The turnover drought is officially over for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense.
The Buccaneers intercepted Cam Newton four times in a hard-fought 24-17 victory in Week 13 at Raymond James Stadium. It was the second straight week with multiple interceptions for a Tampa Bay defense that had gone nearly eight complete games without a takeaway through Week 11. Not coincidentally, the return of the turnovers has also gotten the Bucs back into the win column. It started with a trickle in Week 12 – two late-game picks to seal a 27-9 win over San Francisco – and turned into a deluge against the Panthers, led by Andrew Adams' record-tying three-interception performance.
Adams is the first Buccaneer player to intercept three passes in a game since Aqib Talib did it against Washington on Oct. 4, 2009. The only other player to accomplish that feat in franchise history is Ronde Barber, who did it twice against New Orleans and who was calling Sunday's game from the Fox network booth.
"The defense played great," said Adams. "The D-Line was in Cam's face all game. Without them, I wouldn't have had one interception, so a shout out to the D-Line. But I think everybody was just playing together. We kept things simple and everybody was just playing fast and playing physical. I think that was the key."
Adams started out the game playing in sub packages as he has been doing since the Buccaneers adjusted to the absences of linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. He later moved to safety after both Justin Evans and Isaiah Johnson were knocked out by injuries, and his last two picks came in that role. The Buccaneers did have David back in the lineup in Week 13 but it was Adams who stole the show with just the second, third and fourth interceptions of his career.
"See ball, go get ball – that's all that's in my mind," said Adams. "As soon as I see him locked-and-loaded, I'm like, 'It's mine.' When the ball's in the air, I think it's mine, it's not for the receivers. That's really all I'm thinking."
The Buccaneers improved to 5-7 with their second straight win and put a serious dent in the Panthers' playoff hopes, dropping their division rivals to 6-6. The Panthers have lost four straight since beating the Buccaneers in Week Nine and are now 1-5 away from home. The Buccaneers improved their own home record to 4-2 and to 2-2 in division play. This is the first time that Carolina and Tampa Bay have split a season series since 2008. The New Orleans Saints come to Raymond James Stadium next Sunday looking to avenge Tampa Bay's win in the Superdome in Week One.
"We know that we've got to continue to work hard," said QB Jameis Winston. "It's a week-to-week league and we've got to continue to give our best every single week. The guys are going to continue to do that and, Lord willing, we're going to continue to get victories."
It took an impressive effort by Tampa Bay's defense to get that split against the Panthers. Two of Adams' interceptions came in the fourth quarter as the Buccaneers clung to a seven-point lead and turned back Newton and the Panthers on four straight potential game-tying drives. It wasn't over until De'Vante Harris knocked down a second consecutive Hail Mary pass attempt thrown by backup QB Taylor Heinicke, who came in specifically to heave it all the way to the end zone from midfield.
"It's our game," said Adams of the defense's mentality throughout that tense fourth quarter. "The offense had 24 points and our goal is to keep them under 19, so the game was on us, essentially. The offense did a great job and 24 points was enough for us to win, so the game was in our hands."
The Buccaneers also sacked Newton four times, collective four sacks for the third straight game, hit him nine times and broke up 10 passes on the day. Carolina's high-powered offense range up 444 total net yards, including 168 on the ground on just 19 carries, but the Buccaneers' defense bent without breaking. In addition to those four takeaways, Tampa Bay's defense also only allowed Carolina to convert on three of its eight third-down tries. That included a third-and-five from midfield with less than three minutes to play, as Jason Pierre-Paul sacked Newton, pushing his season sack total to 11.5. Carolina went for it on fourth down but Newton overthrew WR Devin Funchess deep down the middle.
"You can't say enough about [the defense]," said WR Chris Godwin, who started in place of an injured DeSean Jackson and had his third career 100-yard game with five catches for 101 yards. "Our defense, we think they've been playing great all year, especially these last couple weeks. They've been forcing a lot more turnovers and they've given us extra possessions. I couldn't be prouder of those guys."
Meanwhile, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston had his second straight turnover-free outing after returning to the starting lineup last week. He completed 20 of 30 passes for 249 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, compiling a passer rating of 114.4. As he did last week, Winston made several big plays after scrambling out of the pocket, including both of his touchdown passes, to Adam Humphries in the first quarter and Godwin in the second quarter.
"As you guys have often seen, when a play breaks down Jameis does a great job of scrambling and extending the play and giving us opportunities to make plays on the ball," said Godwin. "I just kept my eyes in that situation and just tried to find an open spot."
The Bucs' top-ranked passing attack was playing without Jackson and was in its second game without dynamic tight end O.J. Howard. Godwin and Humphries picked up the slack with a combined 12 catches for 162 yards and those two touchdowns. The Buccaneers now have six different players with at least four touchdown catches this year; they've never had more than three in any one season before.
"We came out, we fought hard and we did what we were supposed to do," said Winston. "The defense created turnovers, the offense protected the football and we got a good win. Guys were just out there fighting their tails off. The grit of this team is amazing. We're just going to continue to work hard."
The Bucs did have one turnover that could have proved costly, as RB Peyton Barber fumbled while trying to extend the ball over the goal line at the end of a lengthy drive in the second quarter. Luke Kuechly recovered for the Panthers for a touchback but the Buccaneers still managed to increase their lead to 10 points at halftime after Javien Elliott picked off Newton and returned it 50 yards into Carolina territory. Godwin's 13-yard score capped the ensuing drive. Barber would finish the scoring for the Buccaneers with a one-yard dive that completed a 75-yard drive in the third quarter.
The Buccaneers' offense opened the game with a very impressive 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Winston completed four of five passes on the drive, three of them to Humphries, including a three-yard TD pass on a third-down goal-to-go scramble play. Barber added four carries for 22 yards, including a sharp 17-yarder up the middle that got the ball to the edge of the red zone. Winston then scrambled for 18 yards down to the six and three plays later found Humphries after escaping the pocket to his left.
Tampa Bay's defense matched that fast start with one of its own. Playing middle linebacker, Minter blitzed up the middle on Carolina's second play for a loss of eight yards. Newton tried to convert the resulting third-and-16 with a pass down the middle to D.J. Moore but David dived in front of Moore to deflect it and Adams caught the deflection for an interception. Adams' return down to the 20-yard line but the resulting drive got nowhere and the Bucs settled for Santos' 35-yard field goal.
The Panthers did much better with their second possession, quickly chewing up 73 yards on three plays, most of it by McCaffrey. He accounted for most of the drive on a 53-yard breakaway run over left tackle but was tripped up at the Bucs' eight-yard line by a diving Ryan Smith. McCaffrey got it in the on the next play on a simple release out of the backfield and out route, catching the ball at the five and turning up to dive over the pylon.
The Buccaneers got a first down on an 11-yard Barber run to start the next drive but then had to punt when Winston was sacked by Kyle Love and Mario Addison on third down. Return man Kenjon Barber muffed the punt but it rolled out of bounds at the Panthers' 20. Similarly, the Panthers got quick first downs on a 13-yard out to Olsen and a 10-yard McCaffrey pitch left, but David timed a blindside blitz perfectly two plays later and the Panthers couldn't recover. The resulting punt went into the end zone for a touchback.
The Buccaneers quickly got into scoring range again on a 48-yard catch-and-run by Godwin, who took a quick slant and turned it into a big gain by running away from two defenders. Winston converted a third down in the red zone with a 13-yard pass to Humphries but the Bucs came up empty when Barber fumbled while trying to extend the ball over the goal line. Kuechly recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
Two penalties against Carolina killed the resulting drive before it could get started and the Bucs had the ball back at their own 23 after the punt. The drive got off to a good start with Evans' sliding 16-yard catch over the middle but the Panthers sacked Winston on consecutive plays to force another punt. A block-in-the-back penalty erased a long return into Bucs territory and pushed the ball back to Carolina's 25.
One scramble and one zone read by Newton picked up 26 yards to get across midfield and a 13-yard run up the middle by McCaffrey got the ball to the Bucs' 25. After De'Vante Harris made a diving breakup of a pass intended for Curtis Samuel in the end zone, Elliott cut in front of Moore and intercepted Newton's pass, returning it 50 yards to the Carolina 32. Winston threw a laser to Evans on a deep in for 20 yards and a first down at the 12. A holding penalty pushed the Bucs back after they got down to the three but Winston still got the ball into the end zone on a scrambling strike to Godwin in the back right corner of the end zone with 13 seconds left in the half.
The Panthers opened the second half with a long field goal drive, Newton getting it going with consecutive completions to D.J. Moore for 16 and 12 yards. WR Jarius Wright broke several tackles to turn a quick hook in the right flat into a 33-yard gain down to the Bucs' 12-yard line. The Bucs held there, however, thanks to a sack by Vinny Curry, a holding penalty that erased a touchdown pass and third-down pressure from Jason Pierre-Paul to force an incompletion. Graham Gano came in to make it a one-score game with a 37-yard field goal.
Tampa Bay responded with another touchdown drive, helped out immensely by a 52-yard pass interference penalty against Donte Jackson that put the ball at Carolina's one-yard line. The Bucs drew that flag when Winston scrambled out of the pocket and launched a moonshot more than 50 yards into the end zone for Bobo Wilson. Prior to that,. Winston had converted a third-and-11 with a perfect deep out to Godwin. Barber completed the drive with a one-yard dive over the top on first-and-goal.
Barner muffed the ensuing kickoff at the goal line and took a second after recovering it to realize he needed to run. As a result, the Bucs' cover team swarmed him over at the eight-yard line. That just gave the Carolina more field to devour, as they went 92 yards for an answering touchdown. Newton converted the first third down with a 15-yard strike over the middle to McCaffrey, then shook off what looked like a sure sack for Carl Nassib to get a pass off to Ian Thomas for a first down at midfield. Newton finished the drive with a 10-yard slant to Devin Funchess.
The Buccaneers got to midfield on the next possession, helped by Winston's scrambling 18-yarder to Brate on third-and-17. Winston then scrambled for 18 yards after escaping a potential Shaq Thompson sack on a blitz, but the drive stalled when the Bucs were flagged on three consecutive plays. They eventually punted down to the Panthers' 13 with 12:24 left in regulation.
The Panthers go the ball across midfield on the next possession when Samuels got 31 yards on a play on which Harris went for the breakup at the sideline and missed, allowing Samuels to continue upfield. However, two plays later Gerald McCoy hit Newton as he was throwing and Adams was able to pick off the wobbly throw at the sideline. The Buccaneers were not able to do anything with the ensuing drive, however, and had to punt it away, which resulted in a touchback with 8:44 left.
Newton got the Panthers moving once again, hitting Samuel on a 24-yard sideline route to convert a third-and-six. However, on second-and-five from the Bucs' 32, Newton tried to hit Samuel again down the middle and Adams dived in front of the receiver for his third interception of the game. The Buccaneers failed to get a first down and punted it back to Carolina's 21.
The Panthers had four minutes left to try to tie the game and got across midfield when Newton hit Thomas for 20 yards up the right sideline. A tipped pass by Adarius Taylor was nearly picked off by a diving Ryan Smith but Smith couldn't hold on. The Panthers called the first of their three timeouts before running a third-and-five play at the Bucs' 44. After the stoppage, Pierre-Paul shot around left tackle and sacked Newton for a loss of four. The Panthers went for it on fourth-and-nine but Newton's pass down the middle to a wide-open Funchess was overthrown.
The Bucs took over on downs at their own 49, needing to run 2:21 off the clock. Carolina used their last timeout at 2:13 after stopping Barber for no gain, and Barber's next run for three yards brought on the two-minute warning. The Bucs ran on third down to drain the clock but then had to punt and Bryan Anger's short kick took a bounce back in the wrong direction to the Carolina 26. Newton had 69 seconds left to get his team 74 yards downfield.
He used 63 of those seconds to get the Panthers to their own 44-yard line before attempting a Hail Mary pass as time expired. Harris broke that one up but Carolina got another chance thanks to an offsides penalty against the Buccaneers. Heinicke came in to make the second heave downfield and Harris once again was there to swat it down.