It was sloppy. It was ugly. And it was about time.
With a 16-13 victory, the Bucs snapped a five-game losing streak to Matt Ryan and the Dirty Birds, and — per usual — it took every inch of Tampa’s 295 yards to put away their division rival.
Of all the good — and there was a lot of it — I was most pleased to see the improvements to Greg Olson‘s first-quarter play calling. The points weren’t there (despite great field position for much of the first half), and the red zone offense was dreadful, but I was ecstatic to Olson working the ball toward our playmakers. Mike Williams, thrown to only twice against Minnesota, was targeted six times in the first half (4 receptions, 40 yards); LeGarrette Blount was right on schedule, carrying the ball 10 times; and Luke Stocker, Arrelious Benn, and Preston Parker joined in on the action, spreading the Atlanta defense and keeping the Falcons off balance for the opening two quarters. 13 first-half points won’t beat elite teams, but it’s a sound start for a team struggling to find an offensive identity outside of the hurry-up. If Josh Freeman works on his fundamentals and starts consistently hitting receivers mid-route, look for the offense to return to its late-2010 form.
January 3rd, 2010: the last time Freeman had a passer rating lower than the 56.8 he posted on Sunday afternoon. The Franchise has been underwhelming this season — outside of the two-minute drill — and hasn’t yet awakened from the sleepy offseason. He’s been missing receivers since the preseason, overthrowing short routes and underthrowing deep balls, and appears timid in the pocket. Freeman’s a notoriously slow starter and probably won’t ever be the 300-yard, four-touchdown fantasy passer every week, but he’s always been dependable. He wasn’t even that against the Falcons, throwing a soul-crushing interception inside the Atlanta ten-yard line, and missing several wide open receivers over the course of the game. Regression was inevitable, coming off a legendary 2010. But if he doesn’t bounce back, it won’t be long until the Bucs’ franchise quarterback becomes a liability to the team.
The ugliest part of the game, by far, was Mason Foster, Adrian Clayborn, Brian Price, Gerald McCoy, and Dekoda Watson‘s complete and utter destruction of the Atlanta Falcons. The five of them combined for 10 tackles, four sacks, and two forced fumbles; they held Michael Turner to 20 yards on 11 carries — blowing through their blocks and swarming the stout Falcon running back — and had Matt Ryan running for his life for much of the afternoon. Watson, Clayborn, and Price, all recorded the first sack of their careers: Watson stripping the ball from Ryan’s grasp, Clayborn delivering a hit-stick and firing shockwaves through the Atlanta passer, and Price sending Ryan sprawling to the turf without laying a hand on him. It was a throwback performance, reminiscent of the Super Bowl Bucs, and if it’s a sign of things to come, it’s only gonna get uglier for opposing passers.