TAMPA — Perfection in an NFL game is not just elusive, it is an utter fairy tale.
Mistakes are made, on one side of the ball or the other, on nearly every play. Often, they are unnoticeable to the naked eye. Usually, they are forgotten before the next snap. Occasionally, they change the course of an afternoon or a season.
The Bucs had two, potentially three, of those type of mistakes in the fourth quarter of the 16-13 loss to Atlanta on Sunday.
What’s worse is they involved some of the more senior members in the locker room. It cost them the game, it cost them first place in the NFC South, it may cost them a playoff spot. Who knows what it will eventually cost individuals when offseason evaluations are considered.
This was a game the Bucs needed to win, and should have won. The Falcons, a team that had not been victorious on the road in nearly 13 months, practically gift-wrapped the game for Tampa Bay with six defensive penalties that led to automatic first downs, and three fumbles in the red zone.
And, still, the Bucs did not take advantage.
Mistake No. 1
The Bucs were trailing 13-10 early in the fourth quarter, but had the Falcons backed up deep in their own territory. On second and 9 from the 9, Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder got flushed out of the pocket by a Bucs blitz.
With safety Antoine Winfield Jr. chasing Ridder toward the sideline, linebacker Devin White began moving toward running back Tyler Allgeier, who was looping out of the backfield on a passing route. With Allgeier streaking by him at the 13, and Ridder still 10 yards away from him, White inexplicably went after the quarterback.
By trying to make an impossible play, White abandoned his role in the secondary.
Ridder lofted a pass to a wide-open Allgeier, who went 46 yards to the Tampa Bay 45. It matched the longest play of the game and had the potential to put the Falcons up by 10 late in the game.
Fortunately for the Bucs, Winfield would make a remarkable play eight snaps later when he stripped Ridder of the ball just inches from the end zone. Still, the Bucs lost nearly six minutes on the clock and valuable field position because of the earlier blunder.
Mistake No. 2
It is his fearlessness and daring that have made Baker Mayfield an instant favorite in the Bucs’ locker room.
You saw it late in the game on Sunday when, faced with third and 9 from the Tampa Bay 34, Mayfield scampered out of the pocket, avoided a shoestring tackle by Grady Jarrett just before the first-down marker, and raced 31 yards into Atlanta territory.
But that bold confidence also cost the Bucs dearly on the previous drive.
On second down from the Atlanta 26, Mayfield had both Rachaad White and Ko Kieft completely open on underneath routes that likely would have resulted in short gains. Instead, he went 13 yards downfield for Cade Otton who was blanketed by linebacker Kaden Elliss. To avoid Elliss, Mayfield threw high and wide.
And the ball went right into the arms of safety Richie Grant.
“At that point in the game, can’t turn the ball over in the red zone,” Mayfield said. “Just check it down to (White) in the flat and move on with your life.”
After avoiding interceptions on his first 82 throws of the season, Mayfield has thrown four in his next 122 attempts.
“They’re not all Baker,” coach Todd Bowles said. “As an offense, we’ve got to get better as a team. We’ve got to get better. We started out hot, people start picking up on things and you have to adjust some things.”
Mistake No. 3
Remarkably, the Bucs still had a shot at winning.
While the offense came up short in the red zone again, Chase McLaughlin kicked a 36-yard field goal in the final minute to tie the score.
All the Bucs needed to do to force overtime was keep the Falcons from moving into field-goal range in the final 45 seconds. And that meant keeping Atlanta receivers from getting behind the secondary for a quick-strike play.
They failed miserably.
After tight end Kyle Pitts failed to hold on to a low throw on first down on the right side of the field, he ran the exact same route on second down on the left side. Lined up in the slot, Pitts went 10 yards up the field, faked a move toward the inside and then cut outside.
With Drake London and Pitts running routes in the same vicinity, the Bucs seemed confused about their assignments. Lavonte David stayed with Pitts until he cut outside. Jamel Dean allowed London to run past him and was standing in no-man’s land when the pass was thrown. Zyon McCollum initially went toward London, and then tried to recover when he realized the pass was going behind him to Pitts.
So who was at fault?
“We busted,” Bowles said vaguely. “That’s something we talk about in the meetings. We talk about everything behind closed doors, and we get everything out in the open. There is no need for anyone else to know that.”
The busted coverage was only part of the problem. At the point Pitts caught the ball, he was still at the Atlanta 43. Safety Ryan Neal was 3 yards behind Pitts and could have limited the damage. But for some reason, Neal was cutting inside while Pitts was running outside. He couldn’t recover in time and Pitts went another 21 yards before Winfield forced him out of bounds.
The damage, at that point, was already done. Three plays later, the Falcons kicked a field goal as time expired.
So was the problem the coverage, or allowing Pitts to get behind the secondary after the catch?
“It was a problem, period,” Bowles said.
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