Chris Hovan was as surprised as anyone to see the football in his hands, the first interception of his life. But his fingers were so heavily taped, it was like trying to pick up a marble with oven mitts. "I was saying, 'What is this doing still in my hands, man? This isn't right,'" Hovan said.
Hovan's trip to the end zone was cut short when Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich tackled him. But it was that kind of day for the Bucs' defensive linemen in Sunday's 31-7 rout of the Atlanta Falcons. They took turns beating on Leftwich like a piata until eventually it was the Falcons quarterback who was trying to keep the Bucs defense out of the end zone.
Greg White had two sacks and forced two fumbles, including one that was returned 41 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Ronde Barber - the team's first defensive touchdown of the season. But it didn't stop there.
Rookie Gaines Adams had his best game yet, recording a sack and forcing the ball out of Leftwich's arm that Hovan intercepted. Defensive tackle Jovan Haye drilled the Falcons' beleaguered quarterback to cause a floating pass that was intercepted by linebacker Barrett Ruud. All told, the Bucs' front four had four sacks and forced four turnovers.
"They played great up front today," Barber said. "But when a team is willing to go three or four wide and really eliminate the threat of a run, they should pin their ears back, and they did. You give them a lot of credit up front, and we go how they go. ... It's nice to see those guys finally getting their game where it needs to be."
Thanks to this win, the Bucs are putting a lot of pressure on the rest of the NFC South. The Bucs improved to 6-4 overall and 3-0 in the division, expanding their lead to two games over Carolina and New Orleans, who both lost Sunday. If Falcons coach Bobby Petrino regretted his highly scrutinized decision to start Leftwich after Joey Harrington had won two in a row, he wasn't saying so.
But Leftwich, who had surgery on his ankle Oct. 21, looked slow and rusty. He completed just 15 of 28 passes for 106 yards, was sacked three times and intercepted twice to finish with a 32.7 passer rating. The Falcons averted a shutout when Harrington came off the bench to fire a 7-yard touchdown pass to Adam Jennings with 1:10 left in the game.
"We knew we were going to get after him," Hovan said of Leftwich. "He has a low release - he brings it down and then he throws it. We knew we were going to get an extra half a second on that, compared to Joey. So we took advantage of it, and they put Joey in, and I thought we played well throughout the rest of the game."
It was a welcome sight for the Bucs, who have bemoaned the lack of a consistent pass rush all season. Adams, the fourth overall pick who entered the game with just 1 1/2 sacks, was all over the field and used a variety of spin moves and bull rushes to demonstrate his growth at the position.
"(I was) just trying to bring some different things to the table because in this league, you've got to have different moves," Adams said. "The first move that I've been using hasn't worked, so I'm just trying to work with the veterans and trying to get some more moves down."
The Bucs defense accounted for 21 points off turnovers. Ruud's interception set up Jeff Garcia's 44-yard touchdown to Joey Galloway. Hovan's interception led to Garcia's 21-yard scoring strike to Alex Smith. White might be the best story of the group.
He was the Arena Football League defensive player of the year who wasn't originally brought to training camp until coach Jon Gruden grew disgusted with the lack of a pass rush. But White played for Gruden's brother, Jay, with the Orlando Predators, prompting the invitation. "My brother is up in the (coaching) box, and every time he makes a play, my brother says, 'I told you so,'" Gruden said.
White was excited about his performance but had one regret. "Can you believe I forgot to TiVo the game?" he said.
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 19 November 2007