Pittman burns Falcons for big day

ATLANTA -- The touchdown catch that garnered the most excitement in the Tampa Bay locker room, following Sunday's 31-10 dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons here, was the six-yard scoring grab by defensive tackle Warren Sapp late in the second quarter.

But the pass play that provided the Bucs a lead that they would not relinquish, and which demonstrated the brilliant design skills of coach Jon Gruden and the vision of quarterback Brad Johnson, was a 68-yarder by tailback Michael Pittman seven minutes earlier.

On a third-and-two play from the Tampa Bay 32-yard line, Johnson caught the Falcons in one of their rare "cover one" packages of the contest, and caught inside linebacker Keith Brooking locked up man-to-man with Pittman, circling to the left out of the backfield.

The matchup suddenly became a mis-matchup, a 3-3 tie quickly was transformed into a 10-3 Bucs lead, and Tampa Bay never looked back. Then again, neither did Pittman, who raced up the left sideline untouched and never checked over his shoulder to see if anyone was gaining on him.

"When you get the ball that much behind (the defense)," said Pittman, "all you want to see is that goal-line getting closer. I just kept chugging as fast as I could. I mean, it was the perfect play, and at the perfect time."

True enough. But the play, executed perfectly, was also brilliantly set up by the calls that preceded it. And on a day when the Falcons relied more heavily than usual on zone and combination coverages, Tampa Bay exploited a man-to-man look, with great timing.

Three times in the first 20 minutes of the game, Johnson threw to Pittman, either in the left flat or on a screen pass to the left side. Just two plays prior to the touchdown pass, Pittman took a swing pass to the left, and gained six yards. On third down, the Bucs were aligned in essentially the same formation as on the swing pass, and with five receivers in the route.

Before the snap, Johnson thought about his progression, and considered three options: a "hot" pass to a slanting receiver, a "drive" route on a crossing Keyshawn Johnson, or a deeper pass to wideout Keenan McCardell, who was running a post. But when he saw the Atlanta defense in what he perceived as man-to-man coverage, Johnson looked first to Pittman, who had turned his swing route upfield, and who had beaten Brooking badly on what is known as a "halfback rail" pattern in the Bucs lexicon.

Brooking took a fatally shallow angle to the ball, his coverage somewhat affected by the clearing route Keyshawn Johnson had run, and by Pittman's early penchant for settling in on the left flat. Pittman hauled in the pass at about the Atlanta 45-yard line, made a very subtle move to the outside, and scored easily.

Typically a standup guy, Brooking took full culpability for the play, and applauded its design. "A real backbreaker," he said of the play. "They set me up and suckered me good on that one. That one was definitely on me and it was a killer."

Gruden acknowledged that the Bucs had only hoped they could get Pittman out in the open against a linebacker. For his part, Pittman explained that he knew he was the No. 1 option, as soon as the ball was snapped.

"There was just something about the (alignment) of their defense," Pittman said. "It sort of screamed out, 'Man!' They had been playing so much zone, we thought they'd go to it again, but they changed things up on us. And we made a play that changed the game."

Pittman did a superb job of "selling" the swing route, before turning it upfield and to the outside, bursting past the unsuspecting Atlanta defense. With his tailback so yawningly open, Johnson eschewed his alternatives, and lobbed a soft pass Pittman took in stride. The 68-yard reception was the longest of Pittman's six-year career.

It was the signature play of an afternoon when the Bucs worked hard to re-establish their running game, and to resurrect Pittman as their primary tailback. Of the first 16 plays, Pittman either touched the ball or was the intended receiver on 11 of them, and that set an early tone. For the day, Pittman carried 20 times for 82 yards and had a team-best seven receptions, also for 82 yards.

"After the way we played last week, I think everyone knew we'd come in trying to run the ball again, trying to get back to beating up people inside," Pittman said. "That's our game. We played things our way and it felt really good."

The performance had to be especially gratifying for Pittman, who has been forced to deal with a plethora of legal problems this offseason, but who is likely now to get through the season without fear of being jailed.

As usual, once the Bucs moved to a workable lead, Gruden turned the ground game over to fullback Mike Alstott, who powered for 44 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries. And as usual, the Bucs pretty much adhered to a bludgeoning tack they normally utilize, but with a few Gruden surprises.

Just as he did in the season opener, Gruden used Sapp at tight end, and he was joined by fellow defensive tackle Anthony McFarland in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Gruden had promised, after defeating Philadelphia in the opener, that Sapp would see more time on offense.

On Sunday, he played a handful of snaps, and ran one memorable route to author the first touchdown reception of his career. With the Tampa Bay offense in a tight formation, Sapp slipped behind the Atlanta offense and into the short left hook-zone. Johnson lobbed him the ball and there were no defenders within yards.

Deadpanned Gruden, who takes some glee (although he won't admit it) in tweaking his opponents: "It just adds to the legacy of Warren Sapp."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.