Three fourth-down plays go against Bucs
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 30 November 2009

Falcons backup quarterback Chris Redman had not thrown a pass in 27 games before Sunday. He had just missed five straight receivers from the Tampa Bay 10 or closer, helped only by a defensive holding penalty that gave his team a first down.

But with Atlanta out of timeouts, facing fourth and goal from the 5 and needing a touchdown, Bucs coach Raheem Morris called his defense to the sideline to plot his strategy. "Just bow up. Bow up," cornerback Derrick Roberson recalled Morris yelling. "It's fourth down, and that's what you play for."

Roberson, 24, was only in the game because shut-down cornerback Aqib Talib pulled his hamstring a few plays earlier. Roberson had been promoted from the practice squad just 18 days ago and was guilty of the hold four plays earlier.

This time, the Falcons' No. 1 receiver, Roddy White, lined up across from Roberson. "We thought it was a favorable matchup for us," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

Redman fired a 5-yard pass to White for a touchdown with 23 seconds left to give the Falcons a 20-17 win over the Bucs. Morris, who took over the defensive play-calling from ousted coordinator Jim Bates last week, hoped his defense would establish an identity. Mission accomplished.

But regardless of who is making the calls, the defense continues to fold like a lawn chair late. It was the second time in three games and third time this season the Bucs allowed the winning points during the final minute. "Good teams win this football game," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "And at 1-10, we are obviously not a good football team."

And maybe Morris should heed his own advice of bowing up on fourth down. Where Morris succeeded some as a defensive coordinator Sunday, two decisions he made as a coach in the second half helped lose the game.

Leading by four and with the ball at the Atlanta 39 and 12:59 to play, Morris called for a fake by punter Dirk Johnson, who had thrown one pass in six NFL seasons. Johnson's intended receiver was running back Clifton Smith, who was covered. So he scrambled until throwing incomplete to tight end John Gilmore. Johnson pulled his hamstring on the play.

"I wanted to change the game, and I did," Morris said. "I changed it in their favor, so that's completely on me."

Another fourth-down decision also went against Morris. Facing fourth and 4 at the Atlanta 33 and the Falcons with no timeouts, Morris opted against a punt. Instead, he watched Connor Barth, who made three field goals of 50 yards or longer two weeks ago in a loss at Miami, miss a 51-yarder with 2:30 left.

That gave the Falcons great field position at their 41, and they drove for the winning touchdown. It's a shame, really, because Morris' first game as an NFL defensive coordinator showed so much promise.

The Bucs had six sacks, including 2 by end Stylez White. Returning to their one-gap, Tampa 2 scheme, they flew around the field and recorded 10 tackles for a loss, knocking out Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (turf toe on his right big toe) and running back Michael Turner (sprained right ankle) in the process. (The Falcons did not disclose their status.)

"People were comfortable with the few changes we made," Barber said. "I don't want to use a cliche, but we got back on the bike and did what we've been doing all these years. This one is very frustrating because it was our style of game. Wish we could've found a way not to make it so exciting at the end, if you're hearing me."

What Barber referred to is how the Bucs blew several chances to close out the game on offense. They went three-and-out after getting the ball on the Atlanta 41 in the fourth, prompting Johnson's ill-fated pass.

They also ran the ball on third and 7 from the Atlanta 36 with 3:15 left rather than trying to pass for the first down and getting a new set of downs with Atlanta having no timeouts. The run play netted only 3 yards, and Barth missed the field goal.

Josh Freeman completed 20 of 29 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns, including a 42-yarder to receiver Antonio Bryant. But the Bucs averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and left their defense on the field for 76 plays.

"We've been waiting for this situation all year; to use our running backs and our running game to finish out the game," running back Earnest Graham said. "We couldn't do it."

So it was left to the defense and Roberson, who got beat on a slant route for the winning score. The Bucs rolled their coverage toward tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had caught nine passes. "Basically, he was coordinating his first game in the NFL and being a head coach at the same time," linebacker Barrett Ruud said of Morris. "That's a lot of responsibility. I thought he did a great job with it."

Except on fourth down. And if you're Morris, that's what they pay you for.