TAMPA — For the second time in four 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 infomercials.
This time it was the Falcons' Matt Ryan and Julio Jones who cut them up in a 43-28 win at Raymond James Stadium. Ryan passed for 344 yards and four touchdowns, giving him an NFL-leading 23 passing touchdowns on the season.
It wasn't much different from what Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Amari Cooper did to the Bucs on Sunday, when Tampa Bay allowed 513 yards passing and four touchdowns. The only difference was that Thursday 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 allowing its most points this season.
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 have called the game.
Jones had eight catches for 111 yards and a touchdown. The Bucs' defense not only was completely gassed, it looked like a unit looking for a nice four-day weekend off on the beach.
The Bucs dropped to 3-5 at the midway point of the season and fell further behind the NFC South-leading Falcons (6-3), who somehow had lost three straight games to Tampa Bay before Thursday.
The Bucs actually led 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 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.
Evans had 11 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns, giving him eight on the season. Winston had with three touchdown passes, but neither player finished the game. In the fourth quarter, Winston took a wicked hit trying to run for a two-point conversion and came up hobbling on his right knee.
Evans left in the fourth quarter and was being evaluated for a concussion.
The Bucs 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 that the Bucs were starting their fourth running back this season, rookie Peyton Barber. With Doug Martin, Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers out with injuries, Tampa Bay struggled to find a consistent running game.
The Bucs committed two turnovers in the first half. The first was on a bad exchange by Winston on a draw play to Barber, who made his first NFL start in place of Rodgers. That led to Matt Bryant's 29-yard field goal to make it 10-7 Atlanta. On the next possession, Winston tried a quarterback sneak on third and 1 but lost the ball during a second effort, and the fumble was recovered by linebacker Paul Worrilow.
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter had so little faith in his defense that he declined a face mask penalty that would have made it third and 22 from their 38-yard line, allowing Bryant to kick a 41-yard field goal to make it 13-7. Also hurting the Bucs was the way they littered the field with flags. They were penalized 11 times for 85 yards.
Because they lost in overtime to the Raiders on Sunday, with their cornerbacks on the field for 93 plays, the Bucs' defense was never a match for Atlanta. The pass rush got to Ryan for only two sacks, including a forced fumble by Gerald McCoy that set up the Bucs' second touchdown. William Gholston had the other sack.
But most of the time, Ryan had all the time in the world to scan the field for Jones and No. 2 receiver Mohammed Sanu.