Arrelious Benn's dive-to-the-pylon touchdown catch in the first quarter on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium was impressive, but by the end of the first half it was probably the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' third most spectacular score.
The Buccaneers took a 21-10 lead over the Carolina Panthers into halftime, marking a season high for first half points. Rookie RB LeGarrette Blount followed Benn's score with a 17-yard touchdown run that ended in high-flying acrobatics and TE Kellen Winslow added a 20-yard scoring catch that even pass interference couldn't deny.
The Buccaneers racked up 189 yards of offense in the first half, 106 of it on the ground as Blount ran eight times for 75 yards. However, Carolina stayed in the game with 156 yards of their own, despite being without their top two running backs (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) and last week's starter at quarterback (Matt Moore).
Rookie QB Jimmy Clausen acquitted himself well, completing nine of 16 passes for 82 yards and converting five of his first six third-down situations. Reserve RB Mike Goodson led the Panthers with 76 yards on 14 carries.
QB Josh Freeman was sharp for the Buccaneers, completing seven of 11 attempts for 89 yards, the two scores and no interceptions.
LB Barrett Ruud led the Bucs' defense with seven tackles, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit and a sack that he shared with DT Roy Miller. Rookie DT Gerald McCoy added two tackles, two passes defensed and a forced fumble that was recovered by S Sean Jones in the opening minutes. The Bucs did not commit a first-half turnover on offense but did set up Carolina's only touchdown when a punted ball struck CB Elbert Mack and was recovered by the Panthers at the Tampa Bay 46.
Carolina won the toss and elected to receive, sending safety Jordan Pugh deep. LB Dekoda Watson wrapped Pugh up at the Panthers' 23. Goodson went off left guard to start the game but was stopped after a gain of just two. Goodson's cutback run on second down worked better, getting out to the 31. A toss-sweep to the left completed the set of plays and gained seven yards for a first down at the 38. Two plays later, however, Goodson tried the middle and DT Gerald McCoy swatted the ball from his hand. S Sean Jones recovered for the Bucs at the Panthers' 47.
Freeman scrambled for five yards on first down, then ran a perfect play-action fake to Cadillac Williams that got TE John Gilmore wide open down the left seam. Freeman hit Gilmore for a gain of 29 yards to the 13. Blount's first carry was a typical bruiser, picking up five yards to the eight. On the next play, Benn came in motion from right to left and Freeman faked an end-around handoff to him; the Carolina defense then lost track of Benn in the left flat and he caught a quick pass and dived to extend the ball over the pylon for the game's opening score.
The Panthers' second drive started at their own 29. After a dropped pass by TE Jeff King, Clausen tried a quick throw down the line to Steve Smith but it was too low and well-covered by Aqib Talib. On third-and-10, the Bucs brought a blitz but Clausen got off a quick slant to WR Brandon LaFell for a gain of 15. Sean Jones shot into the backfield on the next play to drop Goodson for a loss of four, but the back bounced back around right end for a gain of eight. A confused Clausen burned Carolina's first timeout but then came back with a well-executed receiver screen to WR David Gettis moved the chains with a gain of nine. Ronde Barber's backside run blitz cost Goodson a yard on his next first-down carry, but reserve back Josh Vaughan got six yards on his first career carry. This time on third down LB Barrett Ruud timed his blitz well, got around a block in the backfield and sacked combined with DT Roy Miller for an eight-yard sack. WR Micheal Spurlock fair caught the ensuing punt at the 10-yard line.
Freeman audibled into a sideline pass to Mike Williams on first down but the two couldn't connect. After a run by Cadillac Williams gained nothing, the Panthers covered the Buc receivers well on third-and-nine and Freeman was eventually taken down for a six-yard sack by DE Everette Brown. P Robert Malone's kick rolled out of bounds at the Bucs' 42.
Clausen looked deep to Smith on a first-down play-action but was forced to scramble for a gain of two. Goodson was plugged in the middle after a gain of just one but Clausen converted yet another third down with a quick slant to LaFell for 13 yards. Two straight false starts then backed Carolina up 10 yards, but Goodson got nine of them back on a first-down carry. Jones dropped Vaughan for a loss of one on second down and King dropped another pass on third-and-12. The ageless John Kasay came on to kick a 46-yard field goal and make it 7-3 with 52 seconds left in the opening quarter.
Spurlock was trapped at his own 13 on the kickoff that followed, but Blount immediately ripped off a 12-yard run to start the drive. The Bucs brought reserve QB Josh Johnson onto the field for a Wildcat snap and he ran around right end for a gain of 13. Blount got loose again on the next snap and found the right sideline for a gain of 24 to the Carolina 37. Two snaps later, Blount bashed for 17 yards to the Carolina 17. Obviously, the Bucs gave it to him again and he got the rest of the yardage over left guard. As he approached the end zone and final defender Charles Godfrey, Blount leapt over him, flipped in the air and extended the football over the line for the score.
A holding penalty on the ensuing Carolina drive helped put the Panthers into a third-and-seven from their 23. Clausen tried to convert with a deep out to TE Dante Rosario but Barber cut in front to knock it away, nearly intercepting it. Unfortunately, Carolina got the ball back moments later in Buccaneer territory when a short punt glanced off CB Elbert Mack and was recovered by Rosario. The Panthers thus started with a new set of downs at Tampa Bay's 46.
Goodson's 18-yard run put Carolina into scoring territory, and Smith's six-yard catch made it second-and-four at the Bucs' 22. McCoy batted away Clausen's second-down pass but the Carolina QB was able to lob a third-down pass to Gettis at the Bucs' four on third down. Two plays later, Vaughn punched the ball in on a two-yard run to make it 14-10.
Spurlock chose to return the following kickoff from deep in his end zone and was trapped at the Bucs' 15. Blount's first-down carry gained nothing, though his one-handed attempt on a short pass on second down probably prevented an interception over the middle. A screen pass to Cadillac Williams worked fairly well but came up three yards short and the Bucs had to punt. WR Maurice Stovall fought off a block to keep return man Captain Munnerlyn from getting past the Carolina 35 after a 47-yard boot.
A five-yard penalty and good coverage on first down made it second-and-15 at 30, and Goodson's next carry got just four yards. On third-and-11, DE Michael Bennett shut down a receiver screen to LaFell before it could reach the sticks. Stovall pressured Baker into a 31-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Tampa Bay 35.
The Bucs faced a third-and-five moments later and appeared to convert on a pass over the middle to Spurlock, but the play was erased by an illegal-shift penalty. Freeman then converted the third-and-10 with a low pass over the middle that TE Kellen Winslow plucked off the turf for a gain of 13. That play brought on the two-minute warning and the Bucs committed a false start before their next snap. Two plays later, LB Jon Beason committed pass interference on Winslow, leading to a first down at the Carolina 36. A deep strike attempt to Spurlock just missed but Cadillac Williams took a draw play up the middle for 12 yards. A four-yard pass over the middle to WR Preston Parker put the ball at the Carolina 20 as the Bucs used their first timeout with 57 seconds left in the half. After the break, Freeman threw down the middle to Winslow, who executed a leaping 20-yard TD catch between two defenders despite being interfered with by Godfrey.
The Panthers had 44 seconds to work with before halftime but had no timeouts left and couldn't get close to scoring territory.