TAMPA – The Falcons call it their “P.Y.P. Attack.”
When it comes to covering Atlanta’s talented receiving corps, the opposition has to play a game of “Pick Your Poison.”
The Buccaneers made their pick, leaving a rookie cornerback in man-to-man coverage on wide receiver Julio Jones and the cost was critical. Jones scored on an 80-yard pass that became vital to the Falcons hard-fought 24-23 comeback victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
“It’s not often that I get man-to-man coverage,” Jones said after a busy day. “But when I do, I get excited. It just doesn’t happen that often.”
The Falcons improved to 10-1 and inched closer to wrapping up the NFC South division title. Tampa Bay, which had won four in a row and five of its last six, dropped to 6-5. The Falcons hold a four-game lead over the Bucs with five to play.
New Orleans dropped to 5-6. Carolina (2-8) plays on Monday night. The Falcons can wrap up the NFC South title with a win over the Saints on Thursday and a Denver victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday.
The Bucs, who are performing well under first-year coach Greg Schiano, twice attempted to take control of the game in the second half, posting a 13-10 lead in the third quarter and a 23-17 lead with 10:28 to play.
But the Falcons answered both times, once with a quick-strike drive — the 80-yard bomb to Jones — and another no-huddle drive — a nine-play, 64-yard march — for the 24-23 edge that held up over the final 7:55.
Jones, who’s coming back from an ankle injury, finished with six catches for 147 yards. His 80-yard scoring reception put the Falcons up 17-13 with 8:26 left in the third quarter. He might have done much more damage if he had handled two other balls thrown his way.
“Tony (Gonzalez) and Roddy (White), they have been to a lot of Pro Bowls,” Jones said of PYP’s components. “They need to be over there guarding them.”
The Bucs did pay homage to the veterans and neither scored. White caught five passes for 57 yards and Gonzalez five more for 62 yards.
But opponents have generally respected Jones’ fleet speed and have tried to keep a safety patrolling his area. For reasons unknown, the Bucs left Leonard Johnson, an undrafted rookie from Iowa State, on Jones, essentially daring quarterback Matt Ryan to throw it to him.
Breaking the huddle before the long scoring pass, Ryan told Jones that if he had man-to-man coverage, the ball was coming his way.
“That’s our pick your poison attack,” Gonzalez said. “When it comes to you, you have to make a play. I was open across the middle on that one, too. But I’m glad he threw it to Julio because he’s a lot faster.”
Down four points, the Bucs responded. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin, who was held to 50 yards on 21 carries, scored on a 1-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter to give the Bucs a 20-17 lead.
The day then seemed to sway to the Bucs’ side on the Falcons ensuing possession, when blitzing cornerback E.J. Biggers slammed into Ryan, forcing a fumble that defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recovered on the Falcons’ 36-yard line.
But the Falcons defense held and the Bucs kicker Connor Barth made a 48-yard field goal to increase the Bucs’ lead to 23-17 with 10:28 to play.
The Falcons promptly went into their no-huddle attack from their 36. Ryan passed to running back Jacquizz Rodgers for a 32-yard gain. White added a 7-yard reception and Jones a 15-yarder. Three plays later, Michael Turner ran behind the left side of the line for a 3-yard touchdown run and Bryant added the extra point for the one-point lead.
“We got into our no-huddle package there in the fourth quarter and Matt Ryan did a very nice job,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
The Falcons defense, which may have played its staunchest game of the season, held on the Bucs’ next possession and forced the Bucs to try a 56-yard field goal. Barth’s kick had the distance, but was wide right.
The Falcons took over with 3:32 to play, but couldn’t kill the clock. After Bryant missed a 48-yarder, his second miss of the game, the Bucs had no timeouts and 13 seconds left to make something happen.
Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman completed a short pass to Dallas Clark, who got out of bounds after a 9-yard gain. With three seconds left, Freeman launched a Hail Mary pass into the end zone that was batted down by cornerback Asante Samuel.
“This one was huge for us,” center Todd McClure said.
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