The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began the 2018 season with a rousing victory in New Orleans, but their travelogue since describes a serious of forgettable road journeys...albeit with some reliably exciting side-trips along the way. Tampa Bay has dropped four in a row away from home since that Week One win, giving up 161 points in the process, capped on Sunday by a 42-28 loss to the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
For the second week in a row, the Buccaneers fell behind early but rallied impressively in the second half, pulling to within seven points early in the fourth quarter. However, Cam Newton and the Panthers' run-oriented offense added a late score and repelled the Buccaneers on their last two possessions. Tampa Bay dropped to 3-5 on the season and 1-2 in the division with the loss. The Buccaneers' three remaining games against their division opponents will all be played in Tampa. Carolina improved to 6-2 and 1-1 in the division with its fifth win in its last six games.
"Especially when you're playing on the road, you can't spot teams points," said Buccaneers QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who returned to the starting lineup on Sunday in place of Jameis Winston, after nearly leading another startling comeback the previous Sunday in Cincinnati. "I think with the turnover early, that's what we did, and then they got it rolling a little bit there before we could stop their momentum."
The Panthers used a powerful and extremely creative rushing attack to pull out to a 35-7 lead in the first half, running for 136 yards and four scores by halftime. Tampa Bay's defense had difficulty tackling, especially on the perimeter, leading to three runs of 23 or more yards by the Panthers, including a 33-yard touchdown on a winding reverse run by Curtis Samuel in the second quarter. Lead runner Christian McCaffrey had success running inside and outside, finishing with 157 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns and the Panthers had 179 rushing yards and 407 total yards of offense by day's end.
The Buccaneers' offense, with Ryan Fitzpatrick back at the helm, couldn't keep up in the shootout until a surge that began just before halftime, and it eventually finished with season-lows in total yards (301) and net passing yards (219). Tampa Bay came into the weekend with the league's top-ranked passing attack but the Panthers' defensive front created constant pressure on Fitzpatrick and made it difficult for him to hit his talented targets on the outside. DeSean Jackson didn't his first catch until the 1:54 mark in the first half, and Chris Godwin's first grab came about a minute later. Mike Evans, who was averaging 110 receiving yards per game, didn't catch his first pass until five minutes into the third quarter, on his eighth target of the day.
"We have playmakers, that's not our issue," said Fitzpatrick. "We've got guys that are going to fight all game long. It's just about the consistency, it's just not there right now."
Carolina's surge to a big first-half lead was aided by the Buccaneers' continuing turnover problems. Eric Reid's interception in the first quarter set up a 10-yard touchdown drive to start the scoring, while Tampa Bay's defense extended its streak to 23 quarters without a takeaway, including all four on Sunday. The Buccaneers also failed to convert on a bold fake punt deep in their own territory in the second quarter, which led to a 25-yard Carolina scoring drive. The Buccaneers' turnover ratio on the season now stand at -15 after a late pick by CB Donte Jackson snuffed Tampa Bay's last attempt to rally
Fitzpatrick still had another prolific day despite the difficult circumstances, heating up in the second half and throwing for 243 yards and four touchdowns. He found second-year TE O.J. Howard on short scoring passes twice in the first half and worked the seams with busy slot man Adam Humphries, who caught eight passes for 82 yards and two scores of his own. Unfortunately, Fitzpatrick got little support from a rushing attack that produced just 82 yards, and he was sacked three times and hit five times. Despite that, Fitzpatrick is the first player in Buccaneers history to have three games with at least four touchdown passes in the same season. His latest TD barrage was less satisfying than the first two, however, as they came in a losing effort. The same was true for Humphries, who had his first career two-touchdown game.
"As a receiver group and as an offense, we know have the skill and the talent level to come back whenever," said Humphries. "But like I said earlier, we need to help ourselves out and start faster, and not did a hole like that. That's something we've got to fix."
Humphries' second score came on an audible by Fitzpatrick that got the ball into the receivers' hands in the middle of the field and allowed him to weave through traffic before diving through defenders to extend the ball over the line. The play was initially ruled down at the one but the Buccaneers challenged and the call was reversed to a touchdown. A week earlier, Humphries had seen one of his touchdowns reversed and the ball spotted at the one after a challenge. His score on Sunday in Charlotte completed a gritty 79-yard drive that was kept alive early by a 25-yard Fitzpatrick pass to Godwin on third-and-17 deep in Bucs territory. Tampa Bay had taken over on downs after stopping the Panthers on a fourth-and-five attempt.
"Honestly, I was just kind of thinking about last week when I was short and my knee was down," said Humphries of his second touchdown. "I was just kind of extending, making sure no part of my body was touching the ground and just trying to get the ball into the end zone with a second effort."
Despite getting Gerald McCoy and Vinny Curry back from injury, the Buccaneers' defense had less success pressuring mobile QB Cam Newton, particularly in the first half. McCoy split a sack with David on the first drive of the second half and Carl Nassib also dropped Newton in the third quarter, but that was it. Of course, Carolina's strong rushing attack kept the pressure off Newton, as well, and he contributed to that with 33 yards on the ground of his own.
Adarius Taylor led the Buccaneers with nine tackles and CB Brent Grimes had a pass defensed and a forced fumble. Tampa Bay's defense was once again much better in the second half, allowing 263 yards and 35 points before halftime and 144 yards and seven points after the break.
Tampa Bay's offense opened with a three-and-out as Fitzpatrick tried to hit Evans twice but failed to connect. After a 40-yard punt, the Panthers got their first possession starting at their own 32. After McCaffrey got six yards up the middle on first down, Taylor broke up a pass to the second-year back on second down and good coverage on third down led to a two-yard Newton scramble. The Panthers punted it back to the Bucs' 20.
Carolina got on the board first thanks to the game's first turnover. On the second play of Tampa Bay's second drive, Fitzpatrick tried to hit Evans downfield but overthrew his target and it was easily intercepted by S Eric Reid, who returned it 39 yard to the Buccaneers' 10. Three plays later, FB Alex Armah plunged in from one yard out for the touchdown.
The Bucs got their initial first down of the game on the next drive when RB Jacquizz Rodgers took a delayed handoff on third-and-15, made a sharp cut to elude Luke Kuechly and got just to the sticks. However, the Bucs had to punt again after a third-and-two pass to a well-covered Evans was knocked away by CB James Bradberry.
The Panthers followed with an 88-yard touchdown drive, most of it built on consecutive 32-yard gains by McCaffrey and Moore. McCaffrey took a well-designed misdirection screen around left end and hurdled CB Carlton Davis on his way to the Bucs' 39. An end-around to WR D.J. Moore on the next play also went left and around the edge, all the way down to the seven. Two plays later, McCaffrey ran it in over right guard from three yards out.
The Bucs cut the lead in half on their next drive with an impressive eight-play, 75-yard drive, beginning with Fitzpatrick's own 10-yard scramble. Fitzpatrick also hit Howard for a gain of 15, with a personal foul tacking on 15 more, and Barber for 10. After converting a third-and-two at the Carolina 17 with a quick slant to Humphries, Fitzpatrick finished the drive with a play-action, four-yard touchdown pass to Howard.
Unfortunately, the Panthers came right back with another long touchdown drive. After Newton hit Devin Funchess for 16 and Greg Olsen for 23 to get to the Bucs' 23, Carolina bust out the rare actual reverse, with the ball ending up in Samuel's hands heading toward the right sideline. Samuels weaved through traffic, eventually crossing all the way back to cross the goal line near the right pylon.
The Buccaneers' next drive ended up with a punt from their own six thanks to two sacks by Addison. The ensuing punt went 48 yards and was returned 12 yards to the Bucs' 42 with nine minutes left in the half. McCaffrey got around the right end on the first play of the drive, tiptoeing by the sideline and only being dragged down from behind by a hustling Carl Nassib at the Bucs' seven. Three runs from McCaffrey got it in from there, including a second-effort surge on a third-and-one plunge up the middle.
After the Buccaneers went three-and-out on the next possession, the Buccaneers tried a rare trick play, with Anger attempting to throw a pass to TE Alan Cross on a fake punt. The ball was tipped away by LB David Mayo, however. After Newton hit Funchess at the one for a 23-yard gain, Newton appeared to score on a naked bootleg but the play was erased by an illegal-shift penalty. An intentional-grounding call on Newton two plays later made it third-and-goal at the 17, but Olsen made a stunning catch straight down the middle for Carolina's fifth touchdown of the half.
The Buccaneers used the last four minutes of the half to drive into scoring range, the big plays a 20-yard sideline catch by Jackson and a 15-yard grab by Godwin down to the Carolina eight. A Fitzpatrick scramble three plays later got the ball down to the three and the Bucs chose to go for it on fourth-and-goal. Howard ran a shallow route along the goal line and Fitzpatrick put it on the money for the tight end's second score with 15 seconds left in the half.
The Buccaneers' defense got off to a good start in the second half, with a three-and-out ending on a sack split between Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. Tampa Bay's first drive of the half, after a 59-yard punt by Michael Palardy, began at its own 29 but went backward thanks to a busted run play that lost eight yards. The Bucs punted it back after a third-and-long pass was tipped away.
Tampa Bay's defense got a second consecutive three-and-out thanks in part to a second-down sack by Nassib. That led to a punt, which was followed by a 10-play, 84-yard drive that made it a two-score game. Evans' first catch of the game started it with a 16-yard gain and Barber followed with a run of 18 to the midfield stripe. Fitzpatrick converted a key third-and-eight with a 13-yard strike to Humphries and, after a pass interference call drawn by Jackson took the ball down to the six, he went to Humphries again on a pivot route for a five-yard score.
Carolina took their next possession across midfield but faced a fourth-down decision when Newton scrambled just short of the sticks at the Bucs' 33. The Panthers chose to go for it on fourth down but an apparent successful conversion was erased by an illegal-shift penalty. Carolina left the offense on the field for the longer fourth down but that failed, too, when rookie CB Carlton Davis dragged Funchess down three yards short on a short pass. Unfortunately, Davis was then flagged for a taunting penalty, a 15-yarder assessed after the change of possession.
Fitzpatrick was sacked on a first-down dropback and forced to fumble, but S Ryan Jensen recovered for the Buccaneers. That led to a third-and-15 that Fitzpatrick converted with a 25-yard pass down the right sideline to Godwin on the final play of the fourth quarter. Howard then went down the right sideline for a 31-yard grab to the Panthers' 30. Fitzpatrick audibled into a great play on the next snap, hitting Humphries on a cut in over the middle. Humphries eluded several tacklers to get all the way down to the one-yard line. The Buccaneers challenged the play, arguing that the receiver had extended the ball over the goal line before his knee hit down, and the officials agreed, ruling it a touchdown to make it 35-28 with 14:24 left in regulation.
Carolina responded by driving into the Buccaneers' red zone as Newton hit McCaffrey and Olsen on consecutive 20-yard completions. A false start and a holding call pushed the Panthers back a bit but Newton finished the drive with a 19-yard strike down the middle to Samuel for a touchdown that put the home team back on top by two scores.
Tampa Bay got just across midfield on the next possession but Fitzpatrick was nearly sacked on third down and ended up with an eight-yard loss on a flip to Jacquizz Rodgers. Facing a fourth-and-20, the Bucs elected to punt and were able to get the ball back quickly on a three-and-out with a little less than four minutes left. The Bucs tried to get one of their two needed scores on a deep ball to Jackson but it was intercepted by Donte Jackson at the Panthers' 20 to essentially seal the win for Carolina.