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With 4 starters out, young players step up for Bucs defense in Atlanta

Tampa Bay had substitutes on the line, in the secondary and at linebacker, but still made enough third-down plays to slow down the Falcons.
 
Falcons wide receiver Scotty Miller (16) can not make a catch as Bucs cornerback Zyon McCollum (27) defends during the second half Sunday.
Falcons wide receiver Scotty Miller (16) can not make a catch as Bucs cornerback Zyon McCollum (27) defends during the second half Sunday. [ BRYNN ANDERSON | AP ]
Published Dec. 11, 2023

ATLANTA — The big moments will be preserved in the box score for years to come.

The way Carlton Davis dashed across the line to steal a pass in front of a stunned Atlanta receiver late in the first quarter. The way Antoine Winfield Jr. blitzed from around the right end and knocked the ball loose from Desmond Ridder for a critical safety.

But those moments would have turned out meaningless if not for a series of smaller — but equally critical — plays by the Tampa Bay defense in Sunday’s 29-25 victory against the Falcons.

With three starters on the sideline with injuries (Vita Vea, Devin White, Jamel Dean) and a fourth leaving the game in the second quarter (Ryan Neal), the Bucs got meaningful contributions from a variety of younger players to frustrate, if not stop, the Falcons offense.

“The little plays mean a lot during a game like this,” linebacker Lavonte David said. “To win football games, we have to take the ball away from the other team but it’s also important to stop them on third down. If we do that, we know the game will go in our favor.”

That plan didn’t look so promising early in Sunday’s game when the Falcons converted on three of their first five third downs to come from behind twice and tied the score at 10-10. But the Bucs gradually began tightening up on critical downs with contributions from a variety of sources.

“We’ve got great guys that come up and play behind our starters, so everybody is prepared,” said Winfield. “This is a tough game, you’re not going to win every third down. You’re not going to win every situation, but we try our best to win those.”

Falcons running back Bijan Robinson (7) is tackled by Bucs linebacker K.J. Britt (52) and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) during the first half.
Falcons running back Bijan Robinson (7) is tackled by Bucs linebacker K.J. Britt (52) and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) during the first half. [ DANNY KARNIK | AP ]

• Linebacker K.J. Britt, who left last week’s game with a back injury, raced across the field to stop Bijan Robinson at the 2-yard-line as he turned the corner on a sweep. That tackle kept the Falcons out of the end zone and they settled for a chip-shot field goal.

• On third and 6 from the Tampa Bay 31, first-round pick Calijah Kancey made a shoestring sack as Ridder tried to scramble out of the pocket. Atlanta was forced to settle for a field goal attempt, and Younghoe Koo’s kick clanked off the upright.

• On third and 2 from the Tampa Bay 34, Shaquil Barrett came around the right side of the line to tackle Robinson from behind to prevent a first down. The Falcons tried another field goal and Koo missed wide left.

• Backup safety Kaevon Merriweather punched the ball out of Drake London’s grasp on a long third-down pass that would have put the Falcons in the red zone early in the third quarter.

• On second down late in the third quarter, Zyon McCollum went over the top of Scotty Miller to knock away a deep pass near the goal line. Seconds later, McCollum punched a ball out of tight end Jonnu Smith’s hands on third down to force a punt.

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“We didn’t miss a beat with them,” Bowles said. “Zyon has been playing well for a few weeks now. With K.J. coming back, I was hoping he could play more than six to seven plays this week because Ryan (Neal) got hurt this time so he had to stay in the ballgame.”

McCollum ended up with a team-high nine tackles and Britt was right behind him with a career-high eight. Britt also narrowly missed an interception in the second start of his NFL career.

“He’s a natural-born leader,” Bowles said. “He’s learned a lot from Devin and Lavonte, he didn’t miss a beat. His communications skills are excellent. He played a heck of a ballgame.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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