Defense wilts again as Falcons rout Bucs, 43-28
TAMPA -– For the second time in five days, the Bucs and their thoroughly exhausted defense watched a quarterback and a touted receiver slice and dice them like a gadget on one of those late night infomericials.
This time it was the Falcons' Matt Ryan and Julio Jones who cut them up in a 43-28 win over Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium. Ryan passed for 344 yards and four touchdowns, giving him an NFL-leading 23 on the season.
It wasn’t much better than what Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and Amari Cooper did to them on Sunday, when the Bucs allowed 513 yards passing and four scores.
The only difference was it happened before a national television audience and with the Bucs in their red "Color Rush" uniforms, which came to resemble little droplets of blood the way the defense was being dissected.
By the time Jones made a ridiculous leaping, toe-tapping catch in the end zone over rookie Vernon Hargreaves with 3:02 left in the third quarter, they should’ve called the game. Jones had eight catches for 111 yards and the TD.
The Bucs were not only completely gassed, they resembled a team looking for a nice four-day weekend off on the beach.
The loss dropped the Bucs to 3-5 at the midway point of the season and further behind the NFC South leading Falcons (6-3), who somehow had lost three straight to Tampa Bay prior to Thursday.
"We really struggled in the second half and that third quarter. We just couldn’t get off the field (on defense)," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "We tried a lot of defenses and couldn’t get it stopped.
"Pass rush and coverage go hand in hand. We didn’t get a pass rush and did not cover well, either."
How bad was the Bucs D on Thursday? Eight of the Falcons' 10 possessions resulted in scores. In fact, they never punted. The 1,087 yards allowed to the Raiders and Falcons is the fourth-worst two-game stretch in 50 years. Of those, 823 yards came via the air.
"We’ve got to figure out who we are as a defense and figure out how we want to finish this season," Hargreaves said. P>You could see this coming. Not only were the Bucs facing an explosive offense, Hargreaves and fellow cornerback Brent Grimes were in for all 93 plays on defense in an overtime loss to the Raiders Sunday. "It’s just how it sounds," Hargreaves said. "It’s not very favorable."
The Bucs actually led the game 14-13 midway through the second quarter on a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback Jameis Winston to receiver Mike Evans, who seemed like Jones’ equal for much of the first half.
Evans, who had 11 catches for 150 yards and two scores, plucked his second touchdown reception out of the air like he was picking an orange off a tree. And he made a remarkable one-handed grab of a pass along the sideline in the third quarter before taking a shot under the chin from cornerback Robert Alford.
"Mike played the best game I’ve seen him play since I’ve been here," Koetter said. "Mike was fantastic today."
However, neither Winston nor Evans finished the game. Winston took a big hit on a two-point conversion run attempt and it was announced he hurt his knee. He was replaced by Mike Glennon, who hadn’t played since 2014 and threw a TD pass.
Winston danced on his way out of the press conference to demonstrate to a reporter he was okay. However, Evans left in the fourth quarter and was in the concussion protocol.
Koetter had so little faith in the Bucs defense that he declined a personal foul penalty in the second quarter that would’ve given the Falcons another play on third and 22 from the Tampa Bay 38 yard line. Instead, he was content to let Matt Bryant kick a 41-yard field goal to leave the his team trailing 13-7.
"Correct. We talked about it," Koetter said. "We pushed them back right to the edge of Bryant’s range and they would’ve had another down. We thought it could end up the same way and possibly worse. We just took our chances right there."
The Bucs simply couldn’t run up and down the field like the fast-breaking Falcons offense, which entered the game as the league’s best.
It didn’t help the Bucs were starting their fourth running back this season in rookie Peyton Barber. With Doug Martin, Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers all out with injuries, Tampa Bay struggled to find any consistent running game.
The Bucs committed two turnovers in the first half. The first was a bad exchange by Winston on a draw play to Barber, who was making his first NFL start in place of Rodgers. That led to Bryant’s 29 yard field goal to make it 10-7.
Then on the next possession, Winston tried a quarterback sneak on third and 1 but lost the football during a second effort and the fumble was recovered by Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow.
"Atlanta is a great team," Winston said. "We started out hot and we’ve got to finish. I fumbled that ball. The defense got a good stop for us and I fumbled again."
The Bucs also killed themselves on offense with penalties and were flagged 11 times for 85 yards.
"Every time we got something going, we got a 15-yarder," Koetter said. "That’s what stopped us in the first half. I didn’t feel like we got stopped other than stopping ourselves with penalties and yet we were only down six points at the half."
So where are the Bucs now at the midway point of the season?
They’re short-handed and inconsistent as Winston on offense. Defensively, they’re barely a speed bump on the way to the end zone. Tampa Bay also can’t win at home, suffering their 17th loss in 20 games at RJS.
"Whatever frustration anybody else has, you can multiply that by about 200,000 for me," Koetter said. "We got to do better."
Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith will need the extra time off to determine how to fix the defense before they host the Chicago Bears Nov. 13. It starts by determining which players may be available. The Bucs started their fourth running back in rookie Peyton Barber Thursday. Backup Antone Smith suffered a serious knee injury in the game.
"We’re 3-5, that’s where we’re at," Koetter said. "We’re 3-5 at the halfway point and that’s what we’ve earned. That’s what we talked about in the locker room. So we’ve got half a season left and I’ve got to figure out a way to make this team play up to their potential because I don’t feel like we are right now. That’s 100 percent on me."