Cam Newton ran for three touchdowns and added a scoring pass to lead the visiting Carolina Panthers to a 38-19 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Josh Freeman, who made his first career start two seasons ago in the Buccaneers' inaugural Throwback Game, sat out due to a right shoulder injury. That put fourth-year passer Josh Johnson under center for the 2011 Throwback Game, but the Bucs were unable to duplicate the results from Freeman's debut, when they upset the Green Bay Packers, 38-28.
Johnson completed 16 of 27 passes for 229 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He was reasonably sharp in his first start in 26 months, particularly on downfield throws, and also ran for a team-high 45 yards. Johnson's passer rating of 83.7 would have been even better if not for an unlucky interception when his arm was hit on an apparent busted play. Thus, it would be difficult to pin the afternoon's struggles on the fourth-year passer, despite his inexperience. Instead, the Bucs were plagued by some common problems in 2011: rush defense, penalties, red zone inefficiency and an inability to get off the field on third down.
Some of that, of course, was attributable to the Panthers' impressive rookie quarterback, who took the NFL lead with his 11th, 12th and 13th rushing touchdowns of the season. Newton was particularly strong on third down, rushing for several conversions and overall moving the chains on six of 11 tries. That kept long drives alive and the Panthers finished the day with 385 yards of total offense. Newton was occasionally erratic on his throws but finished with 204 yards on 12-of-21 passing, including a 19-yard touchdown pass to WR Legedu Naanee in the second quarter. Newton even caught a 27-yard pass from Naanee on a trick play to set up Jonathan Stewart's one-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Overall, Carolina ran for 163 yards and four touchdowns and averaged 4.2 per carry, with Stewart gaining 80 yards on 14 totes. The Bucs' defense was erratic against the run, racking up seven tackles for loss but also allowing seven runs of more than 10 yards. Meanwhile, the Bucs were penalized nine times for 73 yards, as compared to two flags for 20 yards for the Panthers.
As for the Bucs' red zone problems, the main issue on Sunday was that they could barely get into that part of the field. Tampa Bay drove into Carolina territory four straight times in the first half but came away with a field goal each time. The team took all four of its second half drives into the Panthers' half of the field, and did finally get to the end zone on Johnson's 23-yard touchdown pass to WR Dezmon Briscoe in the fourth quarter. However, each of those eight drives finished at some point between the Carolina 22 and 44.
Fortunately for the Buccaneers, or at least their early hopes of staying in the game, kicker Connor Barth continued his magnificent season. Barth made field goals of 50, 47, 46 and 44 yards before halftime as Carolina built a 24-12 lead at the break. The Bucs also got good special teams work from Preston Parker (two punt returns for 42 yards), Sammie Stroughter (three kickoff returns for 79 yards) and punter Michael Koenen (one of two punts inside the 20 and five touchbacks on six kickoffs.
On defense, the Bucs' obvious standout was rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who was making just his second career start. Bowers finished with eight tackles, 1.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, two quarterback pressures and one pass defensed. Playing virtually every snap after an early-game injury to DE Tim Crowder, Bowers repeatedly invaded the Carolina backfield with quick moves. On one three-play drive for the Panthers, Bowers made three straight stops behind the line of scrimmage, including his first career sacks.
The Buccaneers inducted former Pro Bowl TE Jimmie Giles into their Ring of Honor at halftime, making him the third honoree after Hall of Fame DE Lee Roy Selmon and founding Head Coach John McKay. Giles, a prolific pass-catcher as a tight end before that was common, is the team's all-time leader in touchdown catches and made four trips to the all-star game. He was joined on the field during the ceremony by a large group of players from the Buccaneers 1981 playoff team.
Giles helped the Bucs to three playoff appearances and was described during the ceremony as a pillar during the team's first true era of success. The franchise also qualified for the postseason seven times between 1997 and 2007 – a second era of success that produced the team's first Super Bowl title in 2002 – but is currently looking to break a streak of three seasons without a playoff bid. After falling to 4-8 with its sixth straight loss, it looks unlikely that Tampa Bay will break that string in 2011.
Carolina's win also evened the two teams in the NFC South standings, as the Panthers improved to 4-8. The Bucs are still 2-2 in divisional play, with road games remaining against Carolina and Atlanta. Of course, divisional games tend to be a bit more heated, and this one got a little touchy in the second half. Buccaneers DT Brian Price incurred an unnecessary roughness penalty in the third quarter that broke out into a multi-player fight. Price did not play for the rest of the game, though he was not ejected. Minutes later, Carolina LB Kion Wilson drew his own personal foul call on a Buccaneers kickoff return.
The Panthers' offense took control early thanks to a ground game the Bucs couldn't contain. Stewart had runs of 19 and 31 yards and Newton finished the 83-yard march himself with a one-yard leap over the middle. The only completion on the drive was a 21-yard catch by TE Greg Olson.
The game started in an equally difficult manner for the Buccaneers' offense, as Tampa Bay's first drive lost 15 yards in three plays. A loss of three on a first-down run by LeGarrette Blount was compounded by a 12-yard sack on third down when Johnson slipped to the ground while trying to scramble. That forced Koenen to punt out of his own end zone, and return man Armanti Edwards got it back to the Bucs' 43.
The Panthers kept their foot on the pedal, marching 43 yards on eight plays to double their score 10 minutes into the game. Carolina went for it on fourth-and-two at the Bucs' 35 and Newton converted with a play-action bootleg run around left end. On the next play, the Panthers ran a trick play with Newton throwing backwards to Naanee, who then threw it back to Newton for what would prove to be a 27-yard gain down to the two. The Bucs got two stops on the goal line but a defensive holding call on LB Quincy Black made it first-and-goal and Stewart scored over left guard on the next play.
The Bucs countered with their first scoring drive, though they had to settle for three points after stalling in Carolina territory. The drive's big play was a 38-yard completion to Benn in which apparent blown coverage left the receiver wide open down the left sideline. Benn also caught a six-yard pass on third-and-15 to give the Bucs just enough room to try Barth on a 50-yard field goal. He nailed it to make it 14-3 with less than two minutes left in the opening quarter.
Following a touchback by Koenen, Bowers keyed a resurgence by the Tampa Bay defense with three straight plays behind the line of scrimmage. His stop of Stewart for a loss of two was followed by a sack he split with Clayborn and his own sack on third down, resulting in fourth-and-21 and a punt on the first play of the second quarter.
The Bucs got the ball back in great field position and got one first down to get into field goal range, but an attempted end-around by Benn on third-and-two at the 17 went awry, losing 12 yards and forcing Barth to try a 47-yarder. He was true once again, making it 14-6 early in the second quarter.
The Bucs' momentum was snipped on the next possession, however, as Carolina went 80 yards on eight plays to make it 21-6. Newton scrambled for 22 yards on one third-and-eight play in Bucs territory, then converted a second third-and-eight with an impressive touchdown pass to Naanee. Naanee ran a seam route into the end zone and Newton hit him between Jones and CB E.J. Biggers just as he crossed the goal line.
The Bucs followed with their third score of the game but once again it was only three points. Johnson's perfect deep pass to Williams on a post-corner picked up 42 yards to put the ball into field goal range, but the drive stalled again around the Carolina 30 and it was up to Barth to tack on another field goal, this one a 46-yarder.
A near-sack by DT Brian Price helped fashion a three-and-out on the next Carolina possession and the Bucs got the ball back near midfield. Johnson's 14-yard scramble on third-and-eight got the ball into scoring territory but once again the drive failed to reach the red zone and the home team had to settle for three points. Barth remained perfect with a 44-yarder to make it 21-12.
There was still a minute left on the clock, however, and Newton used it to drive the Panthers into position to get those three points back. A 31-yard strike on a scramble to WR Brandon LaFell got the Panthers down to the Bucs' 25 with three seconds left and Olindo Mare finished the half with a 43-yard field goal.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Sunday's game.)
Blount's first run of the second half was a power run over right guard that got six yards and made it third-and-two. Johnson converted this one by standing strong in the pocket and eventually six-yard pass to WR Preston Parker. On the next play, Johnson got the ball over midfield by rolling right and throwing on the run to Williams, a dart that got 20 yards to the Carolina 46. Two plays later, Williams slid to the ground to catch a 14-yard pass at the 32. However, the drive ended on the game's turnover, and in rather unusual fashion. It appeared that all of the offensive players weren't on the same snap count, which resulted in a jail break on Johnson right after the shotgun snap. Johnson tried to get a throw off but his arm was hit and the resulting wobbler was easily intercepted by Keiser at the Carolina 39.
Two runs by Williams, the second on a direct-snap "Wildcat"-type play gained just enough for a new first down near midfield. On the next play, Clayborn hit Newton as he threw but the pass was still true down the middle of the field to LaFell for a gain of 28. Newton kept it on an option play on the next snap and weaved all the way down to the Bucs' three. Newton then ran it two more times, the second one good for the touchdown that put Carolina up, 31-12.
A penalty on the ensuing kickoff forced the Bucs to start at their own 11, and Blount powered for four yards on first down. Johnson had little time to throw on third-and-five but still managed to get off a downfield pass to Winslow, who absorbed a big hit to gain 18 yards. Johnson followed with an eight-yard scramble, then ran left on a designed run after a fake and got 12 more. A deep attempt to Benn was overthrown and a short pass to Winslow got just three to make it third-and-seven. Johnson bought enough time on third down to find Williams down the right seam but his pass was a little too high to haul in. Michael Koenen's punt was fair caught at the Carolina nine.
After gaining one first down on a trio of runs, the Panthers threw incomplete from their own 20 but still got 15 yards when DT Brian Price was flagged for unnecessary roughness after the play. The two teams switched sides for the fourth quarter, then Newton threw deep in Smith's direction. CB Ronde Barber stumbled but caught up to break up the pass. CB Anthony Gaitor broke up a slant pass intended for TE Greg Olsen on third down but was flagged for pass interference. Bowers broke through to drop Williams in the backfield for a loss of four on first down and Biggers had great coverage on a second-down throw to Naanee downfield. However, Newton found Naanee for 19 yards on third-and-14 to move the ball into Bucs territory. Three plays later, Newton found Smith cutting from left to right and hit him for a gain of 23 to the Bucs' eight. Two plays later, Newton ran it in for his third score, a one-yarder over left guard.
A personal foul on Kion Wilson on the kickoff allowed the Bucs to start at their own 35, and an impressive scrambling pass to Parker on the sideline got the ball into Carolina territory. After an eight-yard square-in to Williams converted a third-and-eight and put the ball at the Carolina 23, Johnson finally got the Bucs in the end zone with a 23-yard touchdown pass to Briscoe.
The Panthers were content to run the ball and drain the clock, and the Bucs stopped them in three down despite donating five yards on an encroachment call. Parker turned that into great field position by getting 34 yards on the return that followed a 37-yard punt. From the Carolina 29, Johnson hit Williams on a short pass, with the receiver spinning and fighting out of several tackles to get nine yards. However, an incompletion and a Madu draw play that lost a yard left the Bucs in a fourth-and-three and they chose to go for it. Johnson started to scramble but unfortunately spun right into DE Charles Johnson, who was prone on the field, resulting in a 10-yard sack.
The Panthers took over on downs and picked up one first down, which was enough to run out the clock.
Game Notes: The Panthers now lead the all-time series with the Buccaneers, 13-9, including a 12-7 mark since the two teams joined the NFC South in 2002. The win snapped Tampa Bay's two-game winning streak in the series. … CB Ronde Barber played in his 220th consecutive game on Sunday, dating back to the opening game of 1998. … K Connor Barth hit on four of four field goal attempts in the game, tying a career high for successful kicks in a game. He hit on shots of 44, 46, 47 and 50 yards in the first two quarters, becoming just the second kicker in the last 10 years to have four field goals of 40 or more yards in a single half. Tennessee's Rob Bironas achieved the same feat in a game in 2008. Barth is now 24 of 26 on field goal attempts this season. … Rookie RB Mossis Madu saw his first extensive action on offense in Sunday's game. He ran eight times for 25 yards. … WR Preston Parker turned in the longest punt return of the season for the Buccaneers, a 34-yarder in the fourth quarter.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: QB Josh Freeman, CB Myron Lewis, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, DE Michael Bennett, G Derek Hardman, T James Lee and WR Michael Spurlock. Freeman and Bennett were out due to injury.
The Panthers declared these seven inactives: QB Jimmy Clausen, CB Brandon Hogan, LB Jason Phillips, LB Omar Gaither, G Bryant Browning, WR Kealoha Pilares and WR Darvin Adams. Phillips, Gaither and Pilares were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, CB Aqib Talib sustained a hamstring injury on the game's opening drive and did not return. DE Tim Crowder sustained a head injury in the first quarter and did not return.
For the Panthers, guard Travelle Wharton suffered a back injury in the third quarter and did not return. In addition, starting nose tackle Sione Fua, while not inactive, was ruled out of the game shortly before kickoff due to a hamstring injury sustained during warm-ups.