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3 things we learned about the Buccaneers

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ATLANTA — One week after squandering a 17-point halftime lead in a loss to Washington, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers nearly melted down again. But rookie quarterback Jameis Winston and an opportunistic defense saved the day.

Winston accounted for two touchdowns and led an overtime drive that set up Connor Barth’s go-ahead, chip-shot field goal in the Buccaneers’ 23-20 upset win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

Winston converted on three third downs during the drive. The game didn’t need to be that close, but this young Bucs’ squad is still learning how to finish.

Tampa Bay (3-4) was in command late in the third quarter, up 20-3, but saw the lead trimmed to seven with just two minutes to play. That’s when coach Lovie Smith gambled.

Facing a fourth down at the Bucs’ 40-yard line with two minutes to play, Smith elected to go for it. After a timeout, Winston scrambled off play-action, pump-faked and dived for the first-down marker but was stopped short by Atlanta safety Ricardo Allen.

“If we punted the ball, we were going to have to stop them,” Smith said of his decision to go for it on fourth down. “We had an opportunity to finish the game right then. I’d make that call 10 out of 10.”

The Falcons took over with no timeouts and quickly marched to the Tampa Bay 8, where quarterback Matt Ryan found wide receiver Julio Jones in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. Matt Bryant’s extra point tied score and sent the game into overtime.

The Bucs went into overtime with the memories of last week’s blown lead fresh on their mind. But Barth delivered the go-ahead field goal, and Tampa Bay defensive end Howard Jones pressured Ryan on the Falcons’ ensuing drive, forcing a fourth-down incompletion to seal the win.

“We would’ve liked to finish it when we could have,” Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans said, “but getting a win is all the same. Now we know how to finish and we need to finish every game.”

Winston finished 16 of 29 passing for 177 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed for 24 yards, including a 4-yard scramble on third-and-goal that put the Buccaneers up 20-6 midway through the third quarter.

Ryan went 37 of 45 for 397 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

What we learned about the Buccaneers:

–Coach Lovie Smith has been under intense criticism in his year and a half in Tampa Bay. But the veteran coach isn’t afraid to make a controversial decision. Clinging to a 20-13 lead over the Atlanta Falcons with two minutes to play, Smith elected to go for it on 4th and 1 from the Bucs’ 40-yard line. Quarterback Jameis Winston scrambled off of playaction, but was stopped short by Falcons safety Ricardo Allen. Atlanta capitalized, driving down field and tying the score on a Matt Ryan touchdown pass to Julio Jones with 17 seconds to play.

–Tampa Bay missed veteran WR Vincent Jackson, who was inactive against the Falcons on Sunday. Without Jackson, the Bucs were limited in big-play threats. Receiver Mike Evans caught three passes for 48 yards, and tight end Cameron Brate caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Winston. But for the most part, Winston was forced to try to move the ball with short throws and on the ground.

–QB Jameis Winston is progressing, but the offense still hasn’t show the ability to put games away. The Bucs blew a 17-point halftime lead in a loss at Washington last week and nearly squandered a 14-point, late-third-quarter lead against the Falcons on Sunday. Still, Winston did enough to get the win, accounting for two touchdowns and leading a drive in overtime that set up Conner Barth’s go-ahead field goal. “Huge strides,” receiver Mike Evans said of Winston. “He has all the talent and he is making all the right decisions.”

Etc.:

–MLB Kwon Alexander is a playmaker. He chased down Atlanta WR Julio Jones on a long completion and ripped the ball out the Falcons’ receiver’s hands in the first quarter. Later in the half, Alexander picked off Atlanta QB Matt Ryan, leading to a Connor Barth field goal. Alexander finished with a team-high 11 tackles.

–RBs Charles Sims and Doug Martin combined for 93 yards on 29 carries. The Bucs averaged 3.7 yards per carry on Sunday.

–TE Cameron Brate stepped in for Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who was inactive with a shoulder injury, and caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from QB Jameis Winston.


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