Defense shows signs of life despite familiar result
Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune, published 30 November 2009

You can see the phone lines lighting up now to your favorite sports talk show, can't you? What are you waiting for? And if you can't quite spit out the words right now, no problem. We're here to help.

Choose your favorite invective: Raheem Morris is a) an idiot; b) clueless; c) cost the Bucs a 20-17 loss Sunday to Atlanta and should be fired without delay.

He did so with a couple of coaching decisions that were a) imported from the planet Zortron; b) not something anyone would try playing the Madden video game, let alone a real NFL contest; c) anyone got a phone number for Bill Cowher?

It was Morris' first game since last week's decision to replace defensive coordinator Jim Bates with, well, Raheem Morris. You may have heard a thing or two about that move.

Since the Falcons drove for the winning score with a backup quarterback named Chris Redman who hadn't played in 27 games, and were without top running back Michael Turner on that drive ... lines are open! Please keep dialing! But I'll tell you what. Rip away if you want, but I'll sit this one out.

I thought the Bucs played better than they have all year on defense and Morris deserves a lot of credit for that. They flew to the ball more than we've seen and they made plays. They sacked Atlanta quarterbacks six times. They forced a fumble.

For maybe the first time this year, they controlled a fair portion of the game. "I thought Raheem did a great job. I think Raheem has gotten better every single week. I thought he called a great game," linebacker Barrett Ruud said.

"It's a tough thing when you're basically coordinating your first game in the NFL and being a head coach at the same time. That's a lot of responsibility. I thought he did a great job. I thought our defense played a lot better than we had been playing."

Morris was having none of that. "We're no different. We lost the football game. It's the only thing that matters," he said. "Our guys went out and played hard but it doesn't matter if you lose. There's no difference, in my opinion. We lost - you've got to close it out."

Nobody has been beaten up more than Morris this season. Some of it has been deserved, some hasn't. But no on-field move is likely to be more second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-guessed than the call for a fake punt early in the fourth quarter.

The Bucs led 17-13 and had the ball at Atlanta's 39. A good punt could have pinned the Falcons deep. Instead, Morris guessed Atlanta would try to block the kick and called for punter Dirk Johnson to pass. The play never had a chance.

"I wanted to change the momentum, play aggressively. I wanted to give our offense a chance to stay on the football field and keep our defense off," he said. "We were getting a little tired and running out of players. We didn't get it. You get it, you're a genius. You don't, bad decision."

The defense did hold, although it cost a lot of field position that could have come in handy later. I lump all gadget plays under the same heading: They better work. This one didn't.

Some might question why he had Connor Barth try a 51-yard field goal with 2:34 to play at Atlanta's 33, with the Bucs holding that same four-point lead, but I don't. Barth hit three field goals of 50 yards or longer at Miami a couple of weeks ago and three points there would have given the Bucs a touchdown lead. The fact he missed doesn't mean the call was wrong.

"I've got to take the field goal," Morris said. "I've got to put us up by seven, make them go down and score a touchdown and try to put it to overtime."

Raheem was looking for too many swords to fall on. The Bucs showed some of that ol'-time attitude that we used to take for granted. It was refreshing to see.

"I don't like to put people down and I like Jim Bates a lot. He did a really good job at times, but I think the change will be for the better," Ruud said. "We are going to build an identity from this. It may not be the exact Tampa 2 all over again, but it's going to be a good defense. You can just feel that."

We're still talking about a 1-10 football team here. But if this is the style they're going to stick with, then this was a good day - regardless of the outcome. It's still a loss. For one of the few times this season, though, the bottom line didn't seem like the only thing that mattered.