ATLANTA — LeGarrette Blount believed he ran the ball far enough to get the first down. Left tackle Donald Penn screamed for a measurement but said officials ignored him.
Defensive tackle Roy Miller, who lined up at fullback on the play, didn't know why he wasn't followed through the hole. Quarterback Josh Freeman said a lot of plays were discussed, but they felt comfortable putting it on the broad shoulders of the offensive line.
Offensive coordinator Greg Olson said he would make the call again.
"We had 6 inches to get it," Olson said. "And to hand it to LeGarrette Blount, behind (guard) Davin Joseph, I don't have a problem with calling it again."
Facing fourth and inches from the Atlanta 2 with 2:44 left and needing a touchdown to win, the 6-foot, 247-pound Blount bounced a run outside but was tackled for no gain by safety Thomas DeCoud.
That proved to be the difference in the Bucs' 27-21 loss that dropped them a game behind the Falcons in the NFC South.
In a yardstick game to measure themselves as the best team in the NFC, the Bucs came up a few inches short.
"You can't say you're the best team in the NFC now," coach Raheem Morris said after his team fell to 5-3 and dropped to third in the division, a half-game behind the second-place Saints. "You don't have the least amount of losses, and that would not be an accurate statement by me this week."
Replays indicated the hole created by Joseph, Miller and center Jeremy Zuttah on the final play was there and Blount might have scored a touchdown had he not bounced the play outside.
Blount didn't believe so.
"It's supposed to be there, but it wasn't," he said.
"So I bounced it."
Olson said he didn't have a good view but felt confident in the play selection.
"We thought at that time LeGarrette Blount, being the hard running back that he is … we've seen him (score a touchdown) in the Pittsburgh game in a similar situation," Olson said. "We felt like we wanted to try and run with our biggest, heaviest back over Davin Joseph.
"The play is designed to go inside. Obviously, it was not designed to bounce. It was to go right up the gut between Davin and Zuttah."
Morris was confident the play would have worked had Blount run inside.
"It's a downhill play," Morris said. "He just bounced outside and made a bad cut."
A play earlier, on third and 3 from the 4, Blount got the carry and believed he had the first down. But the ball was placed inches short of the marker.
"Bad spot," Blount said.
But until Blount's fourth-down failure, it looked as if Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman would pull off another fourth-quarter comeback, something he has done six times in his 17-game career.
Tampa Bay trailed 17-7 after Atlanta scored the first three times it touched the ball and 27-14 late in the third quarter.
But the Bucs kept battling and got a huge day from Micheal Spurlock, who followed up a 66-yard kickoff return in the second quarter that set up a touchdown with an 89-yard return for a touchdown to cut the Falcons' lead to six.
All day Sunday, the Bucs and Morris were aggressive. Following Spurlock's touchdown, they gambled by calling for an onside kick that kicker Connor Barth appeared to recover.
But Falcons coach Mike Smith used an instant replay challenge, and referee Terry McAulay overturned the play, ruling the ball touched Barth's leg a few inches before it rolled the required 10 yards.
"You've got to make the big-time calls in big-time games," Morris said. "I put my team out there a little bit making a big-time call. They responded because we got the ball back. Our defense went out there and stopped them again and made them punt."
Morris and the Bucs were aggressive again on their next possession when, on third and 13 from their 1, Freeman heaved a 43-yard completion to Spurlock.
Freeman, who entered with an NFC-low three interceptions, was picked off twice Sunday. His second came two plays after Spurlock's catch.
Tampa Bay's defense didn't do much right in the first half. Michael Turner rushed for two touchdowns on his way to 107 yards. Quarterback Matt Ryan played catch with tight end Tony Gonzalez, who finished with eight catches for 72 yards, as the Falcons converted 5 of 8 third downs.
But the Bucs switched from zone coverage to more man-to-man matchups, and the adjustment enabled them to shut out the Falcons in the fourth quarter.
Needing a touchdown to win, Freeman began what looked to be another cardiac comeback at the Tampa Bay 9 with 10:05 remaining.
Blount started the drive with a 21-yard run. And the Bucs converted two third downs before Freeman went deep on a flea-flicker to rookie Arrelious Benn, who drew a 33-yard pass-interference penalty on safety William Moore.
But for a team that was so aggressive all day and relied on its quarterback so much this season, Freeman never took a shot at the end zone in the four plays afterward.
Technically, Freeman did not even throw a pass during that span.
Blount was stopped for no gain on first down. Freeman threw a screen to receiver Preston Parker that was ruled a lateral, which gained 7 yards.
Then came the two runs by Blount, leaving the Bucs inches short.
"That last play, I had the fourth and inches," Morris said. "If I run the (bootleg) and we throw an incomplete pass, (reporters) ask me why we didn't run Blount? If we run a sneak there and don't get it, (reporters) ask me why we don't run Blount?
"Now we ran the football with Blount, and (reporters) ask me why we didn't run the bootleg? That's a situation that you've got to keep second-guessing yourself on. You go back and do film evaluation and see what you can do better so the next time you get in that spot, you can make the decision that's right."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.