Mike Williams' 35-yard catch-and-run gave the rookie receiver two touchdowns in his first two NFL games and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers a 14-7 halftime lead over the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
QB Josh Freeman hit Williams and FB Earnest Graham for first-half scores as part of an outstanding first half against the Buccaneers' bitter division rival. The second-year passer compiled a first-half passer rating of 145.1 on the strength of eight-of-12 passing for 138 yards, no interceptions and those two scores. Freeman also ran three times for 31 yards and, more importantly, used his feet to escape pressure and deliver big plays downfield. In fact, the key play of the first half may have been his improvised 40-yard strike downfield to TE Kellen Winslow on a third-and-17 scramble.
Both teams moved the ball well in the first half, with the Buccaneers holding a 201-161 edge in total yardage. Carolina's power running game produced 81 yards – 44 for Jonathan Stewart and 37 for DeAngelo Williams – but the Bucs countered with 63 ground yards of their own. Carolina QB Matt Moore completed just four of 10 passes but turned them into 85 yards and the Panthers' lone score, a 37-yard strike to the always-dangerous Steve Smith.
The Buccaneers won the toss and chose to receive, with Micheal Spurlock getting the opening kickoff out to the Tampa Bay 26. The Bucs opened in a three-wide set but ran out of it on first down, with Cadillac Williams gaining two yards. Williams got another five on second down to set up third-and-three but Jeremy Trueblood's false start gave those five back. On third-and-eight, Freeman tried to hit C. Williams on an out but the pass was out of reach. Good coverage on Chris Bryan's 52-yard punt pushed the Panthers back to their own 24.
Carolina ran on its first two plays, also, but LB Quincy Black stopped Williams in the backfield for a loss of two on first down and Williams' second carry got just those two back. Good coverage and a fine edge rush by DE Tim Crowder forced Moore to scramble and throw the ball away. An impressive spinning return by Spurlock after a 53-yard punt gained 23 yards back to the Bucs' 46.
The Bucs got a net of zero yards out of their first two plays of the next drive, however, leading to another third-and-10. This time, Freeman converted it with a hard pass down the middle on which Winslow made a great leaping catch for a gain of 24. Jeff Faine's holding penalty then backed the Bucs up 10 yards and Freeman's crack to Mike Williams in the end zone was broken up by Chris Gamble. A rollout pass to C. Williams gained eight yards but still left the Bucs in a third-and-12 . For the second time in two weeks, Freeman broke off a long run, this time getting around right end for gain of 17 and a first down at the 14. Freeman was helped by a well-timed block from WR Sammie Stroughter, and he got past the sticks with a nifty cutback at the end of the run. On the very next play, Freeman faked a handoff and threw to a wide-open Graham in the right flat. Graham darted into the end zone untouched for the game's first points.
Williams' first-down carry on the next drive worked out much better for Carolina, as he exploited a seam over right guard for a gain of 11. Williams escaped a near-tackle by DT Gerald McCoy in the backfield and got around the end for 10 more on the next play. A play-action pass on first down was dropped by Stewart, but he got five yards on a second-down carry. Smith ran a slant on third-and-five and made a nice grab of a hard pass for eight yards and a first down. Three plays later, the Panthers faced a third-and-11 at the Tampa Bay 44 and Stylez G. White pressured Moore into an incompletion.
Spurlock fair caught the next punt at the Bucs' 12. A scramble by Freeman and a seven-yard cutback run by Williams resulted in a first down. Freeman was hit as he threw two plays later, and the resulting incompletion made it third-and-nine. Once again, the big quarterback converted the third down by running, starting right and then cut back to the middle for a gain of 11. The Bucs tried a trick play with Spurlock throwing the ball on the next snap and were fortunate that it wasn't intercepted by S Charles Godfrey. On third-and-10, after the teams switched sides to start the second quarter, the Bucs tried a draw play to Williams but it came up four yards short. A penalty on the punt return backed Carolina up to its own 12 to start the next drive.
Unfortunately, Carolina then drove the length of the field on six plays to tie the game. Stewart started it with a 19-yard run up the middle, and Smith finished it with his fourth-down catch. The Bucs blitzed, leaving Aqib Talib in single coverage on Smith over the middle, and when Talib went for the breakup and missed, Smith was all alone in the middle of the field for an easy 37-yard score.
A holding call on TE Kellen Winslow erased most of a 14-yard catch by Graham, and on first-and-nine Williams went up the middle for three yards. On third-and-six, Freeman stayed calm in a collapsing pocket and delivered an eight-yard strike to Winslow for a first down. Two straight runs lost yards after that, leading to a third-and-17, but once again Freeman moved the chains. This time, he somehow escaped sacks by Eric Norwood and Charles Johnson and then, on the run, threw a 40-yard dart downfield to Winslow, who made a spectacular grab while staying inbounds. On the very next play, Mike Williams ran a square-in, caught Freeman's pass and weaved through a pack of defenders for a 35-yard touchdown.
Once again, Stewart started Carolina's drive with a breakaway run, gaining 16 yards to the Carolina 35. Two plays later, a play-action pass to WR David Gettis gained 14 more, and then Williams got into the act with a nine-yard run. The Panthers took a crack at the end zone on the next play but the pass went off Rosario's fingertips. After FB Tony Fiammetta was stopped on third-and-one, the Panthers went for it again on fourth down and Stewart fought through a crowd to fall over the first-down line. From the 38, the Panthers ran twice for a net of two yards, setting up third-and-eight. White then broke through for the Bucs' first sack of the season and Carolina had to punt away from the 41. The ball was downed by the Panthers at Tampa Bay's seven.
With 1:54 left in the half, the Bucs tried to run it and the Panthers made use of their timeouts to preserve the clock. The key play was Williams' eight-yard run on second down, which earned a first down and allowed the Bucs to run out the clock.