It's a cliché as old as the NFL and its 100 seasons to say that it is a game of inches. And it's never been more true than Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held on for a 20-14 win over the Carolina Panthers.
The win evened the Buccaneers' record at 1-1 in 2019 and gave them a critical road division victory, not to mention their first "W" under Head Coach Bruce Arians. It wasn't secured until CB Vernon Hargreaves reacted to a direct-snap trick play to Christian McCaffrey in time to drive the Panthers running back out of bounds at the Buccaneers' two-yard line with 1:22 left in regulation.
McCaffrey could have won the game with a touchdown or prolonged it with a first down – and he had fewer yards to get after the Bucs were flagged for calling two consecutive timeouts – but Tampa Bay's tenacious, new-look defense held strong to the very end.
"That's two weeks in a row we did a great job of not giving up touchdowns and defending every blade of grass," said Arians. "That's what we talk about all the time: It's not over 'til it's over.
"It was a great tackle by Vernon just to drive and keep a great running back out of the end zone, let alone get a first down. It was a great play by Vernon."
The Buccaneers held Cam Newton and the Panthers without a touchdown, allowed only three third-down conversions in 14 tries, turned back three fourth-down attempts and allowed no touchdowns in three red-zone incursions. OLB Shaq Barrett led the charge with three sacks of Newton and four quarterback hits
"I just found a groove late in the second quarter and I just kept it going in the third quarter and the fourth quarter," said Barrett. "Shoot, I just found it."
The Bucs won their first Thursday night game since a 2012 victory at Minnesota. Tampa Bay's defense under new coordinator Todd Bowles had allowed just one offensive touchdown in Week One but didn't come up with the clinching play in a lost to San Francisco.
"It's real big," said Barrett. "We know we played good enough to win last week but we needed to do more. Now this week we tried to do more and step up and help out as much as we can. The offense did their job, they gave us some points and we just worked with them and got the win."
The game of inches didn't just come down to the Panthers' final play. Carolina's Joey Slye made all four of his field goal attempts, including a 51-yarder in the third quarter that gave Carolina a 12-10 lead after it struck the right upright and just slid through. Later, Buccaneers rookie kicker Matt Gay missed for the first time in the regular season, pushing a 42-yarder just outside the right upright.
The Buccaneers had a 17-12 lead in the third quarter after RB Peyton Barber ran up the middle for a 16-yard touchdown. However, Barber was tackled in the end zone two minutes into the final period for a safety to make it a three-point game. The third-year back turned the tables one more time by providing much of the yardage in a clock-killing field goal drive that forced the Panthers to try for a touchdown in the game's final two minutes.
Barber finished with 23 carries for 82 yards, a week after Ronald Jones had taken over the lead role in the backfield with a breakout game against the 49ers. The Buccaneers are confident in both of their backs and are happy to stick with the one that is getting the job done on any given game day.
"I'm going to ride the hot hand," said Arians. "RoJo had a nice run and kind of came out limping, said he was okay. Peyton had the hot hand, just breaking tackles, moving the chains. He had a lot of really good four or five runs in the whole game. And that sets up the play-action. That gave us the easy touchdown pass to Chris [Godwin] because we're pounding the ball in there."
Quarterback Jameis Winston controlled an efficient passing attack, completing 16 of 25 passes for 208 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. His 20-yard scoring pass to Godwin in the second quarter gave the Bucs a 10-9 halftime lead and was part of an eight-catch, 121-yard effort by the third-year receiver.
"I thought [Winston] was outstanding," said Arians. "He had a hell of a week as far as mentally getting ready for this ballgame. I think that's the type of game he can play."
It was an eventful night for the Buccaneers' rookie class, not all of it good. First-round linebacker Devin White left early with a knee injury and third-round cornerback Jamel Dean joined him in the third quarter with a lower-leg ailment. Arians indicated after the game that neither injury was particularly serious. Fourth-round OLB Anthony Nelson created the only turnover of the game with a forced fumble against Newton with three minutes left in the third quarter. Though he did miss for the first time, Gay, a fifth-round pick, also was good from 40 and 32 yards and made both of his extra points.
Hargreaves final stop wasn't the only good work the Buccaneers did in defending McCaffrey, who opened his third season with a 209-yard, two-touchdown effort against the Rams in Week One. Repeatedly stuffing McCaffrey up the middle and not letting him get the edge, the Bucs held him to 37 yards on 16 carries and 16 yards on just two receptions in six targets. Carolina's best weapon was veteran tight end Greg Olsen, who had 110 yards on six grabs.
"I'm really proud of the way the defense played all night," said Arians. "I thought we handled McCaffrey extremely well. Olsen on the other hand gave us a problem, but I'd rather have him give us a problem then McCaffrey. I thought Todd had a great plan coming in and our guys played hard for 60 minutes. It wasn't perfect, but they played extremely hard for 60 minutes."
The result was a win that felt momentous for Arians' Buccaneers, even if it was just 12 days into the season.
"We always want to get that first one off your back," said the coach. "The guys have bought in, they're giving us everything. There was no panic on the sideline. Guys were convinced we were going to win the ballgame. It was huge. A road win in the division is always big."
The game was a defensive struggle for most of the first half, with the two teams combining to convert just three of 13 third-down tries. The Buccaneers had the only touchdown drive of the half, a five-play, 72-yard march started by Evans' 41-yard grab down the left sideline. Winston finished that drive with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Godwin with 1:20 left. That was enough time for Newton to counter with a 39-yard field goal drive to make it a one-point game at the intermission. Godwin had 79 yards on five grabs in the half but not much else worked on offense for the Buccaneers. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's aggressive defense held Newton to 14-of-26 passing and only gave up 36 yards from scrimmage to McCaffrey.
The Bucs got the ball first and started off well with a deep out to Godwin that picked up 22 when Godwin eluded one defender. However, Barber's first run lost four yards and the Bucs didn't recover, eventually punting from the 43. A good kick by Bradley Pinion and a muffed punt by Ray-Ray McCloud forced Carolina to start its first drive at its own 10.
The Panthers' offense got off to an even quicker start, with its first two plays producing first downs on a 12-yard slant to D.J. Moore and McCaffrey's sweep right for 10. The Panthers also converted a third-and-four with Newton's six-yard sideline pass to McCaffrey, but the drive stalled just over midfield. Will Gholston's tackle in the backfield for a loss of three helped produce a fourth-and-one at the Bucs' 47, and the Panthers tried to convert with a Newton option-keeper. S Jordan Whitehead reacted quickly enough to trip Newton up short of the sticks. The play was challenged by Carolina but upheld.
After that ruling, the two teams vacated the field due to approaching lightning. The game resumed after a delay of 27 minutes and the Bucs quickly got into scoring territory on Godwin's 22-yard grab over the middle with a defender hanging on him. The drive stalled after one more Barber run for six yards and the Bucs brought in rookie K Matt Gay to drill a 40-yard field goal for the game's first points.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, after a touchback, Newton went deep down the left sideline to Curtis Samuel for a gain of 44 to the Bucs' 31. The Bucs forced a third-and-four at the 25 and then brought a big blitz but Newton quickly slung it out to the right to WR Jarius Wright for a first down. The Bucs held there, however, with Whitehead providing great coverage on a third-down threw to TE Greg Olsen. Joey Slye tied the game with a 32-yard field goal.
The Bucs' next drive was hamstrung by a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty that turned a third-and-one into a third-and-six. A short out to Cam Brate on third down ended up missing by a yard and the Bucs punted with the final minute of the first quarter ticking down. A block-in-the-back penalty erased a long return by Bobo Wilson on the punt and the Bucs were forced to start at their own 22.
A pair of false starts by tackles Demar Dotson and Donovan Smith kept the Bucs' next drive from going anywhere and the Bucs punted from their own 18. McCloud fielded Pinion's booming 63-yarder cleanly and found a seam for a 39-yard return to the Bucs' 42. Carolina got to the 26 on a 16-yard catch by Olsen but Carlton Davis' impressive diving pass break-up on third down forced the Panthers to settle for Slye's 37-yarder with 8:26 left in the first half.
The Bucs got one first down on a nice catch of a low pass and then a seven-yard run by Barber. However, an offensive pass-interference call on O.J. Howard kept it from advancing much further. Pinion pinned the Panthers at their own seven with the resulting punt. Carolina got one first down to escape their goal line but was snuffed after that, punting it back with four minutes to go in the half.
That was enough time for Tampa Bay to put together the game's first touchdown drive. Winston started it right away with a deep pass down the left sideline to Evans, who made a great over-the-shoulder catch for 41 yards to the Panthers' 31. TE Cam Brate kept the drive alive with a tough catch in traffic on third down for a first down at Carolina's 20, and on the next play Godwin broke free down the left seam for a 20-yard touchdown on a sharp pass from Winston.
The Bucs had a 10-6 lead but the Panthers still had 1:20 to work with. Newton got his crew into Bucs territory with a collection of short passes, including a 12-yarder to Chris Hogan that took it to the 34. Tampa Bay's defense clamped down there but Carolina still got three points on a 54-yard field goal by Slye.
Carolina kicked it right into high gear to start the second half, with Newton hitting Olsen over the middle for a gain of 33. Whitehead had good coverage but just missed in his diving attempt to break up the pass. Shaq Barrett got a good jump on Newton's blindside on the next play and dropped him for an eight-yard sack, and two incompletions later, the Panthers had to punt. DT Vita Vea blew up the third-down play with a hit on Newton as he threw. Carolina's punt was fair caught at the Bucs' eight by Wilson.
After a false start penalty and a third-down incompletion, the Bucs actually punted back from their five, though a holding penalty helped push the ball back to Carolina's 38. Two plays later, however, Olsen got deep again behind a big Bucs' blitz and Winston found him for a 41-yard pick-up to the Bucs' 21. Barrett then came through with a pair of sacks on consecutive plays and the Panthers once again settled for a field goal, this one a 51-yarder by Slye that actually hit the right upright but then barely slid through for three points.
Two plays into the Bucs' next drive, Winston spun away from what looked like a sure sack and found time to hit Godwin for a 24-yard gain. After another deep shot to Brett Perriman was nearly intercepted by Luke Kuechly, former Buccaneer Gerald McCoy was hit with a personal-foul penalty to move the ball down to Carolina's 39-yard line. Ronald Jones then ripped off a 12-yard run and Winston made it first-and-10 at the 16 with a scramble to the right sideline. On the next play, Barber burst straight up the middle and darted all the way to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
LB Kevin Minter appeared to stop the next drive with the game's first turnover, but his interception was erased on a holding call against Carlton Davis, making it first down for the Panthers at their 41. That disappointment was itself erased moments later when Nelson forced a fumble by Newton that Ndamukong Suh recovered at the Panthers' 45.
The next snap was much like the Bucs' most recent offensive snap, as Barber once again found a seam up the middle and exploited it for 13 yards. A 10-yard out to Evans made it first-and-goal at the Panthers' 21, but the drive went sour after that. Breshad Perriman narrowly missed hauling in a third-down touchdown pass in the back of the end zone, and then Gay suffered his first miss of the regular season, a 42-yard field goal try that stayed just outside the right upright.
The Panthers took over at their own 32 after the miss and got to midfield right away on an 18-yard catch by D.J. Moore. However, the Bucs defense held after that, with Whitehead nearly intercepting a pass and drawing an offensive pass interference penalty on the critical down. Unfortunately, the Panthers were able to down the resulting put at the Bucs' three-yard line with 13:37 left in regulation.
That was a critical turn of events, as the Bucs were unable to get out of the shadow of their end zone and eventually couldn't even get out of the end zone. On a second-down run from the two, Barber was dropped for a safety by Kuechly. In addition to making it a three-point game, that score also meant the Bucs had to kick it back to the Panthers from their own 20. That led to a starting point of the Carolina 46 for the Panthers' next drive.
The Bucs snuffed that threat out quickly. Despite an encroachment penalty that gave Carolina five free yards, the Bucs made it fourth-and-one at the Tampa Bay 45 when Will Gholston and combined to stop McCaffrey on a third-and-one run. The Panthers went for it on fourth down but a quick pressure from Barrett led to Newton throwing errantly on a deep pass downfield to Samuel.
The Panthers got the ball back quickly thanks to a pair of sacks of Winston, pushing the ball back to the Bucs' 31. Pinion's punt rolled to a stop at the Carolina 21 with nine and a half minutes to play. CB Vernon Hargreaves broke up a deep pass on first down and the next two Newton throws were incomplete, leading to another punt that Wilson returned to the Bucs' 34.
The Bucs ran six and a half of the last nine minutes off the clock on a field goal drive to make it 20-14 with 2:26 to go. Barber started it with two runs for 15 yards and Winston kept it going with a third-and-nine conversion on a 14-yard sideline pass to Godwin. The Bucs got down to the 19 on a quick slant to Evans but that was the last first down of the drive. Gay concluded it with a 32-yard field goal.
The Panthers wasted no time getting to midfield, with Newton hitting Samuel for 24 yards on the first play of the drive. A four-yard catch by Moore on third-and-four made it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 41 as the two-minute warning arrived. A short pass to McCaffrey got 10 right after the break, and a facemask penalty on Davis after a catch by Samuel put the ball at the Bucs' 11 with 1:45 to go.