If you're reading this and beginning to realize that you forgot the Buccaneers played on Thursday this week, consider yourself fortunate. You missed the worst Thursday Night Football game in the program's five-year history as the Falcons humiliated the hapless local football team 56-14.
My task in this space is to identify the game's turning point, that precise instant where the game shifted for good in favor of one team. It's a particularly challenging endeavor this week because, well, the Buccaneers were never really in it.
Even so, here are the nominations for best that's-where-the-game-ended moment:
• When Falcons safety Kemal Ishamael returned a Josh McCown interception 23 yards for a touchdown just 35 seconds after Matt Ryan threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to put the Falcons up 14-0. It was McCown's fourth interception in three games this season (he threw one in eight games last season) and was the second of five Tampa Bay turnovers.
• When T.J. Yates took over for Ryan in the third quarter to ensure that the Buccaneers would face a backup quarterback for the third consecutive week (Derek Anderson in Week 1 and Austin Davis in Week 2).
• When you turned off your television after kick returner/receiver Devin Hester took an end-around 20 yards for a touchdown to put the Falcons up 28-0. Hester later scored a second touchdown on a 62-yard punt return.
• When Don Cheadle finished his narration for the Thursday Night Football pregame show.
It wouldn't be all that much of a joke to suggest the game was over when Cheadle appeared to stoke our voracious appetites/give false hope that this game might be compelling. Before kickoff, the Buccaneers were missing half of the defensive line they started the season with and rarely generated anything resembling pressure on Ryan.
We noted in our Falcons scouting report earlier this week that Ryan had dominated opponents this season when not under pressure, and on Thursday night he made the Buccaneers pay dearly. He was nearly flawless, completing 21-of-24 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns. In all likelihood, Ryan was more irritated this week by the new U2 album automatically appearing in his iTunes library than he was by the Buccaneers' pass rush.
"Wide open again" was a familiar refrain for CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz. Just look at how open Falcons receivers were:
On his first touchdown pass, Ryan throws to Harry Douglas, but if he had stayed in the pocket, running back Jacquizz Rodgers, standing on the goal line, also is open.
On the first play of the Falcons' next possession, Ryan can choose between Julio Jones and Douglas. He completes the 9-yard pass to Jones.
Ryan could check down here to Rodgers, who is "wide open again," but instead goes for his second touchdown and throws a strike to Jones in the back of the end zone.
Though the Falcons jumped ahead big early, the Buccaneers had a faint pulse until Hester's touchdown run. After that, they basically flatlined with a win probability that hung around 2 to 3 percent for most of the rest of the game. A look at the win probability chart from advancedfootballanalytics.com:
What — beside Gerald McCoy's absence because of injury — went wrong on the play? An effective ground game certainly helped set the stage. To that point, the Falcons had gained 48 yards on 11 carries. (Last season, the Falcons were dead-last in the NFL in total rushing yards, averaging 77.9 yards per game.)
Safety Mark Barron barrels toward the right side of the line on a blitz, but by the time he gets there, the play is already going left. Several defenders bite badly on the fake handoff to running back Antone Smith, and not only does Hester nearly go untouched into the end zone but so does his lead blocker, fullback Patrick DiMarco.
The brutal stretch of road games continues for the Buccaneers in Week 4 when they travel to Pittsburgh (1-1), where they have yet to win. And then it's on to New Orleans (0-2), where they have lost their past three contests by a combined score of 110-33. Check back Thursday for our scouting report on the Steelers.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tbassfootball.