Falcons rally for last-second, 20-17 win over Bucs
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 30 November 2009

It seemed like old times again Sunday. It did until the end, anyway. No matter what the Bucs do to their defense, nothing seems to change the outcome.

Before taking on the Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, the Bucs changed defensive coordinators and play callers, and altered their game plan to include more Tampa 2. It was out with the new and in with the old, and it worked. Until the end.

Tampa Bay gave up a 59-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes of a 20-17 loss. Falcons backup quarterback Chris Redman hit Roddy White on a 5-yard slant in the end zone with 23 seconds left, overshadowing one of the Bucs' best defensive efforts of the season.

"We did our job well today," cornerback Ronde Barber said as he absorbed his team's 10th loss in 11 tries this season. "We flew around and it was like Buc ball again. We played well enough to win. Until the end."

Go to the beginning of the end. Bucs coach Raheem Morris was so inspired by the play of his retrofitted defense that he elected to go for a 51-yard field goal while holding a 17-13 lead. Connor Barth's kick missed just to the right.

Morris defended the decision to try the long field goal. Make it, he said, and the Falcons have to score a touchdown just to forge a tie. Miss it and they still have to march 59 yards against a defense that hadn't allowed a scoring drive that long all day.

To that point, the Bucs had allowed just 238 yards, recorded six sacks and stopped the Falcons on 10 of 13 third-down attempts. "We were definitely better today," said defensive end Stylez G. White, who had 2.5 sacks. "We just can't seem to catch a break."

Not at the end they can't. The Falcons can, though. They did Sunday, when they were awarded a first down after a failed third-and-goal attempt was nullified by a holding call against backup cornerback Derrick Roberson, giving the Falcons a fresh set of downs at the 5-yard line.

Roberson was in the game because starter Aqib Talib had tweaked a hamstring. With the Falcons down to their final play, Roberson was victimized again on the winning touchdown from Redman to White.

Redman replaced Matt Ryan early in the first quarter and after working the ball to tight end Tony Gonzalez for the better part of the 59 yards, he took on Roberson and hit White on a slant for the game-winning score.

The touchdown marked the second time in three weeks that the Bucs' defense had allowed a game-winning drive in the last two minutes, but as linebacker Barrett Ruud said, this one had a different feel to it. "We've had some bad two-minute drills this year," Ruud said, "but that wasn't one of them. We actually did a good job there. They just did a little bit better job than we did.

"We just can't seem to find a way to make those two or three plays that turn the game around in our favor. That's the frustrating thing, and it's really frustrating today, because we definitely played better today."

The Bucs were particularly better against the run. They went into the game ranked last in the NFL, allowing 4.9 yards per carry and 169 yards per game, but limited the Falcons to 2.9 yards per carry and 75 rushing yards.

The Bucs have been far too forgiving on third down as well this year, but the Falcons were just three of 12 before the final scoring drive. "It was just more of a Bucs kind of game," said Barber, who had one of the six sacks for a unit that went back to playing more of the scheme that had become its hallmark.

For years, the Bucs had used a one-gap Cover 2 scheme that emphasized speed and smarts over size and strength. That changed in the offseason when Morris hired Jim Bates to be his defensive coordinator. Bates installed a two-gap style that required the linemen to be bigger and tougher and the linebackers to be a little more studious, but that style wasn't working. Early in the week, Morris called for a change.

Not only did he replace Bates as defensive coordinator, but he also took over as its play caller and immediately called for a style more fitting of the Bucs' personnel. "It worked for the most part," Barber said. "That's the frustrating thing about it. We just keep finding ways to lose football games. Good teams find a way to win that game today."

Though it was the defense that let the Bucs down in the end, the offense played its part in the loss, too. The Bucs outgained Atlanta 318-297 but struggled even more on third down than the Falcons, converting three of 12.

That inability to keep drives alive kept the Bucs from capitalizing on several scoring chances and, in addition to allowing the Falcons to dial up 19 more offensive plays than the Bucs, forced Morris to be a little more daring than he'd like on fourth down.

In addition to going for that 51-yard field goal at the end, he also tried a fake punt a couple of drives earlier in an attempt to keep the ball. That didn't work out, and though the defense held and got the ball back, it created a field-position situation that wound up hurting the Bucs at the end.

"That was a situation where I thought they'd be going for a block and we'd have an opportunity to get the ball out of there and make a big play," Morris said. "It was just a bad decision by me. But this is a grown man's league. You can't play scared in this league. You have to go out there and try to win football games. That's what I did."