ATLANTA — It’s hard to imagine another game this year that will set up as well for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the one they played Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
Injuries forced the Falcons to play without seven starters, including running back Steven Jackson, left tackle Sam Baker and wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
And, yet, they still beat the Bucs. Beat them rather handily, in fact, 31-23, to keep the Bucs winless at 0-6 for the sixth time in franchise history.
“We can’t even trip into a win right now,’’ cornerback Darrelle Revis said in the somber aftermath. “And that’s sad. At 0-6, there’s nothing to be happy about. There’s no joy in this at all. We just have to find a way.’’
Perhaps if the Bucs got out of their own way, they might actually find their way out of the mess they’ve created. It was, after all, self-inflicted wounds that did them in yet again.
Penalties were a big factor in some of the team’s early losses and, with 11 more for 103 yards against the Falcons, were arguably the greatest contributing factor in this setback. The problem this time wasn’t so much the number — the Falcons were almost as chippy with nine flags for 101 yards — but the nature and timing.
A roughing-the-passer call against end Trevor Scott on third-and-11 from the Atlanta 16-yard line late in the first quarter wiped out an incompletion and gave the Falcons new life. They scored a touchdown just six plays later on Matt Ryan’s 19-yard pass to Jacquizz Rodgers.
Coming after Atlanta took a 7-0 lead on Thomas DeCoud’s 30-yard touchdown return of a Mike Glennon fumble on the seventh play of the game, Rodgers’ touchdown put the Bucs in a 14-0 early in the second quarter.
Then there was the facemask penalty against wide receiver Vincent Jackson on first-and-goal from the Falcons 15-yard line in the fourth quarter. With Tampa Bay in the midst of a promising comeback, Jackson’s penalty made it first-and-goal from the 30.
But even if the officials had missed Jackson’s foul, they still would have called Glennon for an illegal forward pass for releasing the ball beyond the line of scrimmage.
Of course, that’s how this entire season has gone for the Bucs. If it’s not one thing it’s another, and it was certainly that way on Sunday, when coverage issues in the secondary proved problematic, as well.
The Bucs secondary gave up three big plays to the Falcons, including two that helped produce a touchdown and one that resulted directly in a touchdown when Harry Douglas beat rookie corner Johnthan Banks for a 37-yard score with 5:32 left in the first half.
“That hurt,’’ Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of the one-play scoring drive set up by Mike Koenen’s 20-yard punt. “That’s common — you have the sudden change and then here comes the shot (downfield), and we just didn’t do a good job with it.’’
The Bucs didn’t do a very good job finishing their drives either, particularly in the second half. Though they did score their first second-half offensive touchdown of the year, too many drives resulted in field goals or nothing at all.
Again, there were several reasons for that. After holding the ball for 9:06 and running 18 plays, penalties, including a hands-to-the-face call against guard Davin Joseph, forced them to settle for a field goal to make it 31-20 with five minutes to play.
Execution was the culprit on their next drive as Jackson stumbled and fell to finish off a 29-yard reception that could have been much longer. Then, one play later, rookie tight end Tim Wright dropped a pass on second-and-15 from the Atlanta 26-yard line.
It all resulted in yet another lost fourth quarter for the Bucs, who were out-scored 7-6 in the final 15 minutes by the Falcons and have been out-scored 42-19 in the fourth quarter for the season.
“We have to finish,’’ receiver Mike Williams said. “Coach Schiano’s keys before we went into the game today were finish, finish, finish and we just didn’t. When you go down there, get to the 5-yard line and only get three points, that’s hard on your team.’’
Though his sack-fumble cost the Bucs a touchdown, Glennon completed 26 of 44 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns and kept Tampa Bay in contention.
“He’s a good young quarterback who continues to progress,’’ Schiano said of Glennon, who threw touchdown passes of 59 and 1 yards to Jackson. “Today he consciously wanted to throw more balls downfield and he did that, and when you have that in your repertoire it helps.’’
But for a Bucs team that has lost 11 of its past 12 overall dating to last year, it’s clearly not enough. And now they have just four days to prepare for Thursday’s game against Carolina.
“That’s going to be tough, but coming off another tough loss, that’s what we want,’’ Glennon said. “We want a chance to get right back out there and play again, and I think we’ll be ready for it.’’