TAMPA — The Bucs feel hopeful about their place in the standings despite losing Sunday to the Falcons. But that doesn't mean there weren't regrets.
Among them was the performance of a defense that continues to seem incapable of consistent stops on third down.
The Falcons were 8-of-14 on third down (57 percent), and the Bucs, statistically, have the second-worst third-down defense in the NFL this season (47 percent).
Coach Raheem Morris sees the inability to get stops on the most important down as a root of much of the Bucs' defensive troubles.
"The first thing I'll say about (Sunday) that we could do better is we have to get off on third down," Morris said. "They were able to convert a third down and a fourth down on that first drive. If you convert those, you do start faster. It was a third-down destruction on those first two drives."
On the Falcons' 99-yard touchdown drive that stretched from late in the first quarter into the second, Atlanta converted two key third downs.
Had the Bucs gotten a stop on the first one, on third and 6 at the Atlanta 16-yard line, they would have forced a punt and likely ended up with reasonably good field position.
On the second third-down conversion, Falcons QB Matt Ryan found WR Brian Finneran for a 14-yard completion on third and 9.
Two key early first downs were completed to TE Tony Gonzalez, whom the Bucs struggled to match up with.
Those coverage problems prompted Morris — the defensive playcaller — to assign CB Ronde Barber to Gonzalez because the linebackers and safeties weren't getting the job done. Gonzalez caught eight passes for 72 yards, with several of his catches coming in clutch situations such as on third downs.
"We had to put somebody else on Tony Gonzalez," Morris said. "He was an issue. So, you call to your old, crafty vet: 'Go cover the big guy.' That's a nice adjustment by our coaching staff somewhere in the second quarter."
RECEIVERS SHOW UP: Offensive coordinator Greg Olson lauded his receivers, particularly rookie Arrelious Benn, who had a solid outing for the second consecutive game. Benn caught his first career touchdown and drew a pass interference call that gave the Bucs an opportunity to win late.
Mike Williams continued to impress, catching a 58-yard touchdown on a slant in the second quarter, and Micheal Spurlock had a pivotal 43-yard catch. Olson also suggested Preston Parker would begin to have a bigger role in the coming weeks, too.
Williams and Benn, in particular, provide dual deep threats that change the approach of defenses.
"It'll benefit the running game," Olson said. "It's nice when you have receivers that a defense feels like they have to keep a safety over the top of. So we're getting better, and as we can continue to threaten teams with the deep ball, the opportunity to have two guys on both sides, it certainly should open up the running game."
QUICK TURNAROUND: If during Sunday's game you were perplexed to see Al Woods on the field, you weren't alone.
Woods, a defensive tackle signed from the Steelers practice squad last week to replace injured Brian Price, admitted he didn't expect to see any action after joining the Bucs just four days before.
Woods benefited from his history in a similar defensive system at LSU, allowing him to play without much instruction.
But Woods doesn't know the Bucs' terminology, meaning he needed a little translation in the huddle before snaps.
With DT Ryan Sims inactive, Woods was one of just three full-time tackles available, joining Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.