For the fourth consecutive week, the Pewter Pirates scored a defensive touchdown and have held three of their last four opponents without an offensive touchdown. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who had an interception that turned into a touchdown when he shoveled it back to linebacker Derrick Brooks for the last 15 yards, believes that the defense is just in a zone.
"It's a great thing that we have going right now," Sapp said. "Our offense has scored when we need them to score. The special teams have covered the great returners and giving us everything we need. The defense is just relentless right now and we're getting wins."
The offense has been improving week to week as well. Although not scoring at the rate everyone would like, the Tampa Bay offense has been efficient and almost mistake free. So far in five games the Bucs have six turnovers, throwing three interceptions and losing three fumbles. Wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who had six catches for 83 yards, is seeing the improvement.
"Each week we get better," McCardell said. "As we go down the line it's going to help us out tremendously when we get into the stretch run. Last week, it was me and this week it was Keyshawn. Everyone says that we're not going up top but we¹re going up top now. We just have to pick and choose our times."
Not since the days of head coach John McKay and the Buccaneers first trip to the NFC title game have the Pewter Pirates won their first three road games of the season. In 1979, Tampa Bay started 5-0 with three of those victories being at Baltimore and Green Bay and at Chicago en route to their first NFC Central championship.
This is also the first time since 1995 that the Bucs have won a road game in October. The last time that was accomplished was a 20-13 victory against the Carolina Panthers on October 1.
Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin had a few tricks up his sleeve to slow down or at least confuse Atlanta's playmaking quarterback. Kiffin deployed a five man defensive line at times, using Ellis Wyms as a nose tackle, to widen the Bucs pass rush lanes. That kept Vick from easily escaping and led to the first sack of the second-year pro the first time the Pewter Pirates defense used this formation. The sack forced the Falcons into a long field goal attempt and kicker Jay Feely was wide to the right with his 46-yard attempt from the left hash.
On the second play of the Buccaneers' initial drive in the first quarter, disaster struck. Quarterback Brad Johnson, on a second-and-5 from the Bucs 42-yard line, was forced to scramble to the right when he couldn't find an open receiver. Atlanta defender Sam Rogers striped him of the football from behind and the pigskin was recovered by nose tackle Ed Jasper. He returned it seven yards to the Bucs' 32-yard line where he was hauled down by running back Michael Pittman.
Six plays later, the Falcons capitalized on the turnover at 7:05 of the opening stanza. Feely knocked a 34-yard field goal home from the right hash to put Atlanta up 3-0.
The Falcons threw caution to the wind and went for an onside kick, and the Atlanta special teams executed it to perfection. Feely dribbled the pigskin across the turf and recovered it himself at the Falcons 42-yard line. The Bucs defense, along with a couple of penalties against the home team, forced a punt and avoided any other damage.
The Bucs tied the score at 8:03 of the second quarter with a 23-yard field goal by kicker Martin Gramatica from the right hash. Tampa Bay took 6:39 and 14 plays to traverse 56 yards of real estate to knot the score at threes and that's how it went to halftime.
On the Falcons' first possession of the third quarter, the complexion of the contest changed drastically. On a third-and-9 from their own 32-yard line, Vick dropped back to pass. He was flushed out of the pocket by defensive tackle Warren Sapp and was corralled from behind by defensive end Simeon Rice. As he was making the sack, Rice went for the football forcing Vick to cover the pigskin with both hands. Vick fell with full force on his right shoulder and left the game with a shoulder strain and never returned.
Vick was done for the game after being sacked three times and completing only 4-of-12 passes for 37 yards and rushing once for only one yard.
Former University of Florida quarterback Doug Johnson took over on the Falcons' next possession and drove the Dirty Birds down the field. Six plays and 43 yards later, Feely split the uprights for the second time from the right hash. The 32-yard chip shot put Atlanta up 6-3 with 6:18 left in the third quarter.
It didn't take the Buccaneers long to assume their first lead of the contest. With 4:32 left in the third quarter, Johnson hooked up with wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson for a 76-yard touchdown on a beautiful catch-and-run. Johnson beat Atlanta cornerback Juran Bolden on a fly pattern down the sidelines, and Bolden fell attempting to make the tackle. Johnson raced 50 yards with the ball held over his head, celebrating his first 100-yard game this year, and his first score of 2002.
The 76-yard score was the 10th longest touchdown play in Bucs history and gave the team their first lead at 10-6 and it was one they would never relinquish.
The Buccaneers extended their lead to 13-6 with 6:31 left in the game. The Bucs took over at their own 47-yard line when the Falcons misfired on a fake punt. Punter Chris Mohr tried to hit tight end Brian Kozlowski and it looked like the Falcons had fooled Tampa Bay's return team, but at the last second, free safety Dexter Jackson separated Kozlowski from the football with a vicious hit. Cornerback Dwight Smith made a diving interception, his first of two in the game, which led to a 22-yard field goal by Gramatica 10 plays later.
The Bucs sealed the win on the very next play from scrimmage by the Falcons. Johnson was leveled as he was trying to throw and the ball floated in to hands of Sapp. As he was being tackled, Sapp pitched the ball back to Brooks, who took it the final 15 yards for his team-leading third touchdown of the season. A successful conversion by Gramatica made the final arithmetic 20-6.
Two late interceptions by Smith and Brooks, which is his team-leading fourth of the 2002 season, ended any hope of a Falcons comeback.
With a loss by Carolina to Arizona, the Bucs share the top spot in the NFC South with the New Orleans Saints with a 4-1 record, and the race is on.
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