The first half of action between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers Saturday at Bank of America Stadium featured quite a bit of fireworks, including a 91-yard touchdown and 392 yards of offense. What it did not feature was a single punt.
Led by red-hot QBs Josh Freeman (128.3 passer rating) and Cam Newton (134.7), respectively, the Bucs and Panthers drove the ball up and down the field resulting in seven scores on eight combined possessions. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, the eighth drive was their first possession, which ended on the first play due to a fumble and led to a Carolina field goal.
Freeman did his best to keep the Bucs in the game, completing 13 of 14 passes for 127 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. With a running game that produced only 24 first-half yards, Freeman took it upon himself to complete passes to eight different players, including a four-yard TD pass to WR Arrelious Benn early in the second quarter.
Newton more than matched that output, however, completing eight of 12 passes for 142 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. After the Bucs had pulled to within a field goal on Benn's score, Newton answered almost immediately with his 91-yard strike to WR Brandon LaFell. Newton also had the advantage of a healthier rushing attack, as Jonathan Stewart's 79 yards on five carries keyed a 11-yard first-half output.
The Panthers won the toss and elected to receive. Michael Koenen hit the opening kickoff nine yards deep for a touchback but Stewart's first two runs ripped off 13 and nine yards to the Bucs' 42. On second-and-one, Newton ran an option right, faked a pitch and cut inside for five yards and a first down. Newton's first pass, a short one over the middle to LaFell, gained five more and a swing pass to Williams produced another first down at the Bucs' 40. Williams' first-carry was a tackle-breaking run up the middle for 14 more, but a direct-snap run on the next play got just two. After a seven-yard catch by LaFell, the Panthers would have faced their first third down on the drive but a personal-foul facemask penalty on DT Jovan Haye made it first-and-goal at the eight. DE Michael Bennett's instant penetration nearly blew up the next play but Williams slipped by him in the backfield and dashed into the end zone for the game's first score.
Things started horribly for the Bucs' offense. Blount tried to take a handoff up the middle but never got the handle and ended up fumbling. The ball was kicked back towards Tampa Bay's goal line and eventually recovered by Carolina's James Anderson at the eight-yard line.
The Bucs' defense did manage to get a stop and hold that turnover damage to three points. Newton's attempted option-keeper to the left gained nothing as he slipped trying to make a cut. A strong tackle by S Tanard Jackson on a short pass to WR Legedu Naanee kept the Panther wideout out of the end zone and CB Elbert Mack broke up a third-down pass also intended for Naanee. Olindo Mare came on to kick a 21-yard field goal to make it 10-0 with eight and a half minutes left in the half.
After a touchback, the Bucs went to a no-huddle attack and got the ball moving. After an encroachment penalty gave them five free yards, the Bucs got to the 40 on runs of seven and eight yards by RB Kregg Lumpkin. That latter run came on first down, and after an incompletion. Freeman did appear to move the chains with a scrambling throw to WR Mike Williams, but the Bucs took another offsides penalty instead and got a first down at the 45. Freeman scrambled left again on the next play and eventually threw down the left sideline to TE Kellen Winslow, who made a diving, one-handed catch for 13 yards. A Lumpkin sweep to the right didn't work, resulting in a loss of two, and a sack by Thomas Keiser made it third-and-16. The Bucs converted on a short pass over the middle to WR Preston Parker, who avoided several would-be tacklers to just get past the sticks. After a nine-yard burst up the middle by Lumpkin, Freeman threw a sharp play-action rollout pass to Winslow for eight more and a first down at the Carolina 15. Lumpkin was dropped for a loss of one by Greg Hardy on first down but got seven back on a middle dumpoff. Williams held on to a short pass on third down despite a hard hit by S Sherrod Martin, but he was marked about a foot short of the first down. The Bucs got some extra time to think about fourth down while the teams switched sides for the second quarter, then let Freeman convert it himself with a QB sneak. He did a good job of bouncing to his left to find the right seam and got all the way to the four. On first down, Freeman lobbed a touch pass to the left edge of the end zone and Benn made a leaping, toe-dragging catch. The play was originally ruled incomplete but the Bucs challenged and replays showed that after an initial bobble Benn controlled the ball before going out of bounds.
That drive took nine minutes and 20 seconds, the longest scoring march of the year for the Buccaneers. Unfortunately, it took Carolina just one minute to get it right back. On the second play of the ensuing drive, Newton stood in the pocket under pressure and fired deep over the middle to LaFell. CB E.J. Biggers had the coverage, but LaFell managed to leap a bit higher for the ball, and when he came down with it he had open field to finish off the 91-yard play and an overall 92-yard drive.
Freeman was sacked back at the Bucs' eight-yard line to start the next drive, but then converted a third-and-nine by stepping up out of pressure and throwing a seam route pass to WR Sammie Stroughter out at the Bucs' 45. Two consecutive outlet passes to rookie TE Luke Stocker picked up a total of 13 yards and made it first down at the Carolina 42. Rookie RB Mossis Madu got the next two plays, an eight-yard catch and a four-yard run, and it was once again first down at the 30. Madu slipped and lost two yards on the next play, and a potential first-down catch was erased by an offensive pass interference call on Winslow. All the way back at the 42, Freeman let a play develop downfield and then threw over the middle to Madu, who made one man miss for a gain of 15. That made it a manageable third-and-seven, and though Freeman was hit in the backfield by a blitzing Martin he somehow got off a backhand lob to Stroughter across the line. Stroughter didn't get a first down, but the play probably saved Connor Barth about 10 yards on his ensuing field goal drive and he nailed it from 42 yards out to make it 17-10.
After a touchback, the Panthers got a quick first down on a nine-yard catch by Steve Smith and an encroachment penalty, then found the Bucs' red zone with runs of 32 and 24 yards by Stewart. LB Geno Hayes missed a golden opportunity for an interception near the 10-yard line and a screen pass to Williams got 10 to make it first down at the 10. The Bucs bottled up Williams on a first-down run and Newton's second-down pass to Stewart was incomplete. Hayes stopped Naanee from getting into the end zone on a third-down pass but the Panthers elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the one. After lining up and then calling a timeout, Carolina changed its mind and brought on Mare to kick a 19-yarder to make it 20-10 just before halftime.