The Bucs stopped RB Jonathan Stewart on this play but generally had trouble slowing down Carolina's rushing attack
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' four-game winning streak is over, but their shot at a second straight division title is far from dead.
That chase took a hit Monday night at Bank of America Stadium, as the Carolina Panthers ran all over the league's fourth-ranked defense in a 38-23 victory over their visiting NFC South rivals. The Panthers improved to 10-3 and took a one-game lead on the 9-4 Buccaneers, but three weeks of intense football remain. It continues in just six days for the Buccaneers, who head to Atlanta on Sunday to take on the 8-5 Atlanta Falcons.
While the division title remains very much within reach, there is this new worry: Carolina ran for 299 yards on the night, the second-most ever against a Buccaneers defense. Starting defensive tackle Jovan Haye was out for the game and starting nose tackle Chris Hovan left the game win the fourth quarter with a knee injury. The Bucs face the NFC's second-ranked rushing attack next week.
Played in sub-40-degree weather between two teams that take pride in their rugged defense, Monday's game unfolded true to form. The difference for Carolina was a virtually unstoppable running game that continued the torrid pace it had established over the last month. DeAngelo Williams ran for 186 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries including a 40-yard scamper in the second quarter that set up the game's first touchdown. Rookie Jonathan Stewart added 115 yards on 15 carries as the Panthers racked up those 299 yards on the ground, by far the most Tampa Bay has allowed all year. Carolina averaged 8.1 yards per tote.
The night was summed up in two minutes during the fourth quarter, when the Bucs, trailing by one score, pinned the Panthers at their own 10-yard line after a punt, only to see them drive 90 yards on four plays, all of them runs. Tampa Bay had allowed one individual 100-yard rushing game all season coming into Monday night; they allowed two to the Panthers, whom they had held to 40 rushing yards the first time the teams met. The Panthers didn't need the services of P Jason Baker until six minutes were left in the game.
Until the Panthers pulled away in the fourth quarter, the Bucs did manage to stay in the game thanks to the almost as lethal combination of Jeff Garcia and Antonio Bryant. Hooking up for completions of 52, 50 and 39 yards the two set up a pair of third-quarter touchdowns that tied the game at 17-17 before Carolina pulled away. Bryant also made a stunning, one-handed TD grab in the fourth quarter to briefly pull the Bucs within one score with three minutes to play.
Bryant continues to shine in his first year as a Buccaneer after sitting out the 2007 NFL season. His night was easily one of the best any Tampa Bay receiver has every enjoyed. Bryant's 200 yards on nine catches marked the second-highest total in team history, and only the second 200-yard game for a Buccaneer ever. WR Mark Carrier had 212 yards at New Orleans on December 6, 1987. Bryant became the first Buccaneer to score two TDs in a game this season, catching scoring passes of 50 and 16 yards.
The game appeared to be a low-scoring slugfest for a half. Carolina's Jonathan Stewart scored just inside the two-minute warning in the second quarter to make it 10-3. Both offenses awoke in the second half, as the Bucs and Panthers traded touchdowns for four straight possessions. Bryant's 50-yard TD catch tied the game at 10-10, and his 39-yard grab later in the period set up a Cadillac Williams touchdown that knotted it again at 17-17.
However, Stewart scored again on a four-yard run two minutes into the fourth period and the Bucs never managed to tie the game again. After Bryant's second TD, a failed onside kick attempt set up a three-play touchdown drive that finished the scoring.
Garcia had one of his better nights of the season, completing 24 of 38 passes for 321 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Surprisingly, the Bucs lost despite having a 2-0 edge in turnover ratio, as the Bucs' defense intercepted QB Jake Delhomme twice, once each by Ronde Barber and Jermaine Phillips.
Tampa Bay's rushing attack was adequate, with 86 yards on 24 carries split between Warrick Dunn (10-49) and Cadillac Williams (9-22) but it wasn't able to keep pace with the Panthers' attack. It was a better outing for Williams than his last trip to Bank of America Stadium, however. Williams scored on a four-yard run in the third quarter, reminiscent of his two-TD performance at Carolina in December of 2005, which sparked a 20-10 Buc victory that was key in the NFC South chase. Last year, Williams saw his season come to an end at Carolina with a very severe knee injury in Week Four.
The Bucs' defense had particular trouble getting off the field on third down. Coming into the game ranked fourth in the league in third-down defense, the Bucs allowed eight of 10 to be converted on Monday night. Most of those, of course, came on the ground as Williams and Stewart repeatedly broke through tackle attempts by Buccaneer defenders.
The Bucs' opening drive failed quickly thanks to the night's first breakdown in protection. DE Tyler Brayton's second-down sack of Garcia cost the Bucs' offense seven yards and led to a three-and-out. Worse Josh Bidwell's first punt went just 38 yards on a line, leading to Carolina's first drive starting in Tampa Bay territory.
The Panthers actually opened the game in a "Wildcat" formation, but a direct-snap to Williams led to a run for no gain. Two plays later, on third-and-six, Delhomme escaped a near-sack and zipped a pass through coverage to Muhsin Muhammad for a gain of 12. Muhammad caught the next pass, too, on a deep square-in for a gain of 19 o the Bucs' 11. Kevin Carter got the Bucs' only sack two plays later back at the Bucs' 16, setting up a third-and-15. Delhomme's third-down pass to TE Jeff King was behind the receiver and the Panthers settled for Kasay's 34-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead six minutes into the game.
The Bucs followed with a methodical drive that reached into Carolina territory on Williams' six-yard catch on second-and-eight. On third-and-two from the Carolina 43, Garcia escaped pressure up the middle from DE Charles Johnson and scrambled around right end for a first down at the 42. A huge push by the O-line helped Dunn gain nine yards on second-and-10, setting up a critical third-and-one at the Carolina 33. An underneath handoff to FB B.J. Askew got the job done and Williams got five yards to the 25 on the ensuing first down.
Unfortunately, a tripping penalty helped put the Bucs in a tough third-and-12 hole, and while a quick slant to Bryant wasn't enough to move the sticks it did set up a 40-yard field goal try for Matt Bryant. The try missed, however, as Bryant's shot hit the left upright and bounced out.
The Panthers got to start at their own 30 after the miss and quickly got a first down on an eight-yard third-down catch by WR Steve Smith, who finished the game with 117 yards and a touchdown on nine catches, his sixth 100-yard game against Tampa Bay. Delhomme converted the next third down with a quick slant to WR Dwayne Jarrett, but in short order faced a third-and-12 at the Bucs' 44. Delhomme unsurprisingly went to Smith and the receiver delivered, catching a 16-yard out and tapping his toes at the sideline for a first down at the Bucs' 28. The Bucs used a replay challenge on the play but the call was correctly upheld.
Fortunately, Barber found a way to end the drive anyway, cutting in front of TE Dante Rosario for an interception along the left sideline at the Bucs' 23. The Panthers challenged that play, but replays showed Barber getting his left knee inbounds after securing the football.
A run and a catch by Dunn set up a third-and-one at the 32 and the Askew dive worked again for a first down at the 35, but two incompletions later it was third-and-10. Garcia went to "Third-and-Ike," unsurprisingly, firing a low pass over the middle that Ike Hilliard plucked for a gain of 12 to the 47. Two plays later, Bryant got open behind the defense on the left sideline thanks to Garcia's pump to Hilliard and he hauled in a 52-yard catch down to the Carolina two.
The Bucs used their last timeout of the half to set up the first-down call and Garcia tried to find Smith in the back of the end zone. The pass was a little in front of the tight end and he couldn't quite haul it in. After a run for one yard by Williams, Garcia scrambled around for a long time on third-and-goal but LB Thomas Davis made an outstanding play to knock Garcia's pass away from TE Jerramy Stevens. The Bucs settled for a game-tying 20-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.
Moments later, Williams broke off a 40-yard run down to the Bucs' 21. Two runs by Stewart made it third-and-two at the 13 and Williams escaped a tackle in the backfield by Brooks to surge over the line for a first down at the Bucs' nine. A quick pass to Smith gained seven to the two and, after the two-minute warning, Stewart ran in over right guard for the go-ahead score.
The Panthers started the second half deep in their own zone thanks to a penalty on the opening kickoff. Three runs up the middle by Williams produced 11 yards and a first down. Sims batted away Delhomme's pass on the ensuing first down but Stewart blasted up the middle for a gain of 28 on the very next play. Phillips' interception followed two plays later, as he cut inside Stewart and made a remarkable juggling pick. Phillips popped the ball back up as he hit the ground, then rolled over and caught it while lying on his back.
The Buccaneers took over at the Carolina 49 and needed just two plays to capitalize. After a one-yard loss by Dunn, Bryant again got deep behind the Carolina defense and Garcia hit him for a 50-yard touchdown. It wasn't quite as easy as it sounds, as Bryant came back for the ball, caught it over a Panther defender and then danced around another Carolina man to sneak in by the left pylon. That tied the game at 10-10 with 11:23 left in the third quarter.
The Panthers went to a short passing attack on the ensuing drive and got to Tampa Bay's 45 on catches of 12 yards by Muhammad and 11 by Smith. Delhomme then went up top and found Smith for a 38-yard touchdown that re-established the Panthers' seven-point lead with 8:19 left in the third period.
The Bucs started again at their own 31 and got a first down on a three-yard catch and seven-yard run by Dunn. Three plays later, a catch by Stevens on third-and-five left the ball a few inches short of a first down, but the Bucs went for it on fourth down and once again ran the Askew belly play to perfection. On the next snap, Garcia once again went deep to Bryant and it worked again, this time with the receiver leaping in front of CB Chris Gamble to pull it in. Two snaps later, Williams found a seam over right guard and ran in for a four-yard touchdown to tie the game with 3:37 left in the third quarter.
Not to be outdone, the Panthers came firing right back. Williams' seven-yard run put the ball just over midfield, and Stewart's 18-yard jaunt took it to the 30. Smith's 11-yard catch brought on the end of the third quarter.
On the ensuing drive, rookie RB Clifton Smith dropped a second-down pass, setting up third-and-four at the Bucs' 34. Garcia converted that with a nine-yard pass to Stevens. Unfortunately, a sack by Peppers on third-and-eight forced the Bucs to punt from their own 43. Bidwell's punt sailed into the end zone and a holding penalty on the Panthers put the ball at the 10.
That field position did the Bucs no good as Williams promptly burst over right tackle for a 41-yard gain to the Bucs' 49. On the very next play, Stewart broke free for a gain of 30. Williams ended the drive on the very next play with a 16-yard TD jaunt around left end.
Down by two touchdowns, the Bucs got to midfield on a 15-yard catch by Michael Clayton but soon faced a third-and-10. Garcia was sacked by Damione Lewis and the Bucs had to punt.
Tampa Bay's defense did force its first punt of the night two minutes later, but a penalty on the return pushed the Bucs all the way back to their own 18. A 14-yard catch by Bryant converted a third-and-10 and Alex Smith's 20-yard grab got the ball down to the Carolina 36. On the ninth play of the drive, Bryant added to his incredible night with a 15-yard touchdown catch that has to rank among the most amazing grabs of the season. Bryant dived to his left and made a one-handed grab as he was fully extended over the turf to score his second TD of the night.
With two-and-a-half minutes left in the game, the Bucs tried an onside kick. M. Bryant blasted a low kick off one Panther in the front line who tried to get out of the way, but the ball deflected right to LB Jon Beason on his left.
The Bucs essentially had to have a three-and-out, and they didn't get it. On third-and-four, Williams took a pitch to the right and once again broke into the clear for a 36-yard touchdown that put the game away.
S Dante Wesley intercepted a Garcia pass moments later and the Panthers were able to kneel twice to run out the clock.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers wore their white jersey/white pants combination for the fourth time this season, and the first time on the road. They are now 3-1 in that combo, having previously beaten Atlanta, Green Bay and Carolina at home dressed thusly. … With Monday night's loss, the Buccaneers are now 15-21 all-time in games played in prime time. They are 9-9 in Monday night games (including a Saturday night game in 2001 that was considered part of the Monday Night Football series. … The Bucs are now 6-10 all-time against the Panthers, including 4-5 in road games. The two teams have split their series for the second straight year. … The Bucs had been 6-1 coming into Monday night's game when their opponents scored first. That trend failed against the Panthers … WR Antonio Bryant's 52-yard catch in the second quarter was the Buccaneers' longest completion of the season. The previous long was a 47-yard touchdown catch by Bryant against Seattle on October 19. Bryant later added a 50-yarder. … The temperature at Bank of America Stadium at kickoff was 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That marked the first time the Bucs have played a game under 40 degrees since December 17, 2005, a 28-0 loss at New England. … WR Antonio Bryant finished the game with 200 yards on nine receptions. That marks his fourth 100-yard game of the season the 11th of his career. … Bryant's yardage total set a new career high, surpassing the 170 he had against Washington on December 29, 2002 as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
Inactives: The Buccaneers named the following eight players inactive before Sunday's game: QB Josh Johnson, WR Dexter Jackson, RB Noah Herron, S Donte Nicholson, LB Matt McCoy, DT Jovan Haye, T James Lee and designated third quarterback Josh Johnson. Haye was out due to injury.
The Panthers named the following eight players inactive: WR D.J. Hackett, S C.J. Wilson, LB Adam Seward, G Mackenzy Bernadeu, DE Hilee Taylor, G Jeremy Bridges, WR Kenneth Moore and designated third quarterback Matt Moore. Seward and Taylor were out due to injuries.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, G Jeremy Zuttah suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter but did return. DT Chris Hovan sustained a knee injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.
The Panthers did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.