ATLANTA -- Against the Saints and the Panthers, the Falcons' pass rush made life extremely uncomfortable for the opposing quarterback. During Atlanta's 35-22 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, the script was flipped.
The Falcons, who registered 11 sacks in their two games after the bye week, did not sack Jameis Winston at all and had just one quarterback hit. And after allowing four sacks in their previous two wins, the Falcons gave up a season-high six sacks that stalled many drives and prevented any second-half comeback attempt.
"They did an excellent job today getting after us," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We weren't able to kind of get into any rhythm. We had some opportunities, too … We had our chances early in that game to make it a different type of game. We weren't able to do that."
Ryan found tight end Jaeden Graham wide open down the middle of the field for a 53-yard gain on the second play of the game, but that was not a sign of things to come for Atlanta. After setting up with a first-and-goal from the 7-yard line, the Falcons settled for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
The Falcons scored a touchdown on just one of their four trips to the red zone on Sunday, settling for field goals while the Buccaneers scored touchdowns.
"It's just execution," Ryan said. "When we get down there we've got to tighten up our scheme and our ability to make plays when we get our chances."
Momentum began to shift towards Tampa Bay (4-7) early in the second quarter after back-to-back sacks by the Buccaneers forced the Falcons into a third-and-27 on their own 9-yard line. Unable to convert the third down, Atlanta (3-8) punted the ball to Tampa Bay, who took over possession near midfield. Six plays later, the Buccaneers scored their second touchdown of the game and took a 13-10 lead; a lead they would never relinquish.
After falling behind 19-10 in the first half, the Falcons were forced to throw the football more often after halftime in an attempt to close that deficit. By becoming more-one dimensional, the Falcons allowed the Buccaneers' pass rushers to tee off, which is exactly what they did.
Ryan was sacked three times in the fourth quarter, alone, before he was eventually replaced by Matt Schaub for the final drive of the game with the outcome already in hand for Tampa Bay. The final sack allowed by Atlanta resulted in defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul knocking the ball loose from Ryan and Buccaneers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh returning it 6 yards for a touchdown.
Suh's touchdown gave Tampa Bay a 35-16 lead and firmly placed the nail in the coffin.
Despite the problems up front on Sunday, Ryan, now in his 12th NFL season and a former league MVP, understands that this can be a teaching moment. Particularly for some of the younger players on the line.
"I'm going to continue to encourage our guys," Ryan said. "Up front, Kaleb [McGary], young guy. He's going to continue to get better week in and week out for us. Every experience that he has in that first year is going to help him."
The Falcons took their shots through the air against the Buccaneers, narrowly missing on some explosive plays. But Tampa Bay locked down Atlanta's offense for much of the afternoon, allowing 337 total yards and just 57 yards on the ground.
Allowing just 80.9 rushing yards per game, the Buccaneers entered Sunday's matchup with the No. 2 run defense in the NFL. They certainly looked as formidable as promised, shutting down Atlanta's ground game and further forcing the Falcons to rely on the pass.
"One of the strengths of their team was their run defense, so we knew that part," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "You'd have to win some hard yards and move on some. We didn't get much going in that space. And then to the second half, to fall behind, I've talked to you about that before. That's when you're totally out of balance and [the defense] can tee off and go."
After playing their two best games of the season in back-to-back weeks, Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers was disappointing for the Falcons. A team that looked to have taken several steps forward after the bye week displayed some of the same crippling issues that plagued them during their 1-7 start.
"We all need to play better," Ryan said. "And I think everybody, when you look in the mirror, you know that. Our guys up front know that. I know that … I think, across the board, certainly today was not good enough, and I think everybody knows that."