Earnest Graham’s magical season continued on Sunday, as he notched his second straight 100-yard game in Tampa Bay’s 31-7 victory over Atlanta.
Graham piled up 75 second-half yards as the Buccaneers had a 14-0 halftime lead and chose to use the run game to control the contest.
Graham finished with a 6.0-yard average and scored the Bucs’ final points, a 26-yard touchdown run to begin the fourth quarter.
The Cape Coral Mariner product remained the starter on Sunday, despite the return of Michael Pittman, who had missed the last four games with a high ankle sprain.
Graham now has 556 rushing yards this season and five touchdowns.
PITTMAN’S DAY: Michael Pittman rushed for 44 yards on 10 carries, and caught two passes for 17 yards in his first game since suffering a high ankle sprain against Indianapolis on Oct. 7.
Pittman did fumble away a first-quarter reception, which was his second touch of the game.
NFC SOUTH UPDATE: Tampa Bay’s victory, coupled with losses by New Orleans and Carolina, gave the Buccaneers a two-game lead in the NFC South with six games remaining.
Tampa Bay is now 3-0 in division action. The Panthers and Saints play each other on Sunday, and the Bucs face New Orleans on Dec. 2 in New Orleans.
ADAMS STARTS: Rookie DE Gaines Adams made his second straight start at right defensive end, despite the return of Patrick Chukwurah, who was at the top of the depth chart during training camp.
Adams forced an interception in the third quarter, beating Falcons T Quinn Ojinnaka to hit Falcons QB Byron Leftwich’s throwing arm from behind. Bucs DT Chris Hovan caught the loose ball for the interception.
Adams also improved his sack total to 2 ½ for this season when he dropped Falcons QB Joey Harrington in the fourth quarter.
BARBER’S SCORE: Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber’s second-quarter fumble return for a touchdown was the 11th touchdown of his career, the most for any Buccaneers defensive player. It was the fourth fumble return for a touchdown in his career.
Barber’s last return for a touchdown came against Philadelphia on Oct. 22 of last year when he returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
HOVAN’S CAREER DAY: Chris Hovan’s third-quarter interception was the first of his eight-year NFL career.
SIGNALS FOR VICTORY: Tampa Bay improved in two key areas on Sunday. By winning the turnover battle with a plus-2, Tampa Bay is now 6-0 with a positive turnover ratio and 0-4 with an equal or negative turnover ratio. Also the Bucs are now 6-0 when leading at halftime. Tampa Bay led 14-0 at halftime on Sunday.
DUNN FALLS SHORT: Falcons RB Warrick Dunn, seeking to become the 21st player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 career yards, fell short on Sunday. He gained only 32 yards, giving him 9,974 career yards. He will attempt to surpass 10,000 yards on Thanksgiving night against Indianapolis and his former coach, Tony Dungy.
REPLAY WOES: The Bucs lost two replay challenges in the first half on Sunday.
First, the Bucs challenge RB Michael Pittman’s fumble in the first quarter, contending he did not have possession of the pass. Game officials upheld the ruling on the field.
Then, the Bucs forced a fumble from Atlanta WR Roddy White and Bucs CB Brian Kelly recovered. Kelly returned the fumble briefly and before he went to the ground tossed the ball to June. White then tripped June and he fumbled the ball, and the Falcons recovered. The Bucs challenged the call, saying the ball carrier was already down. But game officials upheld the call, saying Kelly was not down before he tossed the ball to June.
It was not clear if Bucs head coach Jon Gruden was challenging the play on Kelly or the play on June, but his reaction made it clear he expected a different call. That was also the Bucs’ second and final challenge of the game.
BYE WEEK RETURN: Tampa Bay is now 3-3 in post-bye week games under Jon Gruden. Before Sunday’s win, the Bucs had lost three of their past four post-bye week games.
As a head coach, Gruden is 7-3 after the bye.
AVOIDING THE SHUTOUT: The Falcons avoided a shutout with Kelly Jennings first career touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons were the Bucs’ last shut out victim, coming on Dec. 5, 2004, when the Bucs blanked the Falcons 27-0.
INJURIES: For Atlanta, NT Trey Lewis hurt his right knee in the first quarter and did not return. T Todd Weiner left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury. TE Dwayne Blakely left the game in the second quarter with an injury.
The Bucs did not appear to incur any injuries during the game.
INACTIVES: Tampa Bay: QB Luke McCown (third quarterback), RB Michael Bennett, CB Keiwan Ratliff, LB Jeremiah Trotter, TE Keith Heinrich, DE Greg Spires and DT Greg Peterson. Atlanta: QB Chris Redman (third quarterback), RB Artose Pinner, T Terrance Pennington, OL D’Anthony Batiste, T Harvey Dahl, TE Courtney Anderson, WR Joe Horn and DT Tim Anderson.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.