Battered Bucs Battle to the End
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 19 December 2017|
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost a hard-fought, 24-21, decision to the division-rival Atlanta Falcons on Monday night, but it's impossible to question the team's heart. Despite having no playoff berth at stake – unlike the visiting Falcons – and despite suffering an uncommon number of injuries during the game, the Buccaneers fought to the end and only fell when Patrick Murray's 54-yard field goal attempt sailed just right as time expired.
The Buccaneers began the game without their defensive leaders, Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy, and eventually lost many more key contributors to injuries. Among those who started but were unable to finish the game were wide receiver Dexter Jackson, right guard J.R. Sweezy, tight end O.J. Howard, defensive end Robert Ayers, linebacker Adarius Glanton, safety Justin Evans, safety T.J. Ward and linebacker Devante Bond. Cornerback Ryan Smith and tight end Cameron Brate also missed time before returning to action.
"I'm really proud of the way we used every single guy on our roster," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "I'm really, really proud of the way we battled. We overcame a lot, but we still can't quite make enough plays to [win]."
The Buccaneers came into the game with a 4-9 record and no shot at the postseason, while the Falcons were 8-5 and chasing a pair of 10-4 teams, Carolina and New Orleans, in the NFC South hunt. Playing before a national audience on Monday Night Football – on a night on which ESPN broadcaster and former Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor – the Buccaneers rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to push the game to its limits.
"I'm very happy with the way that we competed," said quarterback Jameis Winston. "We came up short [but] everyone played their tails off. It's a good team but we had some unfortunate things again happen tonight, some injuries, but we've got to get the lunch pail and get the shovel and start digging."
In his third game back from a shoulder injury that cost him three weeks, Winston was as sharp as he has ever been in his three-year NFL career. He completed 27 of 35 passes for 299 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 130.5. "Jameis played a heck of a game, probably his best game of the season," said Koetter. "He was very, very sharp tonight. He took care of the ball, was accurate, checked down."
After hitting Howard, his rookie tight end, on a 30-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, Winston got the Bucs back into the game in the second half with a scrambling 42-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Mike Evans. With the Bus trialing by 10 and eight minutes left in the game, Winston directed a masterful 75-yard drive ending in another improved touchdown, this one a 16-yarder to Adam Humphries.
"Adam Humphries is a competitor," said Winston. "We have to get the competitors the football. Mike Evans is a competitor. You've got to get the competitors the football. Cam Brate is a competitor; we've got so many competitors out there and it's my job to get them the football. That was easy."
After Humphries' touchdown catch with four minutes remaining, Tampa Bay's defense gave up one first down but then forced a punt with 1:14 remaining. Kwon Alexander and Will Clarke made hard tackles on running back Terron Ward to force a third-and-nine and Clinton McDonald sacked Matt Ryan to give the Bucs' offense one last shot. Humphries returned the ensuing punt 19 yards to the Bucs' 29.
"It just shows the fight in this team and the fight in this locker room," said Kendell Beckwith, who filled in as both a strongside linebacker and an edge rusher on the Bucs' depleted defense. "We had a lot of guys go down and the main thing was we just wanted to fight for them, the guys who went down. We go out every week to get a win and we're going to keep fighting our butts off to get one."
Indeed, the Bucs almost forced overtime after that critical stop. Winston completed a 13-yard strike to Brate and an 11-yarder to Freddie Martino, spiking to kill the clock after that second pass, with 25 seconds left and the ball at the Atlanta 47. After another 11-yard completion to Brate, the clock ticked down to five seconds as the Bucs tried to get set for another spike. It wasn't quite as far as the offense had hoped to get, but Murray had a shot. Coming into the game, Murray had made 14 of 16 field goal tries, including two of three from 50-plus yards.
"We were looking for the 35-yard line, but we trust Pat," said Winston. "Pat has been clutch for us all year. We actually got off the field too late and we had to rush Pat. He's been very consistent for us. I hate it for the guy but he's the man. He's going to bounce back harder than ever. I wish we could have gotten him some more yardage to be able to give him a better opportunity."
Three weeks after allowing Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones to catch 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, Tampa Bay's pass defense was much stingier on Monday Night. Matt Ryan completed 17 of 31 passes for 212 yards and one touchdown. However, he was not picked off and McDonald's sack at the end was the only one of the night for the Buccaneers. In addition, Devonta Freeman ran for 126 yards and a touchdown as Atlanta's rushing attack rang up 201 yards and 5.7 yards per carry.
The Buccaneers' rushing attack wasn't as prolific, though that was mostly because the team relied on Winston to move the football. With running back Doug Martin inactive due to a violation of team rules, second-year man Peyton Barber ran 13 times for 53 yards and also caught three passes for 15 yards as the Bucs averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
Tampa Bay also helped itself significantly on special teams, despite that final missed kick. Punter Bryan Anger averaged 47.8 yards per kick, with a net of 38.5 and both Humphries and Jacquizz Rodgers (45-yard kickoff return) had good moments in the return game. Defensive end Will Gholston blocked a 33-yard field goal attempt by Matt Bryant late in the third quarter to keep the Bucs in the game.
Atlanta got the ball first to start the game. A short kickoff and a good return by Andre Roberts allowed the Falcons to start at their own 36 to open the game. However, Tampa Bay's defense got a quick three-and-out, with Brent Grimes breaking up a third-and-six pass intended for Jones. Humphries reeled in a fair catch at the Bucs' 18 on the ensuing punt. However, the Bucs also went three-and-out when a deep shot down the left sideline to Evans just missed.
The Falcons got the ball back at their own 38 and drove from there for the game's first points. Ryan hit Hardy down the middle for 27 yards to the Bucs' 24, and later converted a third-and-six from the 20-yard line with a slant to Freeman out of the backfield for 14 yards. The Bucs forced a third-and-goal but Ryan converted with a little out pass to Justin Hardy in front of Ryan Smith in the left side of the end zone.
The Bucs answered on the next drive, going 75 yards on eight plays, with Howard's catch-and-run scoring from 30 yards out. Howard barely got the ball over the line as he was tackled near the left pylon; the play was reviewed and upheld. A personal foul call on Ricardo Allen for a helmet hit on Brate helped preserve the drive near midfield.
Atlanta regained its seven-point lead on the next drive, though it involved a little luck. Freeman ran for 15 yards and caught a 29-yard pass over the middle to get the ball into Bucs territory, and Ryan converted a third-and-seven at the Bucs' 19 with a 17-yard strike to Jones. Freeman ran once for one yard and then fumbled before crossing the line on his next attempt, but the ball was eventually recovered in the end zone by tight end Levine Toilolo. Gholston was credited with the forced fumble.
The Bucs once again answered with a long drive but unfortunately it ended in Barber's fumble inside the Falcons' five-yard line. Tight end Alan Cross made a twisting 31-yard catch on third-and-four down the left sideline to get the ball into scoring range and Winston escaped a near-sack to hit TE Antony Auclair for 14 yards at the Atlanta 18. Barber then ran for nine and four yards, but he lost the ball on the second carry and Atlanta recovered at its own five. The Bucs held the ball for six and a half minutes but came up short.
Atlanta got out of trouble with a first-down play-action pass down the middle to Jones. The Buccaneers got a stop in their own territory when Justin Evans broke up a deep third-down pass in the end zone to Jones, but Bryant came on to drill a 57-yard field goal for a 10-point Atlanta lead.
The second half started well for the Buccaneers on Rodgers' 45-yard kickoff return, but a 55-yard touchdown catch by Evans was erased by an offensive pass-interference call. After an exchange of punts the home team was able to find the end zone again. Winston escaped a near-sack to loft a deep pass to Evans, who caught the ball between two Atlanta defenders for a 52-yard score. That made it 17-14 in Atlanta's favor midway through the third quarter.
Atlanta's next drive chewed seven minutes off the clock and penetrated the Bucs' red zone, but came up empty. Safety Chris Conte broke up a pass to Julio Jones in the end zone and the Bucs forced two more incompletions to set up Matt Bryant's 33-yard field goal try. Gholston got push up the middle and leaped to block the kick, keeping it a three-point game late in the third quarter.
Atlanta tacked on a third touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, driving 87 yards on 10 plays. Freeman finished the march with a 32-yard touchdown run, giving the Falcons a 10-point lead with eight minutes to play.