, including a 4-yard flip to running back Jason Snelling on fourth-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 34 on the game's opening drive.

Tony Gonzalez, the most prolific pass-catching tight end in NFL history, kept burning Tampa Bay over the middle and Michael Turner found enough room to churn out 107 yards on the ground, including two touchdown runs that looked too easy.

"We had a couple of misfits,'' said Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes, "and they made a couple of big plays as a result. We kept putting them in third-and-long in the first half and they kept staying on the field.''

The Bucs entered the midseason division showdown with a league-leading 14 interceptions, but Ryan wasn't sacked or picked off while completing 24 of 36 passes for 235 yards. For the first time this season, the Bucs did not register a takeaway as they fell to 5-23 in the past five years when losing the turnover battle.

"We came out here for the purpose of winning this game and we didn't get it done,'' said safety Sean Jones, who led the secondary with six tackles. "We'll play 'em again in Tampa next month, but this one hurts. They scored more points than us today and that's on the defense.''

Roddy White, slowed by a knee injury, was limited to four receptions but Gonzalez was targeted 11 times, catching eight passes for 72 yards.

"They didn't fall,'' Gonzalez said of the Bucs, who yielded 26 first downs and snapped the ball only 50 times, compared to 69 by the Falcons. "I think their quarterback is great and that's a team on the rise.''

Tampa Bay's struggles on third down extended to the final minutes, when Atlanta faced a critical third-and-2 from its own 10-yard line. Instead of forcing a punt, the Bucs were gashed by Turner, who ran 6 yards off right tackle before safety Cody Grimm got him on the ground.

"It was loud, as expected, and we didn't start the way we wanted to,'' Grimm said. "We just couldn't get off the field. Turner's a load, but our team never gives up and you saw that today, even in a loss. We're upset, but not discouraged. At the halfway mark, we are 5-3. Let's face it, not many people expected us to be where we are.''