Ronald Jones II got redemption in the most thorough way imaginable and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers achieved a dramatic bounce-back of their own, beating the Carolina Panthers Sunday, 46-23, at Bank of America Stadium.
Jones' 98-yard touchdown run in the third quarter – the longest offensive play in the Buccaneers' 45-season franchise history – punctuated an incredible run of nine straight scoring drives for Tampa Bay, which improved to 7-3 with the victory. It was a key intra-division victory after the team's disheartening Sunday night loss to New Orleans in Week Nine.
"We can't look in the rear view mirror; we can only look straight ahead," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "All week we had great intensity in practice. We overcame [an] early fumble on offense. The first half I wasn't that pleased even though it was tied when we came in, but the second half I was really pleased with the way we played ball."
Depending upon the outcome of the 6-2 New Orleans Saints tilt against San Francisco in the late afternoon, the Bucs will either be in first place in the NFC South by a half-game or in second by a half-game. And depending upon what 6-2 Seattle does against the L.A. Rams, the Bucs will have at worst the fourth-best record in the conference, with Green Bay moving to 7-2 on Sunday. The Buccaneers have a head-to-head win over the Packers.
Bradley Pinion did not punt a single time in the game, just the fifth time the Buccaneers have ever gone an entire game without punting, and the first since 2000. Pinion's easy day came because the Bucs' offense only failed to score on two of 11 drives, including a kneel-down at the end of the game. The other non-scoring drive was the team's first of the day, which ended two plays in on a fumble by Jones.
That could have sent Jones to the bench but Arians stuck with him and was rewarded with a career-best 192 yards on 23 carries, tied for the fifth-highest individual total in team annals. As a team, the Bucs ran for a season-best 210 yards on 37 totes. This came one week after the Buccaneers set an all-time single-game low with just five runs in their loss to the Saints.
"Up in New York, [Jones] had a rough fumble on a ball that was on the ground," said Arians. "This one he was trying to get a little extra. And he went in the tank in New York and it really bothered him and he thought he really hurt the team. We told him, 'Hey, dude, you're our guy. I knew he was going to break one sooner or later. Blaine [Gabbert] and I looked at each other and Blaine said, 'He's going to take it to the house.' I said, 'Good chance on this play,' and he did."
Overall, Tampa Bay's offense rolled up a season-high 544 net yards, the third-highest single-game total in team history. Quarterback Tom Brady completed 28 of 39 passes for 341 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Buccaneers converted 10 of 16 third-down attempts against Carolina after behind held to one conversion in nine tries the previous week. Arians said the passing game got a boost from the Bucs' best rushing effort of the season.
"It was outstanding," said Arians of Brady's performance. "When they were blitzing, he threw out on his check-downs. Those quick throws to the outside are kind of audibles after the ball is snapped. He played really, really well. He knows he left a couple out there, too. … The wind was really tricky. Tom's as critical of himself as I am and he played fantastic."
Not only did the Buccaneers bounce back from the loss to New Orleans and a shaky first quarter, but they did all of that after mechanical difficulties with their plan led to a seven-hour delay in the trip to Charlotte on Saturday. The Buccaneers didn't get to their hotel until after midnight. The week also included changes to the team's schedule on Wednesday and Thursday to account for Tropical Storm Eta.
Arians and several Buccaneers players said the Bucs' efforts after all of that showed great tenacity in the face of adversity.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 10 matchup against Carolina.
Arians: "With the disruption of the storm on Tuesday, having to leave early on Wednesday, practice late on Thursday and then the plane…can't say enough about our guy's focus."
Jones: "That was probably one of the craziest weeks I've had since I've been in the league. Again, Coach [Arians] always says, 'The game is scheduled when it's scheduled; we've got to go out there and play. We're professionals so we've just got to bounce back, and we did today."
Brady: "It was a lot of mental toughness from the guys this week. B.A. just said from the beginning, 'There's no excuses.' We got delayed, he was frustrated by it, [we] got in at 11:30 and deal with the storm earlier in the week but we were just focused on coming out and doing a better job. We played better than we did last week, obviously."
Speaking of mental toughness, Tampa Bay has now followed each of its three losses this season with wins featuring double-digit scoring margins.
"It's a team sport, so the team has got to come together and understand the things that we need to improve," said Brady. "Football is tough; it's not a game of perfection. You've got a lot of talented players and a lot of talented coaches and you have to figure out ways to win. Every week's a little different, we've got different guys in there doing different things, and a lot of things have to go right."
The Buccaneers fell behind early thanks to their only turnover of the game, as the early fumble by Jones resulted in a seven-yard touchdown catch by TE Colin Thompson. However, the Bucs stormed back from 14-7 and 17-10 deficits to tie the game before halftime on Mike Evans' three-yard touchdown catch at the back of the end zone. The Bucs had the ball to start the second half and mounted a 69-yard field goal drive to take their first lead of the game, which they never relinquished. Carolina's only points of the second half, a three-yard Teddy Bridgewater run, came after a 98-yard kickoff return by Trenton Scott.
Evans' touchdown highlighted his 100th career game for the Buccaneers, and the fourth of his six catches was also the 500th of his career. His score was a remarkable fingertip grab on which he had to fight off a hand in his face and get his toes inbound to complete the play. It was a welcome bit of redemption for Evans, who was the target on a third-down pass into the end zone on the previous drive, one that was incomplete when he and Brady appeared not to be on the same page.
Overall, Brady spread the ball around quite a bit, with eight different Bucs catching at least one pass and six catching at least two. Chris Godwin, playing a second game with a splint on his hand due to a fractured finger, led the way with 92 yards on six grabs and Antonio Brown, in his second game as a Buccaneer, period, added 69 yards on seven grabs. Those three plus tight end Rob Gronkowski combined for 289 yards and two touchdowns, as Gronkowski capped the scoring with a seven-yard catch in the fourth quarter. Brady's first touchdown pass went to TE Cameron Brate.
"Yeah, and Gronk has the big, big play," said Arians of Gronkowski's 44-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter that set up a touchdown. "That play was huge. We made some big, long third-[down plays]. We had been struggling in [third-and]-nine-plus. We hit some big ones today. We've got to give the O-Line credit for production and guys got open. Yeah, that's what we're looking for and, again, we ran the ball really well. Those guys can still get their touches when we have a running game, too."
Brady enjoyed good protection most of the day, taking just one sack while playing behind a line that made some changes this week. With left guard sidelined for a second straight week by a concussion, the Bucs tried a new alignment, with veteran A.Q. Shipley stepping in at center and Ryan Jensen sliding over to guard. It proved to be a huge success, particularly with Shipley and Jensen providing key blocks on Jones' 98-yard run.
"They did a great job," said Brady. "A.Q.'s done a great job since he got to us. He was prepared to go. He's a tough, hard-nosed guy. Ryan did a great job of moving over to guard. Cap (Alex Cappa) hung in there; he always does. He's as tough as they come. Tristan [Wirfs] is doing an incredible job. And Donnie [Smith] is doing a great job. We're getting great protection, they're doing great in the run game, blocking hard, playing really aggressive up front. It was definitely great to see them play physical."
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's defense also struggled to get pressure on Bridgewater but then turned up the heat in the second half, finishing with three sacks (one of which was a bit of a technicality on a failed fake punt) and eight QB hits and only allowing 35 yards after halftime. Carolina picked up 108 yards on consecutive touchdown drives in the first quarter but finished the day with just 187 yards while converting one of nine third-down tries.
"We weren't communicating," said Arians of the Panthers' early success on offense. "It was the same problem we had [last week]. Todd [Bowles] got on them pretty good about communicating and we got on the same page. And then after that, we were pretty solid the rest of the ballgame. It was good to see them bounce back in that situation.
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul powered the defense with three tackles, an interception, a sack and two quarterback hits. His third-quarter interception led to a field goal and kept the third-quarter momentum shift going after the Bucs had gone up by nine. ILB Shaq Barrett also recorded a sack late in the fourth quarter and Lavonte David and Devin White tied for the team lead with six tackles each.
"Basically we just came out in the second half and said it was 0-0," said Pierre-Paul. "Let's go out here and compete like we can. That was basically it – we were just competing. As a defense, we weren't playing to our full ability until the second quarter. It's like we'll give them everything they have. It's frustrating because we're a better defense than what we showed today. We've just got to work on it."
The Buccaneers could have put the game out of reach a little earlier with better results in the red zone. Tampa Bay came into the game tied for fifth with a red zone touchdown percentage of 75.0% but found the end zone only four times in eight tries on Sunday. Fortunately, Succop was perfect on the day, making field goals of 40, 24, 23 and 21 yards and has now made 16 consecutive field goals since Week Four.
Still, they won going away and finished off their first season sweep of Carolina since 2016. That evened the Buccaneers record within the division at 2-2, with two games against Atlanta remaining in the last three weeks of the season. Tampa Bay returns home in Week 11 for a Monday Night Football showcase against the Los Angeles Rams.
Additional game details (scoring plays in bold):
The Panthers got the ball first after a touchback but failed to move the chains when ILB Lavonte David stopped WR Robby Anderson three-yards short on a third-and-five crossing route. WR Antonio Brown fair caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' 25. However, Carolina quickly got the ball back when Jones fumbled after a short catch on Tampa Bay's second offensive play. LB Shaq Thompson poked the ball loose and recovered it at the bottom of a scrum at the Bucs' 33.
Carolina turned that takeaway into seven points. The Bucs' defense quickly forced another third down when OLB Jason Pierre-Paul chased Bridgewater out of bounds on a scramble, but the Panthers chose to go for it on fourth-and-three. Bridgewater had time to throw and eventually found Anderson in the left flat for a gain of nine. Two runs got the drive to first-and-goal at the seven, and play action got Thompson wide open for a seven-yard touchdown pass on first down.
The Bucs' second drive started with Brady's 23-yard pass to Godwin on a deep in, with Jones giving Brady time with a key block. The Bucs took a deep shot on the next first down but the ball was well out of Antonio Brown's reach. Evans kept the drive with an over-the-shoulder sideline catch for 19 yards down to the Carolina 25. On third-and-seven moments later, Brady got a pass off under pressure and Godwin adjusted to make a 14-yard sideline catch around CB Corn Elder. That made it first-and-goal at the eight, and on third down Brady threw a dart to Brate who had to make a dazzling catch with his arms fully extended just over the goal line.
The Panthers got a quick first down on the next drive and then went up top, with D.J. Moore getting open by several steps down the left sideline and Bridgewater delivering the ball for a 38-yard gain. After a long break to tend to an injured Carlton Davis, the Panthers completed the quick drive with a very well-blocked receiver screen to Moore for a 24-yard touchdown.
The Bucs got one first down on a seven-yard Jones run and faced a third-and-one at their own 44 as the first quarter came to an end. The Bucs converted that to start the second period with Jones following a Godwin block to plunge for three yards. Three plays later it was third-and-one again and this time Fournette took a pitch around left end and got the edge, tiptoeing along the sideline for a gain of 14 to the Carolina 30. A seven-yard sideline catch by Brate and a roughing-the-passer penalty took it all the way down to Carolina's nine but it was third-and-goal at the five after two short gains. Brady tried to zip a touchdown pass in to Evans but the two were not on the same page and the pass was well out of reach. The Bucs settled for Ryan Succop's 23-yard field goal to make it 14-10 in Carolina's favor.
The Panthers took their next drive across midfield, getting a first down at the Bucs' 49 when Davis got around the right end for seven yards. ILB Kevin Minter appeared to make a big play for the Bucs' defense with an eight-yard sack as he came around left end untouched. However, he was flagged for roughing the passer when his helmet made contact with that of Bridgewater and the result was a first down at the Bucs' 28. CB Jamel Dean managed to break up a wheel route pass to Samuel on third-and-10, however, and the Panthers finished the drive with a 46-yard field goal by Joey Slye.
Brady and the Bucs had four minutes to work with before halftime. The drive got into trouble early with a false start but Brady moved up to avoid pressure on third-and-11 and found Godwin over the middle for a gain of 14 despite tight coverage. A 16-yard catch-and-run by Brown got the ball across midfield but an end-around by Brown was bottled up for a loss of three. After the two-minute warning, Brady went deep down the left sideline to Gronkowski, who snatched the ball over a defender, powered out of a tackle and rumbled down to the four. Two plays later, Brady waited for Evans to get open in the back of the end zone and hit him with a three-yard touchdown dart to tie the game with 27 seconds left in the half.
Tampa Bay got the ball to start the second half and quickly took it across midfield. Facing a third-and-one at the Bucs' 46, Brady threw a tunnel screen to Godwin out to the left and he used an Evans block to spring for a 31-yard gain down to the Panthers' 23. After a defensive holding call moved it to the 18, Jones bounced a first-down carry around left end and picked up 11 yards to make it first-and-goal at the seven. Two incompletions in Evans' direction and one-yard scramble by Brady led to a field goal attempt, which Succop hit from 24 yards to give Tampa Bay it's first lead of the game.
The Panthers took the next drive to midfield but had to punt after a big third-down blitz hurried Bridgewater into an underneath throw that Carlton Davis broke up and nearly intercepted. It was still a productive possession for the Panthers because P Joseph Charlton was able to bounce a 49-yard field goal down to the Bucs' two.
At least, that seemed like a good thing for Carolina, four about two seconds. Jones turned it around early, breaking through the line on a first-down carry and out into the open field beyond on all Carolina defenders. Rookie S Jeremy Chinn got close enough to dive for Jones' feet but didn't trip him up and Jones finished off the historic 98-yard touchdown run. The Buccaneers had the extra point attempt blocked, leaving the score at 26-17.
The Bucs' defense then pitched in with its first takeaway as Pierre-Paul dropped into coverage and intercepted Bridgewater's first-down pass at the Carolina 33. A holding call put the Bucs into a third-and-19 hole at the 42, but Brady found Brate on the sideline and the big tight end took off upfield, dived over two defenders and stretched the ball over the line for a first down. Brady then found Evans for a 22-yard gain down to the four, but the Bucs failed to punch it in from there. Succop came on to hit a 21-yard field goal to increase the Bucs' lead to 12 points with three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Bucs' defense followed with what would have been a three-and-out if the Panthers had chosen to punt. Instead, Carolina tried to get tricky and it backfired. Punter Joseph Charlton took the snap and then looked to pass but had to run when the Bucs covered his intended target. WR Justin Watson didn't allow him to get close to converting it and the Bucs took over at Carolina's 35-yard line.
A short pass over the middle to Godwin on third-and-nine put the Bucs into a fourth-and-three as the third quarter came to an end. Arians and Brady had time to discuss the situation during the break and chose to go for it on fourth down. It worked as Brady hit Evans on a crossing route for a gain of 14 down to the Panthers' 14. However, the drive then bogged down and after Brady took his first sack of the game, Succop came out again and hit a 41-yard field goal to improve the Bucs' lead to 32-17.
The Panthers came right back with a huge play on special teams as RB Trenton Cannon took the ensuing kickoff 98 yards all the way to the Bucs' four-yard line. Two plays later, Bridgewater scrambled up the middle and just stretched the ball over the goal line. The Panthers tried to make it a one-score game by going for two but Bridgewater was chased into an incompletion and the Bucs remained up by nine.
The Bucs got a first down to start the next drive on two power runs by Jones and a tough sideline catch by Brown. Three plays later, Brady threw a very similar route to Brown and the receiver was able to turn it up for a gain of 25 down to the 26-yard line. Jones followed with a 12-yard run into the red zone. Evans took a short pass, stiff-armed a defender and dived down to the one-yard line. Brady took matters into his own hands on the next play, rushing the offense up to the line and sneaking it over the line for a touchdown.
Carolina's next drive ended quickly and badly. On third-and-four, Pierre-Paul sacked Bridgewater for a loss of five, with the Panthers' quarterback then leaving due to an apparent injury. P.J. Walker came on to try to convert the fourth down but ILB Lavonte David stopped FB Alex Armah for a five-yard loss. That gave the Buccaneers the ball at the Carolina 21 and Jones ran it three straight times for 14 yards before Brady faked another handoff and tossed it over the top to Gronkowski for another touchdown from seven yards out.
Walker couldn't move the ball and the Panthers had to punt it away. The Buccaneers brought in Gabbert and went to work running out the last three minutes on the clock.