ATLANTA - Not all the news was grim Sunday for the Atlanta Falcons. Superstar quarterback Michael Vick is no longer walking on crutches and could return to the field in three weeks from a broken right leg.
Otherwise, Atlanta took a big step backward for the second straight week. The 31-10 loss to Tampa Bay, Atlanta's sixth straight in the series, turned decisively in the Buccaneers' favor during a horrendous second quarter.
A crowd of 70,871 fans - the largest gathering for a Falcons game in Georgia Dome history - watched as Vick's replacement, Doug Johnson, justified every NFL scout who advised teams not to draft him in 2000. Though Johnson led the Falcons to a season-turning victory at New York last year, he's only become worse with Carolina waiting next week to avenge two blowout losses in 2002.
Johnson threw three interceptions in the second quarter.
"You can't win if you throw three interceptions," he said. "I put us in a hole we really couldn't climb out of."
Not against one of the better defenses in NFL history. Johnson, who also threw three picks in two quarters of relief during last year's 20-6 home loss to the Bucs, survived his first mistake; his best friend on the team, linebacker Keith Brooking, was not so lucky.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden set Brooking up by calling for Brad Johnson to complete a short pass in the left flat to Michael Pittman. Brooking tackled the running back out of bounds after a 6-yard gain, but two plays later Pittman appeared to be taking the same route when he broke a little further downfield.
Brad Johnson read him perfectly and hit Pittman in stride 15 yards down the left sideline. Brooking could only chase as Pittman ran for the 68-yard score and a 10-3 lead.
"That was my fault," Brooking said. "That's my guy. They do a great job of setting a linebacker up on that."
Jay Feely followed with another missed field-goal attempt, dropping his career Dome numbers to 35-for-50, before free safety Dwight Smith intercepted Doug Johnson's poor pass to Alge Crumpler and ran three yards to the Atlanta 37.
The Falcons' defense fell apart again, allowing Keyshawn Johnson to catch a 15-yard pass on third-and-8 and giving up an automatic first down on third-and-12 following strong safety Cory Hall's holding penalty.
After Pittman ran for 11 yards, Gruden inserted Warren Sapp as an eligible tight end, and the star defensive tackle was wide open as he caught Brad Johnson's 6-yard touchdown pass in the left side of the end zone.
"I come in the game and they announce, 'No. 99 is an eligible receiver.' Then they don't even guard me? We got to change that rule," Sapp said. "That's not right."
Smith also gave Doug Johnson his third interception, this one coming with 48 seconds left in the half. Peerless Price, the intended receiver, was barely in the same zip code on Smith's touchback in the end zone.
"You can't play to their strengths," Price said. "You've got to do things different. Their front seven is like no other in this league. We had our chances. We just didn't make any plays."
Tampa Bay, which last year became the first team since the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears to lead the NFL in total defense, fewest points allowed and interceptions, recovered from last week's overtime loss in which Carolina's Stephen Davis rushed for 142 yards.
The Bucs (2-1) shut down Atlanta (1-2), which managed 29 yards on 19 carries _ its worst output since Oct. 5, 2000 when the New York Giants set an opponent's franchise record by holding the Falcons to 13 net yards.
"Once we get a team's running game under control, we can beat anybody," Sapp said. "But we were ready to roll from the first snap today."
Defensive end Simeon Rice, whose 15.5 sacks last year ranked first in the NFC, had one of his team's two sacks against the Falcons, pushing his season total to four. Nothing, including Woodrow Dantzler's 1-yard touchdown run on an option keeper in the third quarter, rattled the Bucs.
Dantzler's score cut Tampa Bay's lead to 17-10, but the Bucs answered with a 10-play, 73-yard drive that ended with Mike Alstott's 2-yard touchdown run.
"It almost came to the point where we were wondering if they were trying to win," Rice said. "I mean, you're supposed to stick to a blueprint, but they never tried to open it up and be competitive."
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