Short-handed Bucs defense shows vulnerability, valiance in win
It's one thing to let a four-win Falcons team hang around, quite another to let it loiter into the late afternoon of a would-be celebratory regular-season finale. But there was the short-handed Bucs defense, minus three key starters, letting the Falcons flourish on third down and remain within one score deep into the fourth quarter Sunday. "We bent way too much," coach Bruce Arians said.

Yet for all its bending, coordinator Todd Bowles' unit remained mostly rigid near its goal line. Atlanta twice moved inside the Bucs 5 but came away only with field goals both times. Combine those stands with a redemptive performance by cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, and a unit missing its soul (Shaquil Barrett, Devin White) brandished its heart in a 44-27 win. "Coach always talks about next man up, and that's something we live by in this locker room," inside linebacker Kevin Minter said.

Minter had a team-high nine tackles for a defense missing Barrett and White (reserve/COVID-19 list) and cornerback Carlton Davis (groin). It allowed three Atlanta scoring drives of at least 13 plays and struggled to stop the Falcons on third down (7-for-14) but held firm near the goal line and sparkled down the stretch.

Murphy-Bunting, who admitted he was "awful" against Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley in a 31-27 win in Atlanta two weeks ago, forced a Ridley fumble - then recovered it - on the next-to-last Falcons drive that set up the final Bucs touchdown. He also had a third-and-goal breakup of a pass intended for Laquon Treadwell, forcing an Atlanta field goal in the third period.

"Regardless of who's down, there's no excuses," Minter said. "We're all Bucs, and we've all got a goal in mind. So regardless of who's playing, you need to strap the helmet on and go. I'll be damned if I'll be the one to let my team down."

Joey Knight, Tampa Bay Times, published 4 January 2021