ATLANTA – Tight end Tony Gonzalez has talked a lot over the last three years about opponents having to "choose their poison" when facing the Atlanta Falcons.
But with Julio Jones out for the season and Roddy White and Steven Jackson trying to heal nagging injuries, Gonzalez is a marked man in coverage as the NFL's No. 2 career-leading receiver.
In a 31-23 victory Sunday over winless Tampa Bay, Falcons quarterback turned to Harry Douglas, formerly the No. 3 receiver, as his first option.
"I hope you're not surprised by what Harry did today," Gonzalez said. "He is definitely a capable person."
With Gonzalez double-teamed most of the afternoon, Douglas caught all seven passes he was targeted on. His 149 yards receiving were a career high for the fifth-year receiver.
When the Falcons visit Arizona next weekend, quarterback Matt Ryan will be looking for Douglas and Jacquizz Rodgers among his top three options with Gonzalez.
The Falcons (2-4) maximized their opportunities in the passing game against Tampa Bay (0-6) as Rodgers and Jason Snelling managed just 30 yards on 15 attempts and the Buccaneers had a 15-minute advantage in time of possession.
But Tampa Bay was a mess offensively after running back Doug Martin, who began the game as the NFL's sixth-leading rusher, left with a shoulder injury early in the third quarter and didn't return.
"I mean when you go down there and get on the 5, don't score and get a field goal, it's kind of hard on your team," Bucs receiver Mike Williams said. "That's when we ended up down eight. We could've kept it closer than that."
Five reasons why the Falcons beat the Bucs:
MALIGNED DEFENSE SALVAGES SOME RESPECT: Atlanta began the game ranked last in third-down efficiency, 29th against the passing, 25th in sacks per pass attempt and 25th in scoring.
Losing at home two weeks ago to the New York Jets was a low point, so coach Mike Smith decided to have defensive coordinator Mike Nolan move from the booth to work on the sideline for the first time in two seasons with the Falcons.
Safety Thomas DeCoud and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux were quick to point out that communication improved for the entire defense with Nolan, a former NFL head coach and longtime coordinator, standing alongside his players.
Schematically, the biggest difference was Nolan's use of additional and different blitz packages that tried to keep rookie quarterback Mike Glennon, who was making his third career start, from setting his feet in the pocket.
"We decided to send a little pressure to him and see how he'd adjust to it. We knew the ball was coming out quick. The front seven held their end today and the back end held up.
OVERCOMING DIFFICULTIES IN RUNNING GAME: The Falcons' longest run from scrimmage was 7 yards, one by Rodgers and another by Snelling.
On Atlanta's other 13 runs by this pair, the offense gained 16 net yards. Arizona, which ranks fifth in the run defense, might be a tougher opponent to run on.
"As a group, running backs have to run harder," Rodgers said. "Everybody's got to be on the same page, blocking the right man, and us as running backs have to get downhill faster, so we can be efficient going down the stretch."
PROTECTIONS PRINCIPLES SOUND: Ryan stayed mostly clean in the pocket with no sacks and just two quarterback hits.
Without Jones and White, the offense had to give Ryan more chances to stay upright and make his reads. And considering that Gonzalez, who caught two passes for 30 yards, was only targeted four times, says that Ryan made the most of his chances.
Rodgers caught two touchdown passes. Douglas had one. Darius Johnson, signed off the practice squad earlier in the week, had two catches for 24 yards. Drew Davis also had one for 24.
"There's a lot of excuses that we could have come up with, but we came out and played pretty well," Gonzalez said. "I haven't looked at the film yet, but I'm real happy."
DRAINED BUCS: The Bucs, who have little time to prepare before hosting Carolina on Thursday, are in a tough spot emotionally and mentally. Disgruntled quarterback Josh Freeman was traded to Minnesota, the team has battled MRSA infection, and now Martin is injured.
Tampa Bay made life even tougher on itself by committing 11 penalties, including three for unnecessary roughness and roughing the passer.
"I've said that it's frustrating," second-year coach Greg Schiano said. "I've said that standing at this microphone before. What I am encouraged by is that group of men in the locker room are fighting their guts out and sticking together."
SAVING THE SEASON: A loss would've dropped the Falcons to 1-5 and made it terribly difficult to get back in the playoff conversation. They're still three games behind NFC South-leading New Orleans, so the best they can likely hope for is a wild-card spot.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org