RB Cadillac Williams gained 112 yards on 29 tough carries and the Bucs are now 5-0 when he hits the century mark
It would be hard to deny at this point: The 2005 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are for real.
By defeating the Carolina Panthers on the road Sunday, 20-10, the Bucs took over a share of first place in the NFC South and served noticed that they are a force to be reckoned with in the crowded conference playoff chase.
The win left Tampa Bay tied with Carolina atop the ultra-competitive South, both teams at 9-4 with three weeks left to play. It also evened the season series and broke a five-game winning streak for Carolina in the all-time matchup. Just as importantly, given the critics' general approval of the Panthers' strength, it gave the Bucs their biggest victory of the season and kept them in the running for a critical first-round playoff bye.
If this was as strong as the Bucs have looked since their 2002 Super Bowl season, it was a familiar show of strength. Namely, the Bucs' proud, veteran defense was at its best, holding Carolina to 276 total yards and 2-of-11 third-down conversions. And just when it appeared as if the Panthers were going to turn the tables with another late-game comeback, Ronde Barber came to the rescue once again.
Barber's acrobatic interception at the Bucs' seven-yard line short-circuited a growing Carolina rally and led to the Bucs' final score. Barber stuck a hand in front of noted Buc-killer Ricky Proehl to deflect Jake Delhomme's pass, then grabbed the deflection and returned it 35 yards to the Bucs' 42.
It was a day full of milestones for Barber who, fresh off a three-pick outing in Baton Rouge a week before, made his 100th consecutive start for the Buccaneers. On Carolina's next possession after his interception, Barber blitzed and sacked Delhomme for a loss of 12 on third down, killing a potential scoring drive. That was Barber's 20th career sack, making him the first cornerback in NFL history to record at least 20 career interceptions and 20 career sacks. He is just the seventh player overall to reach both of those levels in the two glamour stats on defense.
After Barber's return, the Bucs drove 58 yards on 10 plays, nine of them runs, to score the game-icing touchdown. Showing no signs of hitting a rookie wall, hard-charging back Cadillac Williams carried six times for 44 yards on the march, finishing it with his second touchdown. The Bucs were content to run the clock and take a field goal on third-and-nine from the Panthers' 10-yard line, but Williams broke two tackles and pinballed into the end zone to give the Bucs a 20-3 lead with less than six minutes to play.
Williams was magnificent. In Carolina's 34-14 win in Tampa five weeks ago, the rookie back, perhaps still recovering from his early-season foot sprain, gained just 29 yards on 11 carries. This time, he ran 29 times for 112 yards and consistently broke tackles near the line of scrimmage to gain extra yardage. Williams got both Buc touchdowns, taking it in from 14 yards out in the first quarter to start the scoring. It was his first two-touchdown game and he is now just 76 yards away from a 1,000-yard rushing season.
With the running game in high gear, QB Chris Simms played the role of efficient caretaker, and played it extremely well. Most of his passes were short, but he threw them very crisply, completing 20 of 27 attempts for 138 yards and, most importantly, no interceptions. He was particularly strong on third downs, repeatedly keeping long drives alive with key completions.
Perhaps Simms' best number was the one on the back of his jersey, which amazingly stayed clean the entire day. Facing a fearsome Carolina front that has dominated many of the previous games in the series, the Bucs' front line allowed only one five-yard sack of Simms and gave him good time to throw on most drop-backs, particularly on third down. That helped Tampa Bay converted 10 of 17 third downs on the day, which explains how they were able to manage four scoring drives of eight or more plays.
Given the rushing yards – 114 on 36 carries, most of them between the tackles – and the lack of pressure on Simms, it might be the offensive line's best performance of the year. It should come as no surprise that the Bucs are 7-0 this season when they allow two or fewer sacks.
Another key component in the Bucs' victory: field position.
Tampa Bay has overcome unfavorable field position for most of the season, coming into the game with the worst kickoff drive start average in the league and the fewest drives started across midfield. However, the Bucs enjoyed outstanding starting spots on Sunday, particularly in the first half. Tampa Bay's five drives in the first half opened at their own 33, 46, 43, 36 and 39 yard lines, and their two scoring drives covered 55 and 44 yards, respectively.
They were impressive drives, involving five converted third downs in total, but they were built on a series of short gains rather than the long Joey Galloway receptions that have become the team's calling card. Simms did find Galloway to convert two long third downs on the first-quarter touchdown drive, but he also hooked up with third receiver Ike Hilliard on two other chain-movers in the first half. The Bucs converted six of nine third downs in the first half while the Panthers were 0-5.
Of course, much of the credit for that outstanding field position belonged to the Bucs' defense, which appeared to be inspired by the game's high-stakes trappings. After a rough first drive, on which new Panther starting RB DeShaun Foster carried four times for 30 yards but a missed 42-yard field goal cost the home team a scoring chance, Tampa Bay's defense stifled Carolina the rest of the first half. Carolina started four of their five drives at their own 22 or worse and gained just 25 net yards after that first march.
In the end, the Bucs had a 10-0 halftime lead and had become just the second team to hold Carolina's quick-strike offense scoreless in a first half this season. The last one: Chicago, which beat the Panthers 13-3 three weeks prior. Notably on this fine afternoon for the Buccaneers, the Bears lost in Pittsburgh, dropping to 9-4 and ensuring that the Bucs would be tied for the second-best record in the division at the end of the weekend.
The Bucs' defense started the second half on a nice note, too, when Carolina chose to go for it on fourth-and-two from Tampa Bay's 39. DT Chris Hovan, who had stopped RB Stephen Davis for no gain on third down, was on the spot again when Davis tried the middle on fourth down. No gain and the Bucs took over at their own 39, a launching point that led to an 11-play, 42-yard field goal drive.
Hovan had a very strong game, which was particularly important after fellow starting DT Anthony McFarland was lost to a hamstring injury early in the first quarter. Hovan, whose overall stats this season fail to reflect how well he has done the dirty work in the trenches, finished the game with five solo tackles.
Bryant's field goal on the ensuing drive, a 36-yarder, gave the Bucs a 13-3 lead. Hilliard turned in the biggest play of the drive, spinning out of a Chris Gamble on a short pass to gain 12 yards and convert a third-and-11. However, the Panthers stopped FB Mike Alstott at the top of his dive on a third-and-one attempt at the 19 and the Bucs chose to take the three points.
The Bucs were happy to welcome back Bryant, who had missed last weekend's game in Baton Rouge due to a hamstring injury. He passed a pregame running and kicking test before the game, got clearance to play and made all four of his kicks, two extra points and two field goals. The Bucs had been badly hurt by missed kicks in recent losses in the series with Carolina.
The Panthers answered those three points and finally rolled the scoreboard with a 58-yard field goal drive on the ensuing possession. All of the yardage was provided by WR Steve Smith's 60-yard gain when S Dexter Jackson went for a pass break-up and left the sideline open for Smith to exploit down to Tampa Bay's 19. The Bucs' defense held impressively from there and the Panthers settled for John Kasay's 39-yard kick.
Smith, who absorbed a huge but legal hit from S Will Allen in the first half, tried his best to get the Panthers into the game. Not long after his 60-yard catch-and-run, he returned a punt 44 yards to put the Panthers deep into Buccaneer territory. Unfortunately for his Panthers, Barber's big pick followed shortly thereafter.
The Bucs almost had a long punt return of their own in the second quarter, but WR Mark Jones was stopped on what looked for all the world like a 90-yard touchdown. In a game featuring two of the top four defenses in the NFL and a veritable galaxy of individual defensive stars, the tackle of the game was turned in by Carolina punter Jason Baker. Jones had broken clear on a punt return that started at his own eight and appeared to have a straight shot to the end zone…after getting around Baker. Jones did get by the punter, but Baker dove and clipped his heels, dropping the returner at the Bucs' 39.
Still, the Bucs used that piece of field position to drive 44 yards for a field goal. Bryant banged home a 34-yarder as the first half expired.
It was also the Bucs who dented the scoreboard first. After Smith surprisingly fielded a booming Josh Bidwell punt at his own one, starting a chain of events that gave Tampa Bay outstanding field position, the visitors drove 54 yards for a touchdown. Simms twice hit Galloway on big third-down conversions, and Williams ran it in from the 14, following key blocks by Alstott and Galloway.
As it turned out, that would be enough for the Bucs' inspired defense, which had allowed only 194 yards of offense at the point that they pushed the lead to 20-3. The Panthers tacked on 53 more and Ricky Proehl's 10-yard touchdown catch in the game's final minute as the Bucs' defense sagged to kill the clock.
LB Shelton Quarles led the defensive group effort with nine tackles. LB Derrick Brooks added seven stops and two pass breakups and Barber had six tackles to go with his big plays. DT Ellis Wyms, playing most of the game for McFarland, had the Bucs' other sack and forced a fumble.
The win gave the Bucs a 5-2 record on the road this season, with one away game left, at New England next Saturday. Most impressively, the Bucs won all three of their road games within the division and are now 3-1 against South opponents. That intra-division record gives the Bucs a slight edge – if they win out, they will win the South, not Carolina.
Game Notes: The Bucs' victory Sunday ended a five-game winning streak by the Panthers in the head-to-head series. That was Tampa Bay's longest current losing streak to any team in the NFC. In fact, the Bucs now do not have a losing streak of more than one game to any team in its conference … P Josh Bidwell's first punt of the day was a blast, a 58-yarder that was caught in the air by WR Steve Smith at the Carolina one. That gave Bidwell a 50-yard punt in 14 straight games, the second-longest current streak in the NFL. On the day, Bidwell averaged 43.2 yards on six punts. … RB Cadillac Williams' touchdown in the first quarter broke an 11-quarter streak in which the Panthers' defense had not allowed a touchdown, dating back to its Week 11 loss at Chicago. … The return of Will Allen from a knee injury that cost him three games gave the Bucs a surplus of starting-caliber safeties. They took the opportunity to play them all, freely rotating Allen with starters Dexter Jackson and Jermaine Phillips. … CB Ronde Barber's fourth-quarter interception was his fourth on the last two games. It gave him 28 in his career, moving him into a tie for third place on the Bucs' all-time chart. Barber has equaled Mike Washington's total and is only one behind Cedric Brown (29) and three behind Donnie Abraham (31). … RB Cadillac Williams' 112-yard performance was his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season, tying the team record in that category. James Wilder pulled off that feat in both 1984 and 1985 and RB Warrick Dunn equaled it in 1997. Dunn, coincidentally, was a rookie that season, like Williams this year. The best part of Williams' 2005 performance – the Bucs are 5-0 when their rookie back hits the century mark.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: K Todd France, RB Derek Watson, CB Blue Adams, LB Marquis Cooper, T Chris Colmer, DT Anthony Bryant, C Scott Jackson and designated third quarterback Tim Rattay.
The Panthers named the following eight players inactive: WR Drew Carter, RB Jamal Robertson, T Dave Kadela, G Evan Mathis, TE Michael Gaines, DE Micheal Rucker, DT Atiyyah Ellison and designated third quarterback Stefan LeFors.
Injuries: DT Anthony McFarland suffered a left hamstring injury in the first quarter and did not return.