RB Michael Pittman had 134 receiving yards and two touchdowns, but his score was not the game's last, unfortunately
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers last win at Carolina, a season-turning 12-9 victory for the Super Bowl-bound 2002 team, was the result of four clutch field goals and a key turnover on special teams.
Two years later, the Bucs leave Charlotte with a damaging, 21-14 loss to the Panthers, one they will remember for what could have been, particularly in regards to the kicking game.
Kicker Martin Gramatica, the hero of that 2002 win with three long fourth-quarter field goals, missed from 39 and 37 yards and had a 26-yarder blocked. Carolina had similar problems in the kicking game, but the Bucs missed a golden opportunity when CB Brian Kelly couldn't hold onto a loose ball after a blocked kick with an open field in front of him.
Two plays later, DE Julius Peppers scored on a 46-yard interception return for a 14-7 Carolina lead. Though the Bucs would tie the game with a 13-play, 66-yard drive in the fourth quarter, the Panthers would break the tie with a 73-yard touchdown drive after Gramatica's third missed field goal in as many tries.
Rookie WR Keary Colbert, who also scored the game's first points on a 24-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter, provided the game-winning points with 20 seconds to play when he fought off CB Torrie Cox and hauled in a 40-yard touchdown pass on the right sideline. The Bucs were left with only enough time for a 'Hail Mary' pass from the 50-yard line, and when a creditable attempt rebounded out of the reach of WR Tim Brown, Tampa Bay's playoff hopes took a serious blow.
At 4-7, Tampa Bay is assured of being no better than a game out of the Wild Card race by the end of the weekend's slate of games. The Panthers are also 4-7 after winning their third consecutive game.
Despite the interception, Griese had another prolific day in his sixth start as a Buccaneer. Griese completed 27 of 39 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns, his first 300-yard passing game for Tampa Bay. His favorite target all day was RB Michael Pittman, who turned a variety of screen passes and short routes into 134 yards, his first career 100-yard receiving game. Pittman's eight catches included a 68-yard gain on a third-down screen pass and two short touchdown receptions. He also ran 18 times for 29 yards, but it was his yardage in the passing game, the second-most ever for a Buccaneer back, that made Tampa Bay's offense go.
Griese didn't focus only on Pittman, however. He got seven different receivers involved and got big catches from Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton and Joe Jurevicius. An acrobatic, 25-yard sideline catch in the third quarter by Jurevicius put the Bucs in scoring range, but that drive ended at the Carolina 11 on a Pittman fumble.
It was miscues such as Pittman's two fumbles that kept the Bucs from running away with the game, despite a 398-300 edge in total yards. The Bucs converted 10 of 16 third downs and posted six sustained drives but failed to score on four different drives that got to Carolina's 23 or closer.
Carolina scored first, taking their opening possession 71 yards for a touchdown. Colbert, having a fine debut season like his Buc counterpart, Clayton, caught a third-down pass on the left sideline and eluded two tacklers to score a 24-yard touchdown. The Bucs followed with a sustained drive of their own but short-circuited at the end and failed to score. The Bucs originally decided to go for it on fourth-and-one from the 16 but were called for a false start. Gramatica then hooked his 39-yard field goal to the left of the upright.
The Bucs' defense then forced another quick punt, but yet another long drive came up empty. This time, the drive ended at the Carolina eight and the Bucs brought Gramatica on to try a 26-yard field goal. Unfortunately, defensive end Julius Peppers broke through the middle of the line and blocked the kick, keeping the Bucs off the scoreboard.
The Panthers also immediately turned around the field position, as QB Jake Delhomme went deep over the middle to WR Muhsin Muhammad for a gain of 43. On the next play, however, CB Brian Kelly intercepted a pass intended for Colbert at the 11, and the Bucs got it right on their third long drive, tying the game on an 89-yard march.
It looked as if the Bucs lost a golden opportunity when Pittman shot off the line uncovered and might have had only one defender to beat on a short catch. However, the pass was overthrown and Pittman's disappointment upon seeing the open field was visible. It wouldn't last long, however, as the Bucs' most successful screen play of the season shot Pittman out into the open field. He didn't go down until he had reached Carolina's 21, a 68-yard gain that tied for his career long and stood as the Bucs' longest reception of the career.
Pittman needed two tries to get his eventual touchdown to stand, too. On third-and-goal from the one, Pittman ran into the end zone for an apparent score, but it was erased by a false start. From the six, Griese threw a shovel pass to Pittman that worked perfectly, as the back weaved easily into the end zone to tie the game.
Those three drives gave the Bucs a decided statistical advantage at halftime, though it wasn't reflected on the scoreboard. The Bucs gained 236 yards in the first half, to the Panthers' 140, and converted five of nine third-down tries.
That second-quarter momentum was short-lived. Carolina drove 45 yards on the opening possession of the third quarter but K Jeff Chandler missed a 38-yard field goal try. Unfortunately, Pittman fumbled two plays later and Carolina resumed control at the Bucs' 31. Tampa Bay's defense repelled that threat and DE Dewayne White blocked a 38-yard field goal attempt. Kelly had a chance to scoop the loose ball and score but couldn't hold on. That proved important two plays later when Peppers scored in the other direction moments later.
That 14-7 lead held until midway through the fourth quarter, when the Bucs drove 13 plays for 66 yards, ending in Pittman's second touchdown catch, an eight-yarder on third-and-three. On that drive, the Bucs converted three third downs and made up for two potentially damaging penalties.
With the game tied, the Bucs forced a quick three-and-out, with DT Chidi Ahanotu sacking Delhomme at the Panthers' 11 on third down. An 18-yard catch by Clayton on third-and-two got the Bucs down to the 22, where they played conservatively for the go-ahead field goal try. Three runs by Pittman gained just three yards, bringing on Gramatica to try the 37-yarder. Holder Josh Bidwell pulled down a high snap but Gramatica hooked the kick to the left.
That left Carolina with two minutes and no timeouts to go for the game-winning score. In a drive very reminiscent of the last-minute march that won last year's 27-24 decision at Carolina, Delhomme completed four straight passes with a running clock, including the 40-yarder to Colbert.
Delhomme completed 14 of 21 passes for 213 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, but he was sacked four times and forced to scramble often. However, RB Nick Goings, coming off an NFC Offensive Player of the Week performance against Arizona, provided a solid running game as a counter, rushing 23 times for 106 yards. The Bucs, by contrast, rushed for just 62 yards and averaged 2.2 yards per carry.
For the Bucs' Clayton caught eight passes for 77 yards and Jurevicius added 60 yards on four receptions. Defensively, Tampa Bay was led by Kelly (seven tackles, one interception, one pass defensed) and LB Derrick Brooks (six tackles). White, a converted end, had another strong game, combining three solo tackles with a sack, a pass defensed and the blocked kick, on which he also recovered the ball. White has now had a hand in at least one sack in five consecutive games, or each outing since he was pressed into service in the middle after a string of injuries at defensive tackle.
The Bucs return home for a rematch with first-place Atlanta next weekend. The team is 1-2 in the division with home games remaining against the other three teams in the NFC South, Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans. With only Philadelphia and Atlanta pulling away from the pack in the NFC, the Bucs remain alive in the race at 4-7, but they now have almost no margin for error.
Notes: S John Howell started two consecutive games for the first time in his career. The fourth-year safety had made single starts in 2001 and 2002; he doubled that total with starts against San Francisco last week and at Carolina on Sunday, replacing injured free safety Jermaine Phillips. Howell finished the game with four tackles. … DE Greg Spires played in his 100th career NFL game on Sunday. Spires started at left defensive end for Tampa Bay, his 32nd game as a Buccaneer, and contributed two tackles and a sack. … WR Michael Clayton was heavily involved in the game plan early, and his fourth catch of the game, a 20-yarder, gave him 56 on the season. That moved him past Lawrence Dawsey's total of 55 in 1991, previously the second-highest total by a Buc rookie. Clayton eventually caught eight passes in the game to push his season total to 60. He needs just five more to catch Mike Alstott's team rookie record of 65, set in 1996. … Before Sunday's game, the Buccaneers had gone three straight contests without allowing a point as the result of a turnover. That changed in the third quarter when DE Julius Peppers returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown.
Injuries: LB Shelton Quarles sustained a right knee sprain on the Bucs' first defensive series but was able to return for the second possession. WR Joey Galloway sustained a right ankle sprain in the fourth quarter but returned to finish the game.
Inactives: The Buccaneers named eight players inactive for Sunday night's game: WR Bill Schroeder, S Jermaine Phillips, FB Greg Comella, RB Ian Smart, T Anthony Davis, WR Bill Schroeder, DE Corey Smith and designated third quarterback Brad Johnson.
Quarter-by-Quarter Reports: During the game, Buccaneers.com provided updates of the action after each quarter. Those reviews of each period are below, providing a closer look at how the game unfolded.
First Quarter Review
Each team mounted one sustained drive in the first quarter, but while Carolina finished theirs in the end zone, the Bucs failed on their scoring chance thanks to a penalty and a missed field goal. Carolina thus took a 7-0 lead into the second quarter.
The Bucs got the coin toss right and sent CB Torrie Cox deep to return the opening kickoff. Cox didn't have to touch it, however, as Todd Sauerbrun's kick went out of bounds for a penalty.
Tampa Bay thus started at its own 40, but moved back a yard on first down when RB Michael Pittman was caught in the backfield by DE Mike Rucker. The Bucs went with a hurry-up offense, but a receiver screen to WR Michael Clayton lost another yard. On third-and-12, a well-timed Panther blitz forced QB Brian Griese to throw the ball away, and the Bucs had to punt. Rookie return man Chris Gamble got Josh Bidwell's 49-yard punt back to the Carolina 29.
A first-down play-action pass to TE Kris Mangum worked for a five-yard gain. A pitch to RB Nick Goings on second down was less successful, however, as the Bucs' defense strung the runner out and LB Ian Gold dropped him for a loss of one. On third-and-six, QB Jake Delhomme enjoyed a long time in the pocket and was able to find Mangum wide open downfield for a 26-yard gain.
Now at the Bucs' 41, the Panthers gave it to Goings for two runs up the middle and he tacked on gains of four and eight yards for another first down. Goings ran it again from the Bucs' 29 and made a nice spin move to fall for five yards.
Delhomme tried to throw a short pass to rookie WR Keary Colbert on second down but CB Ronde Barber had tight coverage and got a hand in front of the receiver to knock it away. On third-and-six, Delhomme went back to Colbert on the left sideline and the rookie slipped a tackle after making the grab and ran into the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown.
Sauerbrun's second kickoff went out of the end zone for a touchback. The Bucs got off to a better start on this drive, however, as Griese hooked up with Clayton for a 10-yard completion on the right sideline. The same receiver screen to Clayton from the first drive worked better this time, as the blocking held up for a five-yard gain. On second-and-five, Pittman sliced off left tackle for three yards, setting up third-and-two. The Bucs failed to convert, however, as Griese tried to throw up the sideline to Pittman and LB Mark Fields had perfect coverage, knocking it away.
Bidwell punted down to the Carolina 18, where the ball rolled to a stop to set up the Panthers' second drive.
Goings got the ball on first down and powered up the middle for four yards, a gain he repeated on second down to set up third-and-two. Delhomme tried to pass for the first down but his short throw over the middle was broken up and nearly intercepted by DE Dewayne White.
WR Joey Galloway fumbled the resulting punt but was able to bat it out of bounds and avoid a turnover.
From the 30, Pittman went off left guard for two yards on first down, and Griese fired a dart to Clayton on the left sideline for a gain of 20 and a first down two yards into Carolina territory.
Griese scrambled away from a blitz on the next play and gained seven yards, after which FB Mike Alstott bashed through a pile for a first down at the Panthers' 36. The Bucs had to call a timeout before the next play, but Griese still found himself calling an audible at the line. It worked, as Pittman ran a short stop and Griese hit him for a gain of 11 yards down to Carolina's 25.
Alstott got five yards on first down, then Pittman got four more when Griese noticed a blitz and called a run to the other side. On third-and-one, Alstott was stopped inches short of the sticks on a run up the middle. The Bucs originally elected to go for it on fourth down, but was flagged for a five-yard false start and decided to kick. Unfortunately, K Martin Gramatica pulled his 39-yard try to the left and the Bucs lost their chance to score.
That gave Carolina possession at their own 29, and they ran one play before the first quarter expired, an eight-yard completion to Colbert on the left sideline.
Second Quarter Review
Tampa Bay tied the game in the second quarter with an 89-yard touchdown drive, sending it into halftime at 7-7. The Buccaneers dominated the clock and the statistics in the second period and finished the half with 236 yards to the Panthers' 140.
Carolina faced a second-and-two at their own 37 to start the second quarter, but failed to move the chains. RB Nick Goings tried the middle on second down but gained just a yard, and former Buc RB Brandon Bennett was stopped cold on third down by DE Dewayne White. Todd Sauerbrun hit a 62-yard punt to follow, but it rolled into the end zone for a touchback.
From their own 20, the Bucs got four yards on a first down pass to TE Will Heller, with Heller's fumble at the end fortuitously going out of bounds. After a two-yard scramble by QB Brian Griese, WR Joey Galloway converted the third-and-four with an impressive, leaping catch on a quick slant.
From the 32, RB Michael Pittman got two yards off left tackle, but a seam pass to WR Joe Jurevicius was too short and incomplete. On third-and-eight, Griese stood in under a blitz and took a hard hit, just getting off a deep slant pass to WR Michael Clayton for a gain of 14 and a first down at the Bucs' 48.
After the Bucs used their second timeout, Griese ran a play-action rollout to the left and tossed a short pass to a wide-open Jurevicius, who turned upfield for a gain of 17 to the Carolina's 35. An encroachment foul gave the Bucs five yards, but a first-down sweep by Pittman gave four back, making it second-and-nine. However, a short pass to TE Ken Dilger moved the sticks with a gain of 19 in which the big man juked past two defenders down to the 15.
Pittman tried to go right on first down but was stopped for a loss of one by DE Al Wallace. A pass to TE Ken Dilger at the goal line was just a bit too high. Before the third-down play, the Bucs then had to burn their final timeout of the first half. After the break, Griese threw a short sideline pass to FB Mike Alstott, who came up three yards short of a first down. K Martin Gramatica came on to try a 26-yard field goal but the kick was blocked by defensive end Julius Peppers.
Carolina got into Buccaneer territory on their first play, as QB Jake Delhomme went deep over the middle to WR Muhsin Muhammad. Muhammad just caught the ball over LB Shelton Quarles for a 43-yard gain to the Bucs' 37. However, after an illegal contact penalty gave Carolina five more yards, CB Brian Kelly intercepted a pass thrown towards WR Keary Colbert at the Bucs' 11-yard line.
The Bucs moved backward on first down due to a false start but got the five yards back on a run up the middle by Pittman. After Griese just missed Pittman on a seam pass that looked like a big play, the two hooked up again on a screen and got the long-gainer. Pittman followed a phalanx of blockers through the defense and broke free down the right side for a 68-yard gain, down to Carolina's 21.
RB Earnest Graham came on to spell Pittman and picked up nine yards on two very tough runs. On third-and-one, Alstott powered for two yards off right tackle, breaking several tackles on a trademark second-effort run.
With a first-and-goal at the 10, Pittman tried the middle but was stopped after a gain of just one by DT Brentson Buckner. Jurevicius then ran a perfect spin route and caught a pass just inches from the goal line. That play brought on the two-minute warning.
After the break, the Bucs appeared to score on a run by Pittman, but the play was erased by a false start. That made it third-and-goal from the six, but Pittman got back into the end zone on an inspired call, a shovel pass that worked to perfection.
A touchback by Gramatica forced Carolina to start at their own 20. After a five-yard run by Goings, DE Simeon Rice sacked a scrambling Delhomme for a loss of two. Carolina converted the third-and-seven, however, When Delhomme hit TE Kris Mangum for a gain of 13.
The Panthers sued a timeout with 27 seconds to play but decided against a second stoppage when DE Greg Spires sacked Delhomme for a loss of seven.
Third Quarter Review
Carolina scored the only points of the third quarter on an interception, taking a 14-7 lead into the final period. The Bucs had a chance to score but lost the ball in the red zone on one of three turnovers in the quarter. At the end of three periods, the Bucs had a 275-225 edge in total yardage.
Carolina started the second half with a drive from their own 34. Good coverage forced QB Jake Delhomme to scramble and throw the ball away on first down, but the play was erased by an illegal contact flag.
From the 39, RB Nick Goings avoided a potential tackle in the backfield and cut back to the middle for a gain of three. Goings did even better on second down, breaking through the line and out into the clear for a 28-yard gain to the Bucs' 30.
Goings tried the middle again and got four more yards, then another four around left tackle. However, LBs Derrick Brooks and Ian Gold combined to stop Goings for only one yard on third-and-two, and Carolina elected to kick a field goal. Jeff Chandler came on to try a 38-yard field goal and hooked it to the left. That left the game tied at 7-7.
The Bucs almost turned the ball over on first down, then did so on second down. QB Brian Griese's short pass to RB Michael Pittman was nearly intercepted by rookie CB Chris Gamble. Pittman then ran up the middle for a short gain on second down, but he fumbled at the end and it was recovered by LB Mark Fields at the Bucs' 31.
Delhomme's next pass was incomplete, but TE Mike Seidman caught a six-yard pass on second down. Delhomme then scrambled away from DE Simeon Rice's pressure and was able to just get past the first down marker for a new set of downs at the Bucs' 20.
Delhomme tried to hit TE Kris Mangum in the left corner of the end zone on the next play, but the Bucs had two players in the way and S Dwight Smith batted it away. Goings ran hard on second down and got five yards before LB Shelton Quarles stood him up. On third-and-five, DE Dewayne White broke through the middle and sacked Delhomme for a loss of five.
As if that wasn't enough, White jumped into the backfield on the resulting 38-yard field goal try and blocked Chandler's kick. After CB Brian Kelly nearly scooped it up in the open field, White also recovered for Tampa Bay at their own 46.
Griese had time to throw on first down but delivered a pass just a little behind WR Michael Clayton and the rookie couldn't hold on. Unfortunately, DE Julius Peppers did hold on to the next pass when he cut in front of TE Ken Dilger and made an interception on the run. Nobody could catch the speedy end as he raced 46 yards into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
A 30-yard return by CB Torrie Cox gave the Bucs a starting spot of their own 32. Pittman swept right on first down for a gain of two, and Peppers fought through a double-team to sack Griese for a loss of six. On third-and-14, Griese nearly hit WR Joe Jurevicius down the right sideline but it was just out of the receiver's reach and the Bucs had to punt. Or so it seemed. When rookie FB Casey Cramer, a former Buc, dove into P Josh Bidwell's leg and drew a personal foul.
From the Bucs' 44, Griese threw a short pass over the middle to Pittman, who picked up six. After a Pittman run gained just one yard, Griese stood in the pocket for a long time before throwing deep down the left sideline to Jurevicius. The receiver made a dazzlingly acrobatic catch at the Carolina 23, resulting in a 25-yard gain that withstood a replay challenge.
Unfortunately, the Bucs lost the ball on the next play, as Pittman caught a short pass, juked a defender and picked up eight yards to the 15. Unfortunately, DE Al Wallace jarred the ball loose with a hard hit from behind and S Mike Minter recovered for Carolina at the Panthers' 11. The Bucs had to use a challenge to prove that WR Joey Galloway had touched Minter down at the 11.
Goings ran twice, going left for four yards and right for two. On third-and-four, the Panthers tossed it to Goings again, and the back swept right and dove over the last tackler for just enough to move the sticks.
Goings gained one yard on the next run but caught a seven-yard pass on second down to make it third-and-two at the Panthers' 34. Delhomme converted that third down, two, with a seven-yard pass to WR Ricky Proehl. After Goings lost a yard on the next play, Cramer was flagged for a personal foul, costing Carolina 15 yards. That play brought the quarter to an end.
Fourth Quarter Review
Each team scored once in the fourth quarter, which left Tampa Bay with a 21-14 loss and a 4-7 record with five games to go. The Bucs tied the game with seven minutes to play and had a chance to kick a go-ahead field goal with two minutes left, but Martin Gramatica's miss from 37 yards was followed by Carolina's game-winning, 73-yard drive. The Bucs finished with 398 yards of offense but allowed 300 yards and failed to score on several sustained drives.
Carolina faced a second-and-26 at their own 30 to start the quarter, but nearly picked it up with a seam pass downfield to Muhsin Muhammad. It was incomplete, however, and a third-down pass to RB Nick Goings picked up just five yards.
The Bucs got the ball back at their own 37 after a 31-yard punt by Todd Sauerbrun. FB Mike Alstott started the drive with a three-yard run and QB Brian Griese scrambled for two yards on second down, a play that was erased by a holding call. That made it second-and-17, but Griese hit RB Michael Pittman for a 15-yard gain then delivered a 10-yard strike to WR Joe Jurevicius for a first down at Carolina's 48.
Griese took a five-yard sack by S Mike Minter on first down but found Pittman again for a 12-yard dumpoff. On third-and-three, Griese converted again with a short square-in to WR Michael Clayton who held on despite a vicious tackle.
From the Panthers' 36, Alstott was stopped for no gain but Griese then hit him for an 11-yard strike on the right sideline. Griese then tried to hit TE Ken Dilger in the end zone but Dilger fell and the Bucs were fortunate not to have the ball intercepted. Griese then scrambled out of trouble and side-armed a 10-yard pass to WR Joey Galloway.
Pittman's sweep right gained only a yard, but a pass over the middle to Clayton picked up six. On third-and-three from the eight, Griese went to Pittman again, hitting him on the right hashes for a touchdown pass that tied the game at 14-14 with a little less than seven minutes to play.
Carolina started at its own 22 but lost 10 yards on a holding call when DE Simeon Rice nearly broke through to QB Jake Delhomme. From the 12, Goings broke a tackle and picked up eight yards on first down. Fortunately, WR Keary Colbert dropped a 25-yard pass near the right sideline, making it third-and-12. Good coverage forced Delhomme to hold the ball too long and DE Chidi Ahanotu eventually sacked him at the Panthers' nine.
A 51-yard punt by Sauerbrun and a 12-yard return by Galloway gave the Bucs possession at the Carolina 48 with 4:52 to play.
Pittman shot off left guard on first down and got nine yards, but then lost a yard on second down when Griese tripped and had to make an awkward handoff. The Bucs gave Griese plenty of time to throw on third-and-two and he found a wide-open Clayton over the middle for 18 yards.
Pittman's sweep right gained just two yards, down to the Carolina 20. Another two-yard run off right guard got two more and brought on the two-minute warning. The Bucs ran again on third down but __ and Carolina used its last timeout with 1:53 to play. Tampa Bay brought on K Martin Gramatica to try a 37-yarder, but he hooked it left, his third miss of the game, and the game remained tied at 14-14.
The Panthers thus took over at their own 27 and got a quick nine yards on a pass to Muhammad. An inside handoff to Goings picked up four yards, and the Panthers rushed up and threw a short pass to Goings for five more. With time to throw, Delhomme then fired to a wide-open Ricky Proehl at the Bucs' 40.
On the next snap, Delhomme threw a ball up for grabs to rookie WR Keary Colbert and Colbert fought off CB Torrie Cox to make a 40-yard touchdown catch. Carolina took a 21-14 lead on the play and left just 20 seconds on the clock.
There were 17 seconds left when the Bucs started again at their own 33. An incompletion in Clayton's direction left just 11 seconds, but a pass to Galloway at midfield gave the Bucs a chance for a 'Hail Mary' pass with five seconds to go. Griese threw the ball to the front edge of the end zone, but Carolina was able to bat it away.