Missing out on key chances
As pumped as the Bucs were over holding on for the 16-13 win, they knew they could have put the Falcons away early had they not squandered key opportunities in the red zone. QB Josh Freeman threw an interception on first and goal on the team's first drive, which started on the Atlanta 17 after CB Ronde Barber's fumble recovery. And Tampa Bay later settled for field goals on two red zone chances, with penalties playing a role.
"We've got to finish (drives) — they can hurt us in the long run," T Donald Penn said. "Luckily our defense played their butt off. They had as many red zone stops as (the Atlanta defense) did. We've just got to keep working."
Where's the flag?
Mere minutes after Bucs DT Gerald McCoy was flagged for roughing Falcons QB Matt Ryan with a swipe to the face, Bucs QB Josh Freeman absorbed a more obvious and vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from Falcons S William Moore. Apparently, none of the seven officials on the field saw it that way, despite the fact Freeman was running in the open field and Moore appeared to launch himself into the head of the scrambling quarterback.
No penalty flag was thrown, much to the chagrin of the Bucs, even after teammates came to Freeman's defense and had to be separated from Falcons players.
If the recent stance by the league office on hits to quarterbacks is any indication, Moore could be assessed a considerable fine.
"I didn't get a good look at it, but I heard the fans going crazy," RG Davin Joseph said. "Hey, we're Tampa. We don't get no calls. We just don't. … Maybe the league will take care of it (today), but we didn't get any favors (Sunday)."
Said Freeman: "Of course I felt it. We're not allowed to comment on the officials. (We're) just fortunate that we got the first down and were able to win the game."
Bucs FS Cody Grimm came flying in to help bust up another Michael Turner rushing attempt in the third quarter, something he had been doing all day against the Falcons running back. But the Bucs' second-year player, while having a hand in stuffing Turner after a 1-yard gain, sustained a potentially serious right knee injury on the play. Grimm had the knee immobilized after the game and was experiencing swelling, if not severe pain. An MRI exam is planned for today to determine the extent of the injury, such as possible torn ligaments. "I just took a shot to the knee," Grimm said. "I was kind of on Turner's back. I don't know exactly who hit me, but I felt it hit pretty hard." It's possible that the player who collided with Grimm was teammate LB Geno Hayes, who suffered a possible concussion on the play. Neither player was certain afterward who had caused the injuries. Hayes left the game and did not return, but the former Florida State standout said he will be fine. Grimm, who finished last season on injured reserve after breaking his left leg, spent much of his offseason recovering, getting well just in time for the start of training camp. But he's prepared for the worst after Sunday's setback. "It stinks," he said. "Wrong place at the wrong time. We'll see. Hopefully it's nothing too big and I'll be able to come back by the end of the year. If not, start rehabbing."
More troubles in red zone
On his interception in the first quarter, Bucs QB Josh Freeman rolled to his left and tried to hit TE Kellen Winslow in the back of the end zone. But Freeman said Falcons S Thomas DeCoud, who was covering WR Arrelious Benn, came off to make the pick. "I thought I had a touchdown," Freeman said. "It's one high to an extreme low. At that point, when it's first and (4), you've got to have the mentality if someone is wide open, throw it to them. If not, try to run it in." Another red zone trip was thwarted by an illegal pass penalty against Freeman on second and goal from the 9 and another when three plays starting from the 14 resulted in just 4 yards.
Bucs rookie MLB Mason Foster, left, had his first opportunity to be the quarterback of the defense, remaining on the field for most every play and for the first time wearing the transmitter in his helmet to communicate with coaches. Foster, who took over the duties from injured LB Quincy Black (ankle), handled them well while picking up five tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss. "It felt good," Foster said. "You had the coach in your ear, you can sit there, make the calls. You've just got to communicate, keep echoing it throughout the defense, make sure everyone hears you. Everything worked out well." Foster's sack came on a blitz, with Falcons QB Matt Ryan bobbling the snap and the Falcons blockers picking up charging LB Adam Hayward, allowing Foster to get through. "I had a clean shot," Foster said. "I'm just out there playing hard, doing what I can do to help the team win."
Judging solely by the numbers, you might assume the Bucs secondary was fretting over the 255 combined receiving yards for Falcons WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones.
And you would be wrong.
The Bucs invited the Falcons to make plays in the passing game. In fact, the game plan was to get pressure on QB Matt Ryan, stop RB Michael Turner and let the defensive backs take their chances in single coverage.
"We've had three different game plans all three weeks this year," CB Ronde Barber said. "The first week, we had to stop Calvin (Johnson), which we didn't do that well. The second week we had to stop Adrian (Peterson), which we did pretty well in the second half.
"This week (the plan) was to challenge Matt Ryan to see if he could throw into tight windows and tight coverage. We knew this was on us (in the secondary). I think for the most part, we held our own. They're good, man. They're talented. They're big. They're athletic. It's a challenge we were willing and ready to accept."
The Bucs assigned CB Aqib Talib to shadow Jones .
"They probably thought I was going to come out on Roddy," Talib said. "They probably game-planned for it, so we tried to throw something at them."
That left Barber on White in base coverage. But the Bucs spent much of the game in the nickel and dime packages. At those times, it fell to nickel back E.J. Biggers to defend White. Biggers had some rough moments, White finishing with nine catches for 140 yards. But Biggers, knowing he had little deep help, managed to prevent White from getting behind him and taking one to the end zone.
"He's a good receiver," Biggers said. "He's one of the best receivers in this league. But you just have to scratch and claw. When you're a defensive back, it's going to happen."
Talib was solid throughout on Jones, though Jones caught a 49-yard pass on a scramble play. Meanwhile, Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez caught just two passes for 18 yards, though one was a 10-yard touchdown.
The idea wasn't for it to be pretty but effective. In the end, Ryan completed 55 percent of his attempts.
"We'll look at this film and be happy with what we put on film and move forward," Barber said.
A quarterback under duress and sliding out of the pocket. The ball being jarred loose by a punishing hit on the passer. Inaccurate throws made on the run. These are the images the Bucs envisioned after investing so richly in their defensive line, including the likes of DT Gerald McCoy and DE Adrian Clayborn. The vision became reality against the Falcons. "We were kind of challenged, and we were up to the occasion," said DT Brian Price, who had his first career sack. Price's sack was emblematic of the defensive line's day. In the fourth quarter he split a double team, fought through a hold and decked Falcons QB Matt Ryan for a 10-yard loss. The play, on first and goal from the 5, helped force a field goal. Also notching sacks were Clayborn, who forced a fumble on the play, LB Dekoda Watson and LB Mason Foster. On four other occasions, Ryan was hit by defenders, including McCoy. "When you keep hitting a quarterback and getting him off his spot, he starts to make bad throws," McCoy said. "When he gets comfortable is when he can make those throws and get into a rhythm. When you keep hitting him, you keep him out of the end zone." As always, a key to the intensified pass rush was creating opportunities, which resulted by holding RB Michael Turner to 20 yards on 11 carries. That created numerous passing situations, allowing the rush to take aim at Ryan. "First and foremost, we stopped the run," McCoy said. "That means they're in third and long, and it gives us a chance."
Barber's big day
Veteran Bucs CB Ronde Barber has been a ball-hawking defensive back his entire 15-year career, and he lived up to that reputation Sunday with huge plays. On the Falcons' first possession, LB Dekoda Watson forced a QB Matt Ryan fumble on a sack, and Barber was in the right spot at the right time, jumping on the ball for a fumble recovery. Late in the third quarter, with the Falcons driving and down 13-3, Barber snagged an interception on a pass that deflected off the hands of Falcons WR Roddy White.
"The old man is all right," said a smiling Barber, 36. "Old man is still doing his thing. They still believe in him."
It was the 41st career interception for Barber, who has recorded at least one pick in 13 of his 15 seasons.
"He's amazing," rookie LB Mason Foster said. "I'm glad he's on my team. He's making a lot of plays to save this defense."
The (other) stand
The Bucs' defensive stop that will get most of the acclaim came with four minutes left, when a Falcons first-and-goal play at the 5 resulted in a field goal and not a go-ahead touchdown.
But just as important was the four-down stand early in the fourth quarter, when the Falcons reached the Tampa Bay 7 but didn't score.
The Falcons marched downfield quickly after S William Moore picked off a QB Josh Freeman pass and returned it 27 yards to the Bucs 48. Consecutive completions to WR Julio Jones for 16 and 18 yards put the Falcons at the Bucs 14.
But a consistent pass rush and solid coverage — plus a drop from WR Roddy White — left the Falcons with fourth and 3 from the 7. That's when backup S Corey Lynch, playing in place of injured Cody Grimm, made one of the day's biggest plays, knocking down a pass at the goal line that was intended for RB Jacquizz Rodgers and leaving the Falcons trailing 16-3 with 12:56 left.
"It just takes one play," Lynch said. "It's tough to come off the bench. You're cold. You've only been playing special teams, and then you go right in and face (QB) Matt Ryan and (TE Tony) Gonzalez. It's nothing I haven't done before, but you just have to get going real fast. I was thankful I had some good plays early on."