From a statistical standpoint, the Buccaneers were thoroughly beaten. From an individual standpoint, the Bucs were outplayed at every position. From a team standpoint, the Falcons just played harder than the Pewter Pirates. Whether it was a case of taking the Falcons lightly, or looking to the upcoming season opener in Dallas, the Bucs' heart was in this one.
The one saving grace to come out of the final exhibition game for the Buccaneers before opening against the Cowboys in Dallas was the play of the first-team offense. In the two series that they participated in, the Bucs moved the ball at will and only stopped themselves. The first-team defense held up its end of the deal even though they played without starters Marcus Jones, Warren Sapp and John Lynch. The Bucs' backups were victimized for most of the 36 points and never got into the flow of the game.
After receiving the opening kickoff, the Bucs caught the Falcons a little flat-footed by coming out for the first time under new offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen with a no-huddle attack to simulate a two-minute offense. The Bucs moved deep into Falcons territory on the opening drive thanks to quick strikes from quarterback Brad Johnson, and the nimble running of Warrick Dunn, who had two carries for 30 yards, including a run of 18 off of a lateral from Johnson.
But the Bucs' promising drive ended when linebacker Chris Draft picked off a Johnson pass intended for tight end Dave Moore in the right corner of the end zone.
The Bucs didn't have to wait long to start their second drive and dent the scoring column for the first - and only - time at 9:46 of first quarter. After a Chris Chandler pass was tipped by wide receiver Terance Mathis into the waiting and opportunistic arms of cornerback Donnie Abraham, it took the Bucs took two plays to cover the final 22 yards to paydirt. On a second-and-6 from the Falcons 18-yard line, Johnson hooked up with wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson on a beautiful post flag route.
Catching Atlanta in a safety blitz, the Bucs offensive line and backs Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn gave Johnson the necessary time to find No. 19 coming across the field behind Atlanta cornerback Ashley Ambrose. A successful extra point by kicker Martin Gramatica culminated the 39-second drive and gave the Pewter Pirates an early 7-0 lead.
After the Johnson-to-Johnson touchdown, it was all Atlanta and it went downhill for the Bucs in a hurry. On the ensuing possession the Bucs were their own worst enemy leading to three Falcons points. On a third down situation early in the drive, defensive tackle Chartric Darby was guilty of being offsides that negated a sack and forced fumble by defensive end Simeon Rice. The drive finally stalled and Tampa native kicker Jay Feely kissed a 38 field goal off the left upright for the first Falcons points of the evening. The drive lasted two plays that traversed :26 of clock time.
On the very next series backup quarterback Shaun King was intercepted by strong safety Marty Carter when he had a pass intended for Karl Williams batted high in the air by cornerback Ray Buchanan. Carter alertly picked off the pigskin and set the Falcons were back in business deep in Bucs territory at the 28-yard line.
This time the Falcons were quick to cash the turnover in points. After a Chandler to Mathis aerial moved the ball down to the Bucs 4, Jamal Anderson gave the Falcons a lead they would never relinquish at 2:12 of the first quarter. The drive lasted :26 and took two plays to make the 28 yard excursion to the end zone. Atlanta was up 10-7.
What followed was a combination of an emotionally charged Atlanta Falcons football team and a flat Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad whose mind appeared to be in Dallas. It was a complete domination in all three phases of the game. The Bucs offense could only muster seven first downs to a whopping 25 for the Falcons. The Bucs gave up 365 net yards, and the Falcons only surrendered 171 yards. The Bucs also had three turnovers - two passes intercepted and a fumble as compared to just one for Atlanta.
The crowning blow to Bucs futility occurred right before halftime. On the last play of the first half, Feely pushed a 41-yard field goal wide to the right keeping the Falcons halftime lead at six points. But the officials flagged rookie cornerback Dwight Smith for running into the kicker. With a new lease on life, Feely calmly booted the 36-yarder through to increase the Falcons lead to 16-7.
The most telling stat of the game, and the one that the Cowboys and all the rest of the teams on the Bucs schedule will watch, was the rushing yardage the Bucs allowed. The Falcons amassed 211 yards on the ground with running backs Maurice Thomas (12 carries for 89 yards and two touchdowns), Rodney Thomas (18 carries for 68 yards) and starter Jamal Anderson (6 carries for 25 yards and a touchdown) running wild, while Atlanta's defense held the Bucs to just 86 yards on the ground.
The offensive star for the Falcons was Smith, who has been impressive all preseason. He shredded the vaunted Buccaneers defense with sheer power running and added one catch for eight yards. This performance should definitely help solidify a roster spot for Smith when head coach Dan Reeves and his staff meet to decide who makes the 53-man roster. After this outing, Dungy and his staff may have a harder job.
Although the Falcons' offensive star was Smith, the offensive show was turned in by Vick, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. After taking over for Chandler, who finished 5-of-9 for 96 yards, Vick electrified the partisan Falcons fans with two rushes for 23 yards, including a nifty 21-yard scramble off of play-action, and a 4-for-8 passing night for 37 yards. His escapability in the pocket was almost uncanny and he had the quick feet to turn 7-yard losses into 2-yard gains. He was a force to be reckoned with and it may not take too long before he moves into the starting role.
The Bucs were flagged by the replacement officials eight times for 42 yards, which continues a disturbing flag-filled preseason for the Bucs. You can blame some of the penalties on the replacement officials if you want, but that was not entirely the case. The officials did a credible job and didn't affect the outcome of the game, and that's really all you want from an official.
There were two significant injuries for the Bucs in the Falcons contest. Defensive tackle James Cannida suffered a knee sprain in the fourth quarter and while he left the field being carried by Rice and Steve White, he had to be carted back to the locker room. His knee sprain appeared to be severe as Cannida was grimacing in pain on the sidelines, but the full extent of the injury won't be known until an MRI is performed. Running back Pepe Pearson also dislocated a finger in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons now have a little momentum to use for the opening day of the season. For the Bucs, on the other hand, it's time to burn the game film, make some final roster cuts and prepare for the opener at Dallas. They will face a quarterback very similar to Vick in another rookie, Quincy Carter.
From the defensive perspective, the Buccaneers will have to do a better job of tackling and getting to the football than they did against the Falcons. From the offensive side, the Pewter Pirates have to control the clock. Against the Falcons the Buccaneers came out on the short end of time of possession (37:14 to 22:46) and this needs to be rectified.
Plenty for the Bucs to work on this week. The Bucs hope the performance against the Falcons is the exception rather than the rule. If it isn't, it'll be a long plane flight home from a shocking afternoon in Texas next week.
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