Rookie WR Sammie Stroughter scored the third kickoff return touchdown in team history
One unbelievable special teams play caused the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to erupt with fury just before halftime on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Another one gave the Buccaneers the emotional lift they needed to charge back to a fourth-quarter tie with the Carolina Panthers. Unfortunately, Tampa Bay once again had no answer for their NFC South rival's rushing attack, and the Panthers were able to grind out a 28-21 win in the end.
The loss, which turned on the Panthers' 80-yard, eight-minute touchdown drive immediately after the Bucs tied the game, dropped Tampa Bay to 0-6 in 2009, 0-1 in divisional play. The Buccaneers take their winless mark to London next Sunday to play the New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium.
Carolina ran the ball 15 times for 76 yards on the game-winning drive, giving them 267 yards on 48 carries in the game. Last December, the Buccaneers held a 17-17 tie in Carolina before losing 38-23 as the Panthers ran for 299 yards. In both cases, the Panther tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart proved virtually unstoppable; on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, Williams ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns while Stewart provided 110 yards and one score.
"We got overpowered there at the end and really throughout the football game," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "They were able to run the ball against eight-man fronts, which was a credit to the Panthers' offensive line. They were able to run right at us. We've either got to get better up front or we've got to get better people. We've got to find a way to stop the run when it counts, and it counted then."
Thanks to some missed opportunities by the Bucs' offense, the game was tied at 7-7 at halftime but Tampa Bay players were more immediately concerned with the vicious hit by Dante Wesley that knocked Pro Bowl return man Clifton Smith out of the game just before the intermission. That indirectly led to the play that revived Tampa Bay's hopes, as rookie WR Sammie Stroughter, filling in for Smith, returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
That runback, tying one by Smith last year as the longest in team history, came immediately after Carolina had taken a 21-7 lead on Jonathan Stewart's 26-yard touchdown run. The Panthers had dominated the third quarter, starting with a Thomas Davis interception off Josh Johnson on the first play of the half. After Stroughter's return, on which he sliced through the coverage team from left to right and eluded two tacklers at midfield, S Tanard Jackson returned an interception 26 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 21-21.
Carolina QB Jake Delhomme has a history of big late-game plays against Tampa Bay, but he was held almost completely in check on Sunday. Delhomme completed just nine of 17 passes for 65 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Another former Buc-killer, wide receiver Steve Smith had just one catch for four yards on the day, that one serving as the only passing play on the game-winning drive.
Buccaneers QB Josh Johnson was once again relatively sharp in his third career start, completing 11 of 17 passes for 147 yards and one interception. He was sacked four times but also ran eight times for 45 yards. That helped the Bucs' rushing attack produced 124 yards on 25 carries. Williams led the ground attack with 77 yards and a touchdown on 16 totes.
Stroughter had a big game, adding three receptions for 65 yards to his return touchdown. TE Kellen Winslow also caught three passes for 29 yards.
The Bucs opened with one of their fastest starts of the season, forcing a three-and-out on defense and driving 59 yards for a touchdown on their opening possession. Stroughter converted a third-and-11 near midfield with a nifty 29-yard catch and run and Williams capped the drive with a 20-yard touchdown run around left end.
The Panthers' Williams knotted the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter on a very similar 20-yard run to the left, completing a 67-yard march. That drive came after K Shane Andrus missed a 43-yard field goal attempt, his first as a Buccaneer, hitting it short following a wobbly snap that holder Dirk Johnson barely got down in time. The Buccaneers kept Carolina from taking the lead midway through the second quarter when G Davin Joseph blocked a 52-yard field goal attempt by John Kasay.
The Bucs' offense moved the ball well throughout the first half, gaining 160 yards, but once again had difficulty converting promising drives into points. In addition to the missed field goal – which came after Johnson missed an open Stroughter at the 10-yard line on third down – the Bucs also drove to the Carolina 24 shortly before halftime but eventually punted after a holding penalty and a sack-fumble.
"We're a young team that can't overcome those kinds of mistakes right now," said Morris. "We have to learn how to do that or either stop making those mistakes."
The half ended on that surprising note when Wesley knocked Smith out with a dangerous and illegal hit. Wesley launched himself into Smith's head as the returner was looking up for the football, a play that drew two penalties and got Wesley ejected from the game. Outraged Bucs tried to get at Wesley after the play, leading to a free-flowing melee near the north end zone. Perhaps fortunately, halftime came just seconds later, giving emotions time to settle down.
However, the second half started very poorly for the Buccaneers as Johnson was intercepted by LB Thomas Davis on the first play of the third quarter. Davis returned the ball to the Bucs' 12, and three runs by Williams made it fourth-and-one at the three. Carolina elected to go for it on fourth down and easily got it with Williams powering over left tackle for two yards. CB Aqib Talib stood Williams up at the one to prevent the touchdown but a play-action pass to TE Jeff King on the ensuing first down got the seven points.
The Bucs continued to look flat on the ensuing possession but Johnson got them going with a hardnosed 12-yard scramble, converting a third-and-11 and absorbing a big hit from Davis at the end. However, a pass-interference call on Winslow backed the ball up 10 yards. A bubble-screen to Antonio Bryant for nine yards made the third down a manageable six-yarder and Johnson scrambled again for 11 more yards. Two plays later, Charles Johnson stripped the ball from Johnson's hand, and though TE Jerramy Stevens recovered, the resulting third-and-10 was too much for the scrambling quarterback. The Bucs punted from midfield but missed a chance to trap return man Captain Munnerlyn inside the 10. Munnerlyn danced down the right sideline 34 yards all the way back to the Carolina 40.
The Panthers were in Buc territory in just two plays and Williams then got around left end for a gain of 12 and a first down at the 35. Three plays later, Stewart took a third-and-one handoff and weaved in and out of traffic for a 26-yard touchdown, giving Carolina a 21-7 lead with 2:33 left in the third quarter.
The Bucs charged back into the game, however, as Stroughter took the ensuing kickoff back for his first NFL touchdown. The Bucs then got their first sack of Delhomme, courtesy of Stylez G. White, and picked off the Carolina passer on his next throw. Delhomme tried to hit Smith over the middle but LB Quincy Black tipped it and Barrett Ruud picked it off at the Bucs' 35.
On the first play of the ensuing drive – and the last of the third quarter – Williams found the right edge for a gain of 20 into Carolina territory. A holding call backed the Bucs into a second-and-18 at the start of the fourth period but an 11-yard pass to Stroughter and yet another Johnson scramble appeared to move the chains. However, Panthers Head Coach John Fox challenged the spot and won when replays showed Johnson stepping out of bounds before extending the football. The result was a fourth-and-one at the Carolina 36 and the Bucs originally chose to go for it. However, after suffering a false start penalty, the Bucs elected to punt and Johnson's kick rolled down to the four.
The Bucs' defense stopped two Williams runs to force a third-and-seven but the Carolina back cut his third-and-seven carry back into a big seam on the left side and got 11 yards out to the Panthers' 18. Stewart got the next two handoffs but only two yards, setting up another long third down. This one went in the Buccaneers' favor in a big way, as LB Geno Hayes pressured Delhomme into a pass intended for Muhammad that Jackson intercepted for the game-tying score with less than nine minutes to play.
Following a touchback, two Williams runs picked up 12 yards and a first down. Williams and Stewart continued to pound away, with the latter's 10-yard run putting the ball a yard over midfield. Facing a third-and-three at the Bucs' 42, the Panthers opened an enormous hole in the middle for Stewart and he dashed for nine yards. From there, Carolina simply ran the ball again and again, often opening holes that kept their backs from being touched until they were well beyond the line of scrimmage. The Bucs had to use all three of their timeouts after the two-minute warning, but the repeated runs bled almost all the time of the clock. Williams finished the drive with a one-yard run with 29 seconds left.
Game Notes: Carolina now leads the all-time series against the Buccaneers, 11-7. … TE Kellen Winslow played in his 50th NFL game on Sunday. … Rookie WR Sammie Stroughter now has 13 catches this season, 10 of which have produced first downs. Seven times he has converted a third down with one of his catches … Third-year DE Stylez G. White got the start at right defensive end following the Friday trade of DE Gaines Adams to Chicago and recorded the team's only sack. White now has three career starts. … G Davin Joseph's block of a John Kasay field goal attempt in the second quarter was the first blocked field goal by a Buccaneer since December 24, 2006, when G Jeb Terry did it to the Browns' Phil Dawson on a 31-yard attempt in Cleveland. … Rookie WR Sammie Stroughter's 97-yard kickoff return was the third runback of a kickoff for a score in team history. It is the third such score for the Buccaneers in their last 25 regular season games after they had none through their first 497 games. The first two were recorded by Micheal Spurlock on Dec. 16, 2007 and Clifton Smith on Nov. 2, 2008. … S Tanard Jackson's 26-yard interception return in the fourth quarter resulted in the first touchdown of Jackson's career. It was also the Bucs' first defensive touchdown of the season and their first score on a pick since Ronde Barber did it against Detroit on Nov. 23, 2008.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Yamon Figurs, CB Derrick Roberson, FB B.J. Askew, C Jonathan Compas, T Demar Dotson, DT Dre Moore, DE Kyle Moore and designated third quarterback Byron Leftwich. Only Askew was out due to injury.
The Panthers deactivated these eight men: RB Tyrell Sutton, CB C.J. Wilson, RB Mike Goodson, T Garry Williams, G Duke Robinson, DE Hilee Taylor, DT Nick Hayden and designated third quarterback A.J. Feeley. None were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, RB Clifton Smith left the game after suffering a concussion in the second quarter and did not return.
The Panthers did not report an injury during the game.