Bomb blows up in Bucs' faces
Against the Bucs' defense this season, teams had misplaced the bomb. How they could lose something as important as that to the offense is unexplainable. But it was a weapon seldom deployed until the Atlanta Falcons rediscovered it Sunday at Tampa Stadium. Jeff George escaped pressure and threw touchdown passes of 62, 32 and 30 yards, stunning a Bucs defense that prides itself on not giving up the big play.

Using quicksilver receivers Eric Metcalf (4 receptions, 106 yards and 1 TD) and Bert Emanuel (9 for 121, 2 TDs), George completed 24 of 37 passes for 294 yards against a Bucs secondary shot full of holes by injuries. "You anticipate they're going to move the ball on you, but we really hadn't seen a lot of big explosion plays all year from them until today," said Bucs safety John Lynch. "That's where we broke down."

Before Sunday's game, the longest play against the Bucs had been a 53-yard touchdown run by Carolina Panthers running back Derrick Moore. Tampa Bay's defense had allowed only seven TDs in seven games. But three bombs from George and a questionable interference penalty doomed the Bucs.

With Tampa Bay leading 7-0 in the first quarter, George hit Metcalf with a short pass over the middle of a zone between two Bucs defenders and the Falcons' receiver dashed 62 yards for a touchdown. Wearing Bucs linebacker Wardell Rouse like a cape, George somehow escaped a certain sack and fired a 32-yard TD pass to Emanuel in the back of the end zone to give the Falcons a 14-7 second-quarter lead.

After drawing a hotly disputed pass interference penalty on cornerback Martin Mayhew, Emanuel wiggled free in the end zone for a 30-yard scoring pass from George early in the third quarter to leave the Bucs trailing 21-14. "They have an unbelievable capacity to strike quick and that's what happened today," said Bucs coach Sam Wyche. "They hit the three long passes. The heartbreaker was the one where we looked like we had him sacked, and Jeff George did a great job of being the strong quarterback and coming out of the sack, finding the receiver with the rifle arm and making the play."

A couple of things were working against the Bucs' defense Sunday. They were forced to play five and six defensive backs against the run and shoot - an offense rarely seen these days outside of Atlanta. Tampa Bay also was without its top two veteran free safeties - Thomas Everett (knee) and John Booty (knee). Last week, second-round pick Melvin Johnson was pressed into service. On Sunday, the Bucs inexplicably opted for rookie Tony Bouie - a free agent activated from the practice squad midweek who did not know he would be making his first pro start until he arrived at Tampa Stadium on Sunday.

Bouie tried to make a play on George's pass to Metcalf and was burned because he didn't allow more cushion. "I figured I'd be in the mix somewhere - on defense or special teams," Bouie said. "When I came here today, they told me I was (starting) and I did the best I could."

Despite being sacked four times, George did a good job of buying time and finding receivers on the scramble, as he did on his two TDs to Emanuel. Mayhew's interference penalty was a killer - 36 yards - on a play in which Emanuel appeared to have shoved the Bucs' cornerback. According to Wyche, side judge Jon Bible saw Emanuel interfere with Mayhew - who had position on the throw - and got the players reversed. "I just think the young official got it completely twisted in his mind," Wyche said. "He saw the Atlanta Falcon guy take two hands and shove Martin Mayhew down and by the time he was ready to make the call - it was an awfully late flag to begin with - he just got it twisted in his mind. He probably got the jerseys wrong."

Mayhew said the Bucs' defense should have overcome the flag. "Look at last week. They called me for interference on a slant route and it was a bad call," Mayhew said. "On the very next play, we get a fumble and I score a touchdown with it."

In the end, it was the bomb that beat the Bucs - and an explosive Falcons offense. "We gave up too many big plays - big plays that went for touchdowns that the defense hadn't given up," said Bucs defensive lineman Santana Dotson. "We've been winning for a month and our philosophy has been the same: don't give up the big play. We went against that today."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1995