Lost Opportunity

The Bucs offensive line struggled and the Falcons increased their NFC South Division lead to three games.

After nine weeks, the Bucs are out of mulligans.

In other words, they'll have to run the table if they want even a chance to make the playoffs. True, they face just two teams with winning records throughout the remainder of the season, but Sunday's 24-10 loss to the NFC South Division-leading Atlanta Falcons was devastating. All of the improvements the Bucs had made during their recent two-game win streak went out the window, especially on the offensive line, which was woeful.

Buccaneer coach Jon Gruden hasn't given up on the season, but at Monday's press conference, he was hit almost as many questions as Brian Griese was by the Falcons defense.

He also had to address a controversial decision when the Bucs faced 4th-and-1 in Atlanta territory in the third quarter. The Bucs had cut a 17-0 deficit to 17-14 and had momentum. Gruden had his choice: A 45-yard field goal attempt by slumping Martin Gramatica, or a shot at the first down.

Michael Pittman tried to run the ball up the gut and was stuffed. Atlanta held and the Bucs never threatened again. Gruden said his call had nothing to do with Gramatica's inconsistency.

"I didn't not kick the field goal because I lacked confidence,'' Gruden said. "You have to show confidence in an offensive football team and try to win the game. It was a heck of an effort coming from behind 17-0. You have to do the best you can to win the football game.''

Gruden said he had no regrets.

"No, I regret losing the game,'' Gruden said. "I regret not making (the first down). No, 10 times out of 10 I will go for it in that situation. Just kicking a field goal doesn't guarantee that you'll make it and tying the game doesn't guarantee that you'll win.''

It wasn't Gruden's decision that lost it; it was the play of the offensive line. The Bucs came in without starting center John Wade who was replaced by inexperienced Sean Mahan who got off to a shaky start. Derrick Deese suffered an early foot injury and gritted it out, but the entire line was miserable, making penalties and allowing the Falcons to swarm Griese. Kenyatta Walker, especially, struggled after making big strides over last season.

Gruden said he is contemplating changes.

"The hardest part is after a loss you tend to overanalyze things,'' Gruden said. "We are working as hard as we can with Jeb Terry and Anthony Davis, our young football players.''

More than the offensive line, it was penalties that killed the Bucs on Sunday.

"I'm disappointed,'' Gruden said. "It's not our signature play here. We have two or three fouls that basically sustained drives for Atlanta and those were hard to overcome and certainly Atlanta did a great job making them pay for those penalties.''

The San Francisco 49ers come to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday and the Bucs may have Mike Alstott back in the lineup for the first time in six weeks.

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