Bucs play better, but still don’t win

Raheem Morris is interested in winning, not subtle signs of improvement in his struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The team played better defensively in its first game since the rookie coach took over playcalling responsibilities, however once again the unit was unable to hold off an opponent when it mattered most.

The Atlanta Falcons drove 59 yards Sunday to beat the Bucs 20-17 on Chris Redmond’s 5-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to Roddy White with 23 seconds remaining – the third time Tampa Bay (1-10) has lost on a final-minute drive.

The frustrating ending overshadowed that Tampa Bay yielded a season-low 75 yards on the ground, allowed its second-fewest total yards (297) in a game, and matched a season best with six sacks.

“Stats are really for losers. For me, it was more how hard the guys played,” Morris said. “Guys went out there and played hard. They’ve played hard all year. They continued to do that and went out and gave themselves a chance to win.”

The first-year coach lauded the play of young quarterback Josh Freeman, who rebounded from the worst performance of his career to throw for 250 yards and two touchdowns in his fourth pro start.

A week after turning the ball over four times in a 31-point loss to New Orleans, the rookie out of Kansas State didn’t throw an interception or lose a fumble for the first time.

“I think he’s starting to develop into what we all think he can be,” Morris said. “He’s shown nothing but good things. He had the one week where he kind of backed off … but he’s getting better and better every week.”

Morris also defended a decision to run a fake punt that cost Tampa Bay field position early in the fourth quarter, as well as the Bucs trying to kick a 51-yard field goal instead of punting to pin Atlanta deep in its own territory with under 3 minutes to go.

Redman, standing in for the injured Matt Ryan, launched the Falcons‘ winning drive from his own 41.

While the Bucs were criticized early in the season for not being aggressive enough in the waning minutes of a three-point loss at Washington, Morris faced questions this time about whether he went too far in the opposite direction.

The coach didn’t think so.

“You always second-guess yourself the next day. … I don’t know that a long field goal is out of the box. I don’t know that a fake punt is out of the box,” Morris said.

“We were a 1-9 football team. I think you’ve got to teach this team how to insert a dagger in somebody and win the game. That’s part of the learning curve, part of what we’re going through.”

Morris demoted defensive coordinator Jim Bates last week, saying it was his responsibility to fix a defense that’s allowed the second-most points in the NFL and ranks near the bottom in yards allowed.

The 20 points allowed Sunday were the second-fewest yielded this season. The Bucs gave up 16 points and 277 yards to the Redskins on Oct. 4.

The numbers – plus the fact Atlanta needed six plays and help from a defensive holding penalty to get the ball into the end zone after having first-and-goal from the 10 – didn’t provide much solace for Morris.

Stopping the Falcons on five of those six critical plays simply was not good enough.

“If that’s a period in practice, the defense wins. Unfortunately it wasn’t,” the coach said. “I admire their fight. We’ve just got to figure out how to close out games better.”