It could not have possibly been any closer, but the Atlanta Falcons beat divisional foe, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-23 in Tampa.
The Falcons got within field goal range on their first possession by doing something they haven’t done particularly well all season long– running the football. But on that first possession, they didn’t slam Michael Turner up the middle. Instead, they found creative ways to run Jacquizz Rodgers both to the outside, and allowing cutback lanes for him. He was extremely effective, and while the Falcons weren’t able to get into the end-zone, it certainly showed that the Falcons can be successful running the ball on the perimeter. Throughout the game, runs up the middle with Rodgers or Turner continued to flounder. I guess some things rarely change.
Matt Ryan threw an early interception, and I’m sure it just about sent every Falcon fan into outer limits, the same way it did me. I was absolutely beside myself with shock that he continued to throw picks. But aside from that throw, Ryan was absolutely outstanding. He completed 81% of his passes, his touchdown pass came on an 80-yard bomb to Julio Jones, and he posted a passer rating of 110. But what he did that didn’t show up on the stat sheet made an even bigger difference. He didn’t play one single snap scared, continued to make big-time throws, and moved the chains exactly when the Falcons needed to the very most. I’d love for him to have thrown a couple more touchdowns, but each of his 353 yards were valuable. He also set a franchise record by passing for 300+ yards in 4 consecutive games.
Aside from the determined and inspired play of Ryan, the biggest story line was the Atlanta defense. This is a unit that ranked 26th in the NFL defending the run coming into the day, and it was generally accepted that Buccaneer Doug Martin would have an absolutely massive day. His longest run was for 8 yards, and while he did showcase his ability to punch the ball into the endzone with his two short yardage touchdowns, he was generally held in check. He had a total of 50 yards on 21 carries. Even Michael Turner can point out that that isn’t a particularly good average per carry. Clearly the return of Sean Weatherspoon to the starting rotation at linebacker made a big difference.
The secondary gave up several big plays, specifically a pair of 30+ yard gains to Vincent Jackson and Tiquan Underwood. The Falcons were committing to keeping Doug Martin in check, and gave up a couple big passing plays as a result. Luckily, none of those big pass plays turned into big pass touchdowns. The Falcons were able to prevent Josh Freeman from throwing a touchdown, an accomplishment not to be sniffed at.
The defensive play of the game may be the open field tackle that Mike Peterson had on Doug Martin in the second quarter. He successfully defended the edge, didn’t let Martin around him, and made the tackle for a loss. Great play by Peterson to save a touchdown.
Two more notes. Julio Jones had a massive day. More than half of his yards came on one passing play (the 80-yard touchdown catch), but not a single person complained about that. He had six catches for a career high 147 yards, and looked outstanding. Commentator Charles Davis likened him to ‘Secretariat’ running down the field.
Matt Ryan also fumbled the football when E.J. Biggers, a blitzer the Falcons did not pick up and Ryan did not see, came in and jarred the ball loose. Luckily, the Atlanta defense did a great job holding Tampa to a field goal. Once again, Atlanta’s defense came to the rescue.