ATLANTA - Missing his two top wide receivers, Matt Ryan looked elsewhere and found a much-needed victory for the disappointing Atlanta Falcons.
Ryan completed 20 of 26 passes for 273 yards with three touchdowns to lead the Falcons to a 31-23 win over the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Jacquizz Rodgers caught two touchdown passes from Ryan, and Harry Douglas stepped up into the role of the go-to receiver with a big performance.
Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Mike Glennon, making his first NFL start on the road, threw two touchdown passes to Vincent Jackson, but didn't have enough to help the Bucs overcome a 17-point first-half deficit.
"We needed it," said Ryan of the win. "All week, I thought preparation was very, very good. Guys were locked in. I thought as a team we came out and played a very solid football game. We made some mistakes but overcame them and made enough plays to get it done."
At this point, these two NFC South rivals have more in common than most would have believed before the season. After hosting the NFC Championship Game last season, the Falcons (2-4) have been ravaged by injuries to key players. Receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones missed Sunday's game. Veteran running back Steven Jackson, the team's key offseason acquisition, has missed the majority of the last four games. The Falcons made due on Sunday, with Douglas and Rodgers taking advantage of their opportunities.
Douglas set a career-high in receiving yards with 149 and caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from Ryan that put the Falcons up 24-7 with 5:40 left in the first half. Rodgers scored on a 19-yard swing pass from Ryan in the first half, and an 8-yard middle screen early in the fourth quarter to push the lead to 31-14.
"We wanted to come out here and get a win to start the streak that we're trying to go on," Douglas said. "When Julio went down and Roddy wasn't going to play, I wanted the challenge. I've always been like that my whole life. This was huge, a great win. We're going to try to feed off this."
The Bucs (0-6) raised preseason expectations with the additions of corner Darrelle Revis and safety Dashaun Goldson, but things have spiraled downwards quickly in coach Greg Schiano's second season. The Bucs released starting quarterback Josh Freeman three weeks ago, handing the reigns of a struggling offense to Glennon. The team also has had to deal with a Staph infection that has impacted three players, including All-Pro offensive guard Carl Nicks.
Penalties have been an issue for the Bucs all season and were again on Sunday. Tampa Bay was called for 11 penalties for 103 yards.
"It's been a long time since a team that I've coached has had this kind of issue," said Schiano. "We had 11 penalties today, six of them in Atlanta territory and four of them in the red zone. We've got to figure out a way to fix it."
Glennon completed 26-of-44 passes for 256 yards and the two touchdowns to Jackson. Jackson's second touchdown reception cut the Falcons' lead to 24-17 with nine minutes left in the third quarter. Dekoda Watson recovered a fumble on a punt return at the Atlanta 23-yard line to set up the scoring drive. Jackson also scored on a one-handed 59-yard touchdown reception in the first half.
"What I'm encouraged by is that we a group of men in that locker room that continue to fight their guts out and stick together," said Schiano. "We've also got a good young quarterback who continues to progress."
After back-to-back home losses, the Falcons needed a quick start to keep a disappointed fan base interested. They got it, when a blitzing William Moore sacked Glennon and forced a fumble that was scooped up by Thomas DeCoud and returned 30 yards for a touchdown to put Atlanta up, 7-0, early in the first quarter.
Ryan Lindell made three field goals for the Bucs, including a 35-yarder that cut the Falcons' lead to 31-23 with 1:55 to play. The Falcons recovered the ensuing onside kick and were able to run out the clock.
Notes: Tampa Bay RB Doug Martin injured his shoulder in the second half and did not return. Martin said X-rays showed no damage but further tests are scheduled for Monday with a short week ahead. The Buccaneers play Thursday night in Tampa. ... Falcons WR Roddy White missed the first game of his career, ending his consecutive games played streak at 133. White said he last missed a game as a freshman at UAB. ... The Bucs are 0-6 for the second time in the last five seasons. They started the 2009 season with seven straight losses. ... Falcons RB Steven Jackson missed his fourth straight game with a hamstring injury. Jackson played the first game against the New Orleans Saints and scored a touchdown on the first drive of Game 2 against the St. Louis Rams, but was injured on the play and hasn't played since. ... The Bucs shuffled their offensive line around to make up for the loss of All-Pro guard Carl Nicks. Ted Larsen started at center and Jeremy Zuttah moved to left guard. Nicks is one of three Buccaneers who have been diagnosed with MRSA (Staph infection). ... Falcons WR Julio Jones had surgery on his injured right foot last Monday and is out for the season. ... The all-time series between the Bucs and Falcons is now tied, 20-20. ... The Falcons improved to 5-1 after a bye under coach Mike Smith. ... Tampa Bay returns home to host the Carolina Panthers on Thursday. Atlanta travels to the Arizona Cardinals next week in the first of back-to-back road games. ... There were plenty of empty seats, but the game was announced as a sellout. It was the Falcons' 44th consecutive sellout, a franchise record.