By Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts Bucs beat writer
History was right
; the Atlanta-Tampa Bay Week 3 clash came down to the final drive.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts "real and spectacular" picks were right, too: they predicted a three-point Tampa victory
and are now a perfect 3-0 straight up and against the spread picking every Bucs game this year.
The win over Atlanta was a sloppy defensive slugfest for much of the afternoon, undecided until the final minute and a half of regulation. Here are five things we learned from Tampa's 16-13 victory:
1. Field goals aren't good enough.
Twice in the first half, the Buccaneers started a drive inside the Atlanta twenty, and twice they were denied touchdowns. The first drive ended abruptly on a curious Josh Freeman interception; the quarterback has been the model of efficiency for the Tampa Bay offense, but decided to lob a pass into traffic near the back of the end zone.
Seven points: forfeited.
The second possession in Atlanta territory stalled after three plays. Connor Barth nailed a 26-yard chipshot, giving Tampa Bay a hollow 13-3 lead going into the half. If it weren't for an ill-advised throw and a few bad reads, the Buccaneers had a chance to head to the locker room with a 21-point margin of error. But the slow offensive starts continue to plague the young Bucs, and it almost cost them a win in the division. Field goals won't beat the Packers at Lambeau or the Saints in New Orleans, and -- three games into the season without results -- Tampa's coaching staff needs to assess this offensive lull before it wrecks the season.
2. Earnest Graham has become a quiet -- but integral -- part of the Tampa offense.
The Tampa Bay front office chose not to re-sign Cadillac Williams -- one of 2010's best third down backs -- and Earnest Graham is filling in admirably; after three games, the 31-year-old do-it-all is on pace for franchise-record 107 receptions and 619 yards receiving... ridiculous totals for a part-time player. And that's not necessarily a good thing.
Throughout his career, Graham's been the ultimate utility man: he's seen success as a feature back, fullback, short-yardage runner, passing threat
, and is flourishing in 2011 as an outlet on third down. His 20 receptions lead the team, and his three third-down conversions through the air led directly to 13 of Tampa Bay's 16 points against Atlanta. But his productivity, while impressive, is probably more a result of Josh Freeman's timidity in the pocket and the lack of separation from Tampa's receivers. Look for Graham's averages to drop as the Tampa offense hits its stride midseason.
3. Josh Freeman sucks against the Falcons.
He finished 22 for 32 (69%), 180 yards, 5.6 YPA, and 2 INTs, and posted a wretched 56.7 passer rating -- his worst mark in almost two years. His timing seems off this season, and while overthrowing receivers isn't anything we haven't seen in the first two games, his blatant disregard for the football is
Josh Freeman's strength is in his managerial approach to the game; he's an odd combination of game manager and playmaker, and he wears the hat that best suits the situation. But his tendencies disappear against Atlanta. Even discounting his atrocious rookie season, Freeman is 1-2 versus the Falcons, posting an uncharacteristic 62.3 passer rating, and throwing five of his 11 interceptions over the last 19 games in those three contests against the Dirty Birds.
Tampa's a team that thrived on an elite Passer Rating Differential
in 2010 -- thanks to Freeman's brutal consistency and Raheem Morris's defensive scheming -- but the Falcons have proven to be the chink in the armor over the last three seasons, consistently forcing Freeman into mistakes and shredding the defensive backfield.
Which reminds us ...
4. The Bucs need an extra playmaker in the secondary.
And their lackluster Defensive Passer Rating
proves it (now 90.8, 19th). The Buccaneers held Matt Ryan in check for most of the game, sacking him four times, forcing an interception, and limiting the versatile Falcon offense to just three points through three quarters.
Then, midway through the third quarter, safety Cody Grimm left the game with an injured knee and the Falcons took to the hurry-up -- the urgent
hurry-up, not that bastardized no-huddle they run sporadically throughout games. The Buccaneers surrendered only five passes of more than 15 yards through the first forty-five minutes of play, but without Grimm -- on Atlanta's final three drives -- Matt Ryan abused the Tampa secondary, connecting on throws of 16, 18, 49, 15, and 15 yards and setting the Falcons up for the fourth-quarter comeback.
Aqib Talib is a legitimate threat to opposing passers -- and cabbies everywhere
-- and the ageless Ronde Barber makes his share of splash plays from the nickel position, but cornerback EJ Biggers was molested by Roddy White in the game's closing quarter, and backups Myron Lewis and Anthony Gaitor are unproven commodities without a lick of quality film. Suspended free safety Tanard Jackson is eligible for reinstatement, but is knee-deep in uncertainty regarding his commitment to the sport. Whatever Tampa decides to do to help spark the defensive backfield, they need to act soon, because it won't take Drew Brees three quarters to exploit holes in the secondary.
5. The defensive line has arrived ... and they're terrifying.
Tampa Bay has spent a fortune
on defensive lineman during the last two drafts in an effort to redeem their multi-season failures on the Defensive Hog Index
The investment is already paying dividends.
Adrian Clayborn recorded his first sack late in the second quarter; he caught Matt Ryan unaware in the pocket, planted his face in Ryan's chest, and sent a shockwave through the skinny passer. The hit jarred the ball from Ryan's grip and set up a Tampa Bay field goal. Midway through the fourth, nose tackle Brian Price burst through the line and -- without laying a hand on him -- sent Matt Ryan sprawling to the turf, effectively ending an Atlanta touchdown drive. Gerald McCoy didn't show up on the stat sheet, but the second-year defensive tackle collapsed the pocket all afternoon; he perfectly anticipated the Atlanta snap count a handful of times, blowing through blockers and forcing Matt Ryan out of the pocket.
One week doesn't excuse two games' worth of uninspired play, but the starting four combine for only 50 games of NFL experience. If this game was a sign of things to come -- a breakout game for the youngsters up front -- then God help Kerry Collins (or Curtis Painter), because Tampa's front looks fast, explosive, and strong, and it will devour
him in Week Four.