The original plan called for running back Steven Jackson and wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones to lead the Falcons to glory this fall.
On Sunday came Plan II. They called on Jacquizz Rodgers, Harry Douglas and — fresh off the practice squad — Darius Johnson. And they helped stop the team’s three-game losing streak.
With their once-promising season teetering, the Falcons cobbled together enough plays to hold off Tampa Bay 31-23 at the Georgia Dome. The injury-ravaged Falcons improved to 2-4 while the Bucs dropped to 0-6.
“This is huge,” said Douglas, who had a career-high 149 yards receiving with a touchdown. “We are going to try to feed off of this, work hard in practice this week so we can be successful next week.”
The defending NFC South champs pulled out the stops against the lowly Bucs.
With quarterback Matt Ryan linked up with Douglas and the defense gambling more often with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan working on the sideline, the Falcons built a 17-point lead by the second quarter. But after a muddling four quarter, they would need an onsides kick recovery by safety Thomas DeCoud with 1:55 left to preserve the win.
“They were trying to gang-up on me,” said DeCoud, who was roughed up on the play but retained the precious cargo. “They were trying to bully me a little bit. They just tried to jump on me. I just had to go and attack the ball.”
One the the day’s biggest developments came off the field. With the defense struggling, the team brought down Nolan from the press box to the sidelines with hopes for improved oversight.
“Just direct communication instead of over the phone,” DeCoud said of Nolan’s presence. “It was more face-to-face communications.”
For those tracking the body count, seven players who opened the season in Atlanta’s starting lineup against New Orleans on Sept. 8 were unavailable against Tampa Bay.
On offense, the team was without Jones (foot surgery/out for season), White (hamstring/ankle), left tackle Sam Baker (knee), Jackson (hamstring) and fullback Bradie Ewing (shoulder). On defense, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot) and defensive end/linebacker Kroy Bierrman (Achilles tendon surgery/out for the season) were missing.
It was the first game that White has missed since being drafted in 2005, ending his streak of 133 straight.
The reserves and some notable tweaks to the defense were needed to hold off the Bucs, who were quarterbacked by rookie Mike Glennon in his third NFL start. He threw for 226 yards (26-for-44) and two touchdowns but was sacked three times under frequent blitz pressure.
With the victory, the Falcons are now 5-1 following their bye week under coach Mike Smith.
Ryan led the way by completing 20-of-26 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns. Douglas caught seven passes while Rodgers, while stymied on the ground, caught two touchdown passes to power the offense.
Johnson, an exhibition season star, caught two passes for 24 yards, including a key grab for a first down on the Falcons’ last touchdown drive.
“I thought collectively, we played pretty well,” said Ryan, who had a career-high passer rating of 148.4. “We need to do some things better, that’s for sure. But we made enough plays to get it done.”
The Falcons made no progress with the ground attack. They finished with 18 yards rushing on 18 carries after Ryan lost 12 yards on three kneel-downs.
The Falcons never trailed and posted a 24-10 halftime lead. The defense, with rookie Desmond Trufant taking over at nickel back for Robert McClain, set the tone early.
On Tampa Bay’s third play of the game, Nolan sent a twin safety blitz at Glennon. Safety William Moore pummeled him and forced a fumble.
DeCoud, who was coming for the left, scooped up the ball and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.
“First off, that was a good (call) by Nolan,” Moore said. “It was right on time. We executed the play. That type of stuff should have been happening all season.”
Moore had a strong game, finishing with seven tackles and two pass breakups. He clearly enjoys his role as the Falcons’ enforcer.
“I want to play 16 games and I want to play them all at full speed,” Moore said. “I want to fly around and hit. I’m not taking one play off.”
In the third quarter, the Bucs closed within seven after Glennon tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson to make it 24-17. The Falcons answered with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Rodgers in the fourth quarter to restore a two-touchdown lead.
But with the Falcons unable to run the ball in the fourth quarter and run some time off the clock — they had one first down in three possessions in the period — Tampa Bay put together two field-goal drives to close to 31-23 with 1:55. But their ensuing onsides attempt failed.
The Falcons can only hope this day signaled a turnaround of a season gone awry.
“I think our preparation and the sense of urgency has been pretty good all year,” Ryan said. “I think we’ll be fine.”
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