The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traveled a long way to play their third official home game of 2019. The Carolina Panthers, however, went as far as a team can go to score the key touchdown in a game that kept the Buccaneers winless at "home."
Carolina defeated Tampa Bay, 37-26, at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on Sunday, setting the Buccaneers up for a long 4,400-mile flight home, with a bye week awaiting. The loss was the second in a row for the Bucs, dropping their overall record to 2-4 and making them 0-3 at home, including games actually played at Raymond James Stadium against San Francisco and the New York Giants. The Panthers are 4-2 and are undefeated since a loss to Tampa Bay in Charlotte in Week Two, all with reserve quarterback Kyle Allen playing in place of an injured Cam Newton.
The Buccaneers also fell to 0-3 in NFL International Series games, having lost two previous games at London's Wembley Stadium in 2009 and 2011.
Allen directed a 99-yard drive in the first quarter that ended in Christian McCaffrey's one-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal, giving Carolina a 10-0 lead. It was just the second 99-yard drive surrendered by the Buccaneers since 1999, to which such statistics are available. The Panthers never trailed, and at one point built a 24-point lead in the second half because the Buccaneers repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with seven turnovers, six by QB Jameis Winston.
"It was big, it was big – but not as big as the turnovers, to let them out of there but also let them go down and score was a huge part of the game," said Arians. "But the turnovers were the lopsided part of the game. That's what drives the winner of the game."
Winston rarely had long to survey the field and was forced into six turnovers - five interceptions and a lost fumble. Playing behind an offensive line with replacements at right tackle and right guard, Winston was sacked seven times – two causing fumbles – and hit 10 times. With Demar Dotson and Alex Cappa out with hamstring and forearm injuries, respectively, Tampa Bay had Josh Wells at right tackle and Earl Watford at right guard, both making their first starts as Buccaneers. Winston still threw for 400 yards but most of that was while chasing a big deficit. Arians said the quarterback's decision-making had a lot to do with the half-dozen giveaways.
"Throw the damn ball away," said Arians. "He avoided one; he might have avoided two. You ain't throwing it anywhere – throw it away. He has a habit of trying to be Superman and that's been a problem in the past. The fumbles haven't occurred this year until today, but again, [it's] trying to make something out of nothing and it's just a matter of knowing when to quit on a play.
"I see the preparation, I see what he's trying to do. The fumbles, we have to get rid of those; we have to start throwing balls away. And we don't need to take those sacks, you don't take those hits either."
Backup QB Ryan Griffin threw a few passes on the sideline without a helmet on after Winston's third interception but Arians said he never considered pulling his starter.
"No, no," said Arians simply to that question.
Winston took responsibility for the game's outcome.
"I've just got to protect the football for us to win the game," he said. "This is all on me. Everyone else played good but me."
When he did have time to throw, or when he created time by escaping the pocket, Winston had success finding his talented receiving duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Godwin posted his third consecutive 100-yard game and his fourth of the season, with 10 grabs for 151 yards and Evans added 96 yards on nine catches.
"He's just a workaholic," said Winston of the red-hot Godwin. "He does his job and he comes to play football every day.
Winston also threw a touchdown pass to TE Cam Brate, but the turnovers were too much to overcome.
"You're never going to win a game if you turn the ball over six times [on offense]," said Brate. "We couldn't get anything going. As soon as we started to get something going we'd turn it over. It's just a super-frustrating day all around.
For the second time in as many games, Tampa Bay's defense kept RB Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers' NFL MVP candidate, well below his usual yardage totals. McCaffrey ran 22 times for just 31 yards and caught four passes for another 26, for a total of 57 yards from scrimmage. The only game in which McCaffrey totaled less was the Bucs' Week Two win at Carolina, in which he was held to 53 yards from scrimmage. The difference, of course, was in the end zone; McCaffrey got their twice – on the aforementioned one-yard run and a 25-yard screen pass – after being held without a score in the first game.
"I think we understand what they want to do against us," said DL Ndamukong Suh. "We watch a lot of film. Our defensive line coach is great at letting us know different keys for us to understand what they want to do. I think we executed for the most part. We have to find ways to get after the quarterback as well.
Obviously, the 25-yard score on a short pass in the second quarter, on which McCaffrey caught the ball with at least 20 yards in front of him with no defenders, was an exception.
"We totally busted the coverage," said Arians. "Devin [White] lets McCaffrey go, of all people. Again, that's one of those young mistakes. We made some young mistakes today. We have young players who are going to have precocious careers, but they're making some mistakes right now that are hurting us.
The Bucs did not stop Allen, however, as he completed 20 of 32 passes for 327 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked just twice and not hurried anywhere near as often as Winston was.
"The young guy's playing well," said Suh. "He's making throws to the open guys. Defensively, we've got to find ways to stop him. We've got to get after him, pressure him more."
The Bucs struggles were encapsulated by a bizarre Special teams sequence just before halftime when the Bucs' punting team committed three straight false starts to move the line of scrimmage from their 26 back to the 11. When the resulting punt by Bradley Pinion was short and fair caught at the midfield stripe the result was one of the rarest plays in NFL football – a fair-catch free kick. Panthers K Joey Slye was allowed to try a 60-yard field goal from what is essentially a kickoff formation, but he missed just to the right.
Special teams woes also hamstrung the Buccaneers' attempts to come back from a 24-point deficit in the fourth quarter. After Winston's 10-yard touchdown pass to Cam Brate made it 34-18, the Buccaneers' defense generated two straight quick stops but punt returner Bobo Wilson muffed a fair of punts in a row, the second one recovered by the Panthers at Tampa Bay's 12-yard line with 10 minutes to play. The Panthers turned that into three points and made it a three-score game again with eight minutes to play.
"The punt drops was huge in the game," said Arians. "We were fighting back, down two scores in the game at that point in time and had it going pretty good. Just catch the damn ball. It's not that hard."
The game could hardly have started worse for the Buccaneers, who won the toss and elected to be on offense first, only to have their possession last all of one play. Winston tried to zip a pass to Evans on a curl between defenders and Bradberry got to it first for an interception at the Bucs' 31. However, that offered a golden opportunity for the Bucs' defense to stand strong, and it did. One run and one catch by McCaffrey resulted in negative-three yards and the Panthers settled for Joey Slye's 49-yard field goal just under two minutes into the game.
An exchange of three punts didn't net the Buccaneers any points but it did pin the Panthers at their own one-yard line midway through the first quarter. At that point, the Carolina offense had generated negative-three yards of offense. That changed in a big way on the ensuing drive, which covered the maximum possible distance of an NFL possession, going 99 yards on 12 plays for the game's first touchdown. The last yard was the hardest one to get, as the Bucs' defense stopped Allen on a third-and-goal sneak before McCaffrey just got the ball across the line on a fourth-and-goal power run over right guard. A 15-yard facemask penalty on Shaq Barrett helped the Panthers get into Bucs territory, and Allen found D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel for gains of 23 and 21 yards to get to first-and-goal.
The Bucs got their first scoring opportunity early in the second quarter when Minter recovered the McCloud fumble caused by Smith, who had ran past McCloud but then recovered to hit him from behind. A screen pass to TE O.J. Howard worked to perfection for 30 yards down to the Panthers' five. On first-and-goal, Jones took a handoff up the middle, slid out to the right and then put a double-move on S Eric Reid to get by him and into the end zone.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 6 matchup against Carolina.
The Panthers got their 10-point lead back by midway through the second quarter thanks to the Bucs' second turnover. LB/DE Bruce Irvin shot around right tackle and hit Winston's arm as he was delivering a pass in Howard's direction. The resulting floater was intercepted by a diving Javien Elliott at the Bucs' 36-yard line and four plays later McCaffrey took a screen pass to the left and weaved through the defense for a 25-yard score.
The Buccaneers took the ensuing drive down to the Panthers' 12-yard line but then lost it on a Winston fumble caused by Vernon Butler and recovered by Irvin. Butler actually stripped Winston of the football on two consecutive plays but the first fumble was recovered by the Buccaneers.
Carolina extended its lead to 13 points on a 46-yard field goal by Joey Slye midway through the second quarter, a kick set up by Allen's 30-yard strike to Samuel. Moments later, Winston was intercepted by Kuechly on yet another play on which he was hit as he threw. Kuechly returned the pick 25 yards to the Buccaneers' eight-yard line and Samuel scored on the next play on an end around.
The Bucs got their first points of the second half on a 54-yard field goal by rookie kicker Matt Gay with five minutes left in the third quarter. Scotty Miller's first career reception – only secured by a successful review challenge by Arians – got the drive started with a 19-yard gain. The Panthers topped that on the next possession, driving 75 yards on 10 plays, the last one a dazzling 13-yard touchdown catch by Samuel on a fade-stop for a 34-10 lead five seconds into the final period.
With time running out, Winston acted fast on the next possession, completing four of six passes for 60 yards on a matching 75-yard touchdown drive, the last one a strike to Brate in the back middle of the end zone. The Bucs went for two and got it when Evans made a diving catch of a pass that had been tipped by Butler. It was the fourth two-point conversion score of Evans' career, the most in team history.
Tampa Bay's defense got off the field on three plays on each of the next two possessions to give the offense a chance, but Wilson's second fumble ended up in the hands of Panthers' RB Jordan Scarlett at the Bucs' 17. The defense was strong again but the Panthers still netted three more points and made it a three-score game on Slye's 29-yarder with eight minutes left.
The Buccaneers trimmed it back to an 11-point lead with another 75-yard drive, this one ending in Dare Ogunbowale's three-yard touchdown run on third-and-one. Winston converted a fourth-and-one on the drive to keep it alive by throwing a quick five-yard pass to Evans. Brate had the big gain, breaking free on a pass over the middle to gain 37 yards into Carolina territory.