For awhile, the Bucs went in the time machine and looked like the team of old. They were grinding out a defensive battle with a hard-hitting defense, knocking out the Atlanta Falcons best two offensive playmakers—QB Matt Ryan and RB Michael Turner.
The Bucs held Atlanta to 75 yards rushing and sacked Falcon QBs six times. The Falcons came into the game ranked 11th in the league rushing and tied for fourth in the league in least sacks surrendered.
They held the Falcons, the eighth-highest scoring offense in the NFL, to just 13 points most of the way.
This is the type of defense the Buccaneers fans remember seeing their football team play.
Unfortunately, it wouldn't be enough, as Atlanta's backup quarterback Chris Redman led the Falcons on a 15-play, 59-yard drive to the winning touchdown with 0:26 left in the game.
The Bucs appeared to have the Falcons stopped, but a defensive holding penalty on rookie Derrick Roberson gave Atlanta new life.
The replay showed some incidental contact on the border of the 5-yard area where contact is allowed. It was a ticky-tack call that seems to happen against bad teams.
The Bucs still refused to give in, continuously turning Atlanta away. The Falcons had eight opportunities inside Tampa Bay's 10-yard line.
Finally, on their second fourth-and-goal opportunity, Redman fired a pass to Roddy White, who was double-covered but somehow came up with the football in the end zone for the 20-17 lead.
The Bucs defense didn't get much help from the offense in the second half. Twice, Tampa Bay had great field position, but both time failed to add to the lead.
The first time after a three-and-out by the offense, the Bucs made the curious decision to attempt a fake punt.
Punter Dirk Johnson threw an incomplete pass but more importantly, injured his hamstring while scrambling around.
The second opportunity, with 2:30 left, instead of punting the Falcons deep into their own territory, head coach Raheem Morris put Connor Barth in to attempt a 51-yard field goal. Barth put plenty of leg into it but pulled it wide right.
It gave the ball to the Falcons with terrific field position to set up Redman's heroics.
Freeman recovered well from his rough outing last week, playing one of his best games statistically. He was a solid 20-for-29, 250 yards, 2 touchdowns, including a beautiful 42-yard strike to Antonio Bryant, one play after hitting Bryant for a 38-yard gain.
While the defense certainly played much better under Morris' direction, Freeman played well, and the special teams showed up again with a blocked punt—the one area of the team that remains a mystery is the Buccaneers running game.
Tampa Bay managed a paltry 73 yards on the ground, averaging just 2.8 yards a rush.
So where do you assign blame for the latest failure?
It's hard to give it to the defense, even though they wilted late in the game but they were on the field for 76 plays and surrendered only 297 yards.
They sacked the QB, stopped the run and pretty much looked like a Buccaneer defense for the first time this season.
You can say a lot of that was due to Ryan being knocked out of the game and Redman taking over, but Redman played pretty well, going 23-for-41, 243 yards and 2 touchdown passes.
The Bucs were getting pressure on Ryan and stopping the run before he was injured.
Still, they failed to get off the field at the end of the ballgame for the second time this season.
You could blame it on the offense, who managed just 17 points. Still, Freeman looked good, making some big-time throws and connected on the plays necessary to give the team the lead.
But the Bucs failed to take advantage of field position and pad the lead.
You could blame it on coaching, as Morris made some bad decisions down the stretch of the game like the fake punt, the attempt of a long field goal instead of playing field position, running Derrick Ward (and his 2.2 yards a carry) instead of Earnest Graham or Cadillac Williams.
You could even blame it on special teams, when Quincy Black jumped offsides during a punt on 4th-and-2, eventually leading to a field goal...three points was the difference in the ballgame.
You could blame it on discipline. Tampa Bay was penalized eight times for 52 yards, including the idiotic penalty on Jeremy Trueblood for taking his helmet off.
Illegal motion penalties, and of course, the defensive holding call during the final drive that gave the Falcons new life.
It's another loss, which improves their draft position. At the end of the season, it won't mean anymore than any of the other 10 losses this season.
Still, for the first time this season on defense, you feel that the Buccaneers finally have something to build on.
Welcome back, Tampa Two...how we missed you!
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