Falcons Keep Bucs at Arm's Length
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to Atlanta, where they had won four in a row in the Georgia Dome, hoping to pull the division-leading Falcons back to the pack. Instead, thanks to a quick start by the Falcons offense and a rush of second-half sacks, the home team secured a 24-14 victory and a four-game lead over the Buccaneers in the NFC South. With their two-game winning streak snapped, the Bucs slid back to 3-6 and the fringes of the NFC playoff race. A postseason berth is still quite possible, but the path was made significantly more difficult by Sunday’s loss.

QB Michael Vick, who has been held in check more often than not in previous meetings with the Bucs, finished with pedestrian numbers but did enough damage on Atlanta’s first three drives to lead to victory. A perfect 45-yard pass over the middle to TE Alge Crumpler set up a game-opening field goal, and a 41-yard run around right end on the next drive led to RB T.J. Duckett’s two-yard scoring run. Thus, the Bucs were down 10-0 less than 10 minutes into the game, a discouraging spot for a team that has not rallied from 10-point deficit to win since December of 1999. Atlanta got up 17-0 in the second quarter but the Bucs rallied back into the game thanks to QB Brian Griese’s touch passing and a suddenly rejuvenated defense.

Tampa Bay’s defense, in fact, did not allow a first down from the 10-minute mark in the second quarter, when Atlanta scored to go up by 17, until 10 minutes were left in the final period. The Falcons gained only three yards of offense in the third quarter after racking up 195 in the first half. However, after closing the gap to 17-14 five minutes into the second half, the Bucs came up short on a string of drives starting near midfield thanks to a depressing run of sacks and penalties. Griese was sacked seven times in the game, including once on three straight plays near the end of the third quarter, ending a Buccaneer scoring threat. After their second touchdown, the Bucs gained just 55 yards of net offense. Overall, Atlanta finished with a 325-193 edge in total offense.

After another one of their drives reached the Atlanta 30, the Bucs also failed on a fourth-and-one run, with RB Michael Pittman stuffed by LB Matt Stewart as he tried to take a pitch around the right side. On the previous play, a third-and-one run, Stewart had run the length of the field with a Pittman fumble but the play was called dead by the officials, who ruled that the back’s forward progress had been stopped. Still, the failed fourth down gave Atlanta a first down at their own 30, and the Atlanta offense picked a good time to finally notch another first down. On the second play of the drive, Vick hit Crumpler deep over the middle for a 49-yard touchdown.

Despite the average passing numbers – eight of 16 passing for 147 yards, one touchdown and one interception - Vick may have had his best game yet against the Buccaneers, shaking off five sacks to make the big plays when Atlanta needed them. He gained 73 yards on nine runs, part of a very strong running game, as the Falcons predictably took advantage of the Bucs’ thinned ranks in the middle of the defensive line. With DT Anthony McFarland sidelined by a triceps injury, Tampa Bay started 12th-year veteran Chidi Ahanotu, who had just signed with the team on Wednesday.

With former Buc Warrick Dunn (17 carries for 76 yards) leading the charge and bigger back T.J. Duckett (12 for 53) handling the goal-line and fourth-quarter duty, Atlanta ran for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Most of that damage was done in the first quarter and during the fourth-quarter endgame. The Bucs helped the Falcons with ill-timed penalties in the early going, twice giving Atlanta’s offense a new set of downs inside the two-yard line. Another personal foul erased a third-down sack by LB Derrick Brooks on Atlanta’s third drive and helped prolong the Falcons’ 79-yard scoring march. That one ended in Duckett’s second touchdown run, a one-yarder, and a 17-0 lead for Atlanta. The overall penalty differential was 13-6 against the visitors and the Bucs were flagged eight times in the first half alone.

The Bucs did rally a bit in the first half after falling behind by 17, marching 82 yards on nine plays for a touchdown in the second quarter. Rookie WR Michael Clayton caught three passes for 45 yards on the drive, including the scoring play, a 25-yard dart from QB Brian Griese. Clayton and Griese, two key figures in the Bucs’ offensive resurgence, continued to play well. Clayton, the NFL’s leading rookie receiver, finished the game with six catches for 90 yards and a score and now has a team-leading 48 receptions for 685 yards and three touchdowns on the season. Griese completed 19 of 26 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and stood in well against frequent Atlanta blitzes, as he had done the weekend before in a win over Kansas City. Griese, who made his first appearance a month ago after Chris Simms was hurt in New Orleans, has now played in five games with four starts and put up very impressive numbers: 99 completions in 142 tries for 1,113 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 105.8. He has compiled a single-game rating of 100 or better in three of his four starts.

Griese’s last pass, a desperation throw on third-and-20, was intercepted by CB Allen Rossum, but that was only the second pick he has tossed in almost 150 throws as a Buccaneer. Tampa Bay’s rally continued in the third quarter thanks to the game’s first turnover. CB Ronde Barber, known for his timely big-play contributions, picked off a Vick pass in acrobatic fashion, reaching up and back as he dove in front of WR Peerless Price and holding on as he thudded to the ground.

The Bucs scored four plays later, helped along by a facemask penalty on S Cory Hall that led to a bit of a scrum on the visitors’ sideline. Two plays after that mess was cleaned up, Griese fired a 22-yard scoring pass to TE Ken Dilger, who now has three touchdowns on the season, tying Clayton for the team lead in that category. Dilger finished with five catches for 51 yards. Tampa Bay’s running game, so strong in the team’s last two victories, struggled on Sunday, gaining just 68 yards on 23 carries. Pittman, who came into the game averaging almost 100 combined yards per game in five meetings with the Falcons gained 62 yards on 20 carries and caught four passes for 16 yards.