ATLANTA -- There has long been a belief in NFL circles that Lovie Smith is one of the brightest defensive minds in the game.
Smith told his team after the game that it now bears a scar that's not going away. That's true, because people will remember this one for a long time. Smith also now has a scar on his résumé.
Tampa Bay (0-3) played as bad a game as you could imagine. How bad was it? The 42-point margin of defeat was nearly a franchise record.
Think about that for a second. This is a franchise that opened 0-26 as an expansion team and had plenty of dismal days under the likes of Ray Perkins and Sam Wyche. The Bucs were losing 56-0 on Thursday night before scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns, long after the Falcons pulled their starters. Had that margin stood, the franchise record (45 points) would have been shattered.
In their first two games, the Bucs lost close games to backup quarterbacks, Carolina's Derek Anderson and St. Louis' Austin Davis. Against the Falcons, the Bucs faced an elite quarterback in Matt Ryan -- and the defense got absolutely shredded. Atlanta put the game out of reach in the first quarter, powered by two touchdown passes from Ryan.
The Falcons gained 300 yards of total offense in the first half. The Bucs had 63. But this isn't about Tampa Bay's offense -- that unit came into the season with questions. Tampa Bay's defense was supposed to be the team's strength. Now it, too, has major questions, tops among them: Can the Bucs, who have just four sacks this season, win a game if they keep playing defense like this?
Let's try to be fair to Smith for a minute. His defense was without injured All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and middle linebacker Mason Foster. But Atlanta's domination was so thorough, McCoy and Foster might not have made much of a difference. Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier simply didn't have the defense ready for an Atlanta offense that's very good, even without injured receiver Roddy White.
"I'm embarrassed by our play," Smith said. "We failed in all phases. It starts with the head football coach."
Smith got that part right.
"What we're going to do in the future, we're going to make some changes," Smith said.
It's hard to overhaul a defense while the season is in progress. But that's what Smith is going to have to do, or else his team and his reputation are going to end up with a lot more scars.