Leftwich Struggles In Start
Falcons coach Bobby Petrino surprised many by naming Byron Leftwich as his starting quarterback against the Bucs. Leftwich was coming off surgery three weeks ago for a severely sprained ankle, and Joey Harrington had led Atlanta to consecutive victories and - even at 3-6 - within arm's reach in the lowly NFC South.
It didn't take long for Petrino's decision to be proven wrong in Sunday's 31-7 loss at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons had nine first-half possessions. The results: punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, fumble, fumble, punt, punt. "I was excited about the opportunity to go out there," Leftwich said, "but from the beginning, things just didn't go well for us."
Nor did the Falcons offense get better as the game went on. Before being pulled for Harrington late in the third quarter with the score 24-0, Leftwich oversaw one drive in which the Falcons were stopped on downs and another where he was intercepted by Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan.
"I've never been involved with something as bad as this," said Leftwich, a first-round pick of Jacksonville in 2003 who was released this preseason. "As a quarterback, it's your responsibility. It's your responsibility to lead these guys and score points."
Playing behind a makeshift offensive line, Leftwich finished 15-for-28 for 106 yards with two interceptions and two fumbles. With fourth-string left tackle Quinn Ojinnaka getting beaten off the edge by defensive ends Greg White and Gaines Adams, Leftwich was hounded all afternoon. His long windup also allowed the Bucs to deflect and dislodge the ball repeatedly.
Before garbage time ensued in the fourth quarter, the Falcons had eight first downs and 142 yards of total offense. They had gone 1-for-11 on third down (9 percent).
Petrino was predictably tight-lipped after the game about the quarterback decision, saying he thought Leftwich gave the Falcons the best chance to win.
"We turned the ball over early and were never able to get into a rhythm on offense. We had some dropped passes and we allowed a lot of pressure on our quarterback," Petrino said. "We felt that the way Leftwich practiced and moved around that he should start. I don't think you can always put all the blame on the quarterback."
Atlanta fans thought differently, starting chants of "Joey! Joey!" midway through the second quarter.
Harrington had done enough to get Atlanta past the 49ers and Panthers, and with five touchdown passes and five interceptions, his quarterback rating was a respectable 81.0 entering the game.
Sunday, he provided the only bright spot for the Falcons by throwing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Adam Jennings with 1:10 remaining and mostly backups on the field.
Lost in the day of Falcon offensive futility was Warrick Dunn's pursuit of the 10,000 career rushing yards milestone. The former Bucs standout entered the game needing only 58 yards to become the 22nd player to reach the mark, but was held to 32 yards by a swarming Bucs defense.
"Their front four, obviously their ends, causes a lot of problems today," Dunn said. "Guys were just really flying around. To me, that's just traditional Bucs football."
Mike Pennetti, The Tampa Tribune 19 November 2007