Falcons 24, Buccaneers 21: Immediate observations and reactions

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 18: Quarterback Jameis Winston
TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 18: Quarterback Jameis Winston /

The Buccaneers (4-10) hung with the Falcons (9-5) on Monday Night Football, but fell just short. Here, we have observations and reactions from Tampa Bay’s 24-21 loss.

48. 24. 44. Final. 21

In their return to Monday Night Football, the Buccaneers kept things interesting. Tampa Bay stayed within 17-14 early in the fourth quarter, then got back within 24-21. The offense did enough in the final minute to set up a 54-yard field goal attempt to tie the game, but the kick went wide and the Bucs fell short. Let’s get to some reactions.

Observations and Reactions- General

-First and foremost, congratulations to Jon Gruden on his induction into the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. The former (and potentially future?) Buccaneer head coach gave an entertaining halftime speech to the fans in Tampa. To close it out, he had some of his former players re-enact the Bucs’ first touchdown of their Super Bowl victory over the Raiders. Regardless of the future, Gruden will always have a special place in franchise history.

-As for the game, Tampa Bay put up a valiant effort. No one, including myself, thought the Bucs would be a field goal away from forcing overtime with an Atlanta team that is in the middle of a playoff race. Fair play to the guys in that locker room for a heck of an effort.

-The injury bug continued to hit the Bucs hard on Monday night. With Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Vernon Hargreaves already out, Tampa Bay lost even more key players. O.J. Howard (ankle), J.R. Sweezy (leg), T.J. Ward (concussion), Adarius Glanton (leg), DeSean Jackson (ankle) and Justin Evans (ankle) all left and did not return. Cameron Brate, Ryan Smith, Devante Bond and Robert Ayers also missed some time throughout the night. I’m surely missing a few more guys. It was a rough one for injuries.

-The Bucs still lack discipline, but the penalty issues are almost a given week in and week out. On Monday night, Tampa Bay got flagged seven times for 53 yards.

-Regardless of the tough ending to the game, it was pretty cool to see the Bucs back on Monday Night Football.

-As usual, those red jerseys looked good.

Observations and Reactions- Offense

Jameis Winston had his best game of the season on Monday night. He finished 27-of-35 for 299 yards and three touchdowns. This all happened with Howard, Jackson and Brate all missing time. Winston played well enough to help Tampa Bay to a win. If not for a red zone fumble and some tough penalties, it’s possible that the scoreboard would’ve looked pretty different.

-With Doug Martin inactive due to a violation of team rules, Peyton Barber got another start. He had a solid day, aside from a costly red zone fumble. Overall, he ran for 53 yards on thirteen carries. Going forward, Barber should be the top running back. Martin’s days in Tampa are almost surely over and Charles Sims isn’t a viable option as a runner.

-Speaking of Sims, can we seriously stop with the third down screens to him? If everyone watching at home knows a pass to Sims is coming when he enters the game, defensive coordinators and players certainly do too. These passes very rarely produce anything more than a yard or two. The Bucs have struggled on third downs and does anyone really wonder why?

Mike Evans got called for pass interference twice on Monday night, but later made up for those with a big 42-yard touchdown catch. Winston made a fantastic throw and the big receiver went up and did a solid job of coming down with it. It’s been a disappointing season for Evans, but it’s clear that he still should be Tampa Bay’s go-to guy.

-As shaken up as the offensive line was, it did an admirable job in this game. Winston only got sacked twice.

-Despite the injuries, the offense put up an encouraging performance. The root of that was quarterback play, but the offensive line and backfield certainly helped the Bucs play complementary football.

Observations and Reactions- Defense

-There was absolutely zero pass rush from Tampa Bay once again. Somehow, Atlanta failed to take advantage of it in the passing game. Matt Ryan completed just seventeen of his 31 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown. He missed plenty of throws and allowed the Bucs to survive on multiple occasions.

Kwon Alexander led the team in tackling with thirteen (all solo), making plays all over the field. Watching his drive and passion even in the middle of a terrible season is extremely fun.

Clinton McDonald is truly an underrated asset for the Bucs. He doesn’t light the world on fire, but he has been a strong rotational guy throughout his time in Tampa. He came up with a big sack late in the game to get the Bucs one last shot on offense.

-The fact that injuries to some key players didn’t completely take the wind out of the defense’s sails was encouraging. McCoy, David and Hargreaves were all out and even more guys went down during the game, but whoever stepped in played well enough to keep the Bucs in the game. With playoffs out of the question and nothing to play for, it was good to see that.

-With that said, the injuries had to catch up with the Bucs eventually. The defense struggled to stop the run all night, but especially couldn’t come up with anything late. Overall, the Falcons ran for 201 yards on the night.

-Unfortunately it had to be due to injuries, but it was still cool to see Riley Bullough get some action in the fourth quarter. He was a fun guy to watch during HBO’s “Hard Knocks” in August. Doesn’t that feel like eight months ago?

-Mike Smith just isn’t cutting it. The injuries are obviously uncontrollable, but he has to adjust. The Bucs continued to rush four all night and Smith failed to dial up any blitzes. Gruden was calling for blitzes all night from the broadcast booth, but they never came. It ended up costing Tampa Bay in the end.

-With that being said, whatever they did to cover Julio Jones this time around worked. Smith should get his credit where it’s due. After torching the Bucs for 253 yards and two scores on Nov. 26, Jones caught just three passes for 54 yards on Monday.

Observations and Reactions- Special Teams

Bryan Anger seemed to gain some of his power back on Monday, punting four times for an average of 47.8 yards per punt. His longest of the day went for 57 yards.

Patrick Murray was perfect on his three extra point attempts, but missed a 54-yard field goal as time expired. The miss stings, as it sent the Bucs to a fourth straight loss instead of to overtime.

-I’m a big fan of what Jacquizz Rodgers is doing with his kick return reps. He took one back 45 yards to start the second half and ended the night with an average of 31 yards per return.

Adam Humphries is still making things happen in the punt return game. His fifteen-yard return with under a minute left set up a Buccaneer drive that gave them a chance to tie the game.

William Gholston came up with a huge blocked field goal, keeping the game at 17-14 in the second half. The block was the first for Tampa Bay since Gholston blocked one in 2014.

Final Thoughts

Monday night was absolutely the Buccaneers’ best performance since the season-opening-win over the Bears. It ended up being in a losing effort, but there was plenty to be encouraged by. Jameis Winston was money all night long, putting up his best game of the year by far. He was making big throws and smart decisions, and could’ve done more if not for a Peyton Barber fumble and some costly drops. The late drive to get in field goal position was extremely good to see. The third-year quarterback looked calm and collected, which led to some smart, accurate throws to get his team down the field.

The defense even stepped up with a solid enough performance. A big stop late gave the Bucs a chance and the unit only allowed 24 points. You have to take that if you’re the Bucs. The pass rush still wasn’t there whatsoever and the run defense had no answer for Devonta Freeman, but Julio Jones was quiet all night. With the injuries they’ve suffered, this wasn’t an awful performance from the defense.

This nightmare of a season is over for Tampa Bay. The Bucs should end up with a top ten pick, but they should be encouraged by what they did on Monday night against the Falcons. With the Panthers and Saints left on the schedule, it would be nice to see similar performances to finish this season.

Next: Buccaneers Round Table: Biggest offseason need

The Buccaneers hit the road for the final time in 2017 next Sunday when they take on the Panthers (10-4) in Carolina. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m.

"Want to hear more about the Buccaneers on Monday night, and Jon Gruden’s induction into the Ring of Honor? Check out the post-game episode of the Locked on Bucs Podcast!"