They were led by a first-year head coach, a 24-year-old quarterback and three rookie starters. Oh, and a 37-year-old, 16th-year veteran who has seemingly discovered the Fountain of Youth just in time to be part of a potentially stunning franchise turnaround.
Greg Schiano's Buccaneers opened the 2012 season in undeniably impressive fashion, stifling dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton and beating their division rivals, the Carolina Panthers, 16-10, on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Josh Freeman was sharp in command of an efficient Buccaneers offense and 2012 draft picks Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Lavonte David all made enormous contributions.
Then there was Ronde Barber, the Hall of Fame-bound cornerback turned safety who played like he was 10 years younger. Schiano's defense moved Barber all over the field and he was consistently in the middle of the action. Included in his statistical haul, for the only player in NFL history with at least 40 interceptions and 25 sacks, was another interception, another sack and a critical third-and-goal tackle of Newton late in the fourth quarter.
And, oh, that defense!
After struggling to some of the worst defensive numbers in franchise history in 2011, this reconstructed crew held one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL to 301 yards and 10 points, much of that in the fourth quarter. It picked off Newton twice (Barber and S Ahmad Black), sacked him three times and only allowed him to scramble for four yards. Last year, Newton scored four rushing touchdowns in two games against the Buccaneers.
Most impressive was the run defense, with David leading the charge. Carolina had -1 rushing yards at the half and only 10 by the end of the game. That tied for the best display of run defense in franchise history, as the Bucs also held Washington just 10 yards on the ground on December 4, 1994. Carolina was playing without RB Jonathan Stewart, who has an injured ankle, but the Bucs still had to contend with Newton in the running game. The second-year star ran five times for those four yards and, unlike last season, didn't find the end zone against Tampa Bay.
Meanwhile, Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman was efficient in the passing game as he had a strong rushing attack to lean on. Freeman completed 16 of 24 passes for 138 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 95.5. Martin carried the ball 24 times for 95 yards as the Bucs ran 36 times for 130 yards overall. The rookie back was particularly impressive at the end of the game, as his hard-charging runs into the middle of a stacked defense allowed the Bucs to pick up the game's final two first downs and run the last three minutes off the clock.
The strong running game and opportunistic defense allowed Tampa Bay to control the football for 37:27 of the game's 60 minutes.
"That was very important," said Schiano. "That's critical when you keep [Newton] off the field. The best way to defend him is to not have to defend him. When they got their chances, I thought our guys did well. He's a tough guy to defend."
David led the Bucs' defense with six tackles and Barron added three tackles plus two important passes defensed, including a diving one in the fourth quarter that denied a deep completion on third down and roughly eight minutes left in the game. The Bucs' other non-rookie newcomers made big impacts, as well. WR Vincent Jackson led the team with four catches for 47 yards, including a third-down grab that kept the Panthers from getting one more possession at the end of the game. G Carl Nicks was a key blocker in that strong rushing attack, and one on play inside the red zone he hustled downfield to move the pile several more yards after a Jackson reception.
Special teams action played a big part in the final outcome, as well. The Panthers' punt and kickoff coverage was outstanding in the second half, which helped them get the ball in outstanding field position in the third quarter, leading to their one touchdown on Newton's 22-yard pass to WR Brandon LaFell. However, CB Aqib Talib blocked a fourth-quarter punt by Brad Nortman and that set up Barth's third field goal, a 40-yarder that gave Tampa Bay a two-score lead with eight minutes to play. Schiano credited that play with reversing a momentum that had begun to swing in Carolina's favor, and it also set up the third of Barth's three field goals.
The effort made Schiano a winner in his NFL regular-season debut. The ninth head coach in franchise history, Schiano is just the fourth to win in his first game on the sideline, joining Ray Perkins, Sam Wyche and Richard Williamson, and just the third to win in a season-opener, as Williamson replaced Perkins late in the 1990 campaign. It was a decision that seemed to be based very solidly on Schiano's principles, which include an intention to rely on the running game and an emphasis on protecting the football. Tampa Bay's defense secured the only two turnovers of the game, and Carolina also had the game's only two fumbles, although they recovered them both.
"That was a good team win," said Schiano. "I'm really happy for the guys. They've worked awfully hard and for them to be able to get a win after all that is good. Now the journey begins. If you take care of the football and you possess the football, you have a chance to win games. The guys did a good job with that today."
The win allowed the Buccaneers to start the season in a first-place tie in the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons, who defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Missouri on Sunday. The New Orleans Saints lost at home to the Washington Redskins are now 0-1, along with the Panthers.
It's difficult to say whether the Buccaneers' offense or defense got off to a better start. On Carolina's opening drive, LB Mason Foster and DT Gerald McCoy stopped Williams' first two runs for losses and Barron had a key pass-breakup to force a quick punt after just one first down. Tampa Bay's new-look offense then made the most of its first possession, driving 80 yards on 13 plays in 7:20 for a touchdown.
The drive was as impressive as any opening march in recent team history. Martin ran the ball five times for 26 yards and made a stunning 11-yard catch with a defender in his face. Freeman completed all seven of his passes on the drive for 52 yards and the capping touchdown, a six-yard strike over the middle to Williams.
Barber's leaping third-down pass deflection on the next possession forced another Carolina punt and the Bucs got the ball back at midfield after Panthers CB Captain Munnerlyn was flagged for fair-catch interference. Munnerlyn hit return man Sammie Stroughter in much the same way he did in 2009 to Clifton Smith, giving Smith a concussion that cost him several games. Freeman immediately hit Clark for a 33-yard gain, which set up Barth for a 36-yard field goal and the Bucs had a 10-0 lead near the end of the first quarter.
The Panthers did manage to get into Buccaneers territory in the second quarter after a 31-yard catch-and-run by Smith, but a big tackle in the backfield by Barber pushed them back out of field goal range and that drive ended in a punt, too. The Bucs scored the game's next points on another long drive that ate up much of the second quarter. This one was nearly as impressive as the game-opener, but the Panthers made a spirited goal-line stand and the Bucs had to settle for Barth's 20-yarder and a 13-0 lead. Freeman converted a key third-and-seven on the drive with a 21-yard pass over the middle to Jackson and also scrambled for another first down in the red zone.
Carolina had one more chance to score and once again got down to Tampa Bay's 35 in the final minute of the half. However, strong rushes by DT Gerald McCoy blew up consecutive plays and sent Newton scrambling. On the first, he was run out of bounds by Barber for a two-yard sack; on the second, he was nearly intercepted by Black.
In the second half, the Bucs got the ball first but had to punt for the first time. Carolina's offense finally got untracked on their first possession of the third quarter, as Newton drove his team 70 yards on just five plays for a touchdown. A 32-yard completion over the middle to Smith set up the scoring play, a 22-yard toss over the middle to LaFell, who was wide open inside the 10-yard line.
A holding penalty on G Ted Larsen erased a 31-yard catch by Vincent Jackson that would have put the Bucs at midfield on the next drive, and the offense couldn't overcome it as Freeman absorbed his first sack of the game, by DT Dwan Edwards. A 21-yard return by Joe Adams after a 48-yard Koenen punt put Carolina right back in Bucs territory, but that's when Barber came to the rescue again. Barber's interception of a pass tipped by CB Aqib Talib, as well his 24-yard return, put Tampa Bay's offense back on the field at the 50-yard stripe.
Two runs by Martin picked up one first down but the drive ended three plays later on another sack of Freeman, this one by Greg Hardy. The resulting punt bounced into the end zone for a touchback. Newton got his team close to midfield again but yet another drive ended in an interception as his deep throw in Smith's direction was hurried by an all-out blitz and intercepted by Black.
The Bucs had to punt again, however, after a three-and-out, and Cody Grimm dropped Adams at the 12 with a vicious hit. Unfortunately, a 24-yard catch by LaFell coupled with a roughing-the-passer call on DE Michael Bennett immediately got the ball back to midfield. The Bucs held their as Barron showed incredible range to get to the sideline and make a diving break-up of a deep pass intended for WR Louis Murphy.
Even better, Talib then made a diving block of Nortman's punt attempt, with DE Adrian Clayborn recovering at the Carolina 42. A spinning 12-yard run by Martin and a key third-down conversion by new Bucs RB D.J. Ware on a pitch got the ball into field goal range, and Barth put the Bucs up by nine points with a 40-yard field goal.
McCoy finally got Newton down after several near-misses on the first play of the ensuing drive, sacking him for a loss of eight on first down. Two plays later, on third-and-18, Bennett sacked Newton and forced a fumble that was nearly recovered on the run by Barber. The play still forced a punt that Stroughter put away at the Bucs' 41 with six minutes left.
The Bucs didn't move the chains on that drive but Koenen was able to punt the ball down to the Carolina 11. Tampa Bay's defense just missed a safety and an interception on the next play but it turned into a 20-yard catch by Tolbert, and Murphy made a 51-yard catch down the right sideline on the very next play. The Panthers got one more first down to get to the Bucs' seven, but that's where the defense held once again. Talib made a crucial last-second break-up of an end zone fade to Murphy on second-and-goal, and Barber led a gang of tacklers to Newton at the three when he tried to run it in on third-and-goal. Justin Medlock came in to kick a 21-yard field goal and make it 16-10 with 2:46 to play.
The Bucs went into a "four-minute drill," needing one first down to put Carolina in a very tough position, and two to put the game away. After two strong runs into the teeth of the defense by Martin, Jackson converted the third-and-two with a clutch catch on a route across the middle of the field. Martin brought the game to the two-minute warning with a 15-yard burst up the gut and that left nothing but three kneel-downs for victory.
- The Buccaneers played the game without third-year WR Arrelious Benn, who was one of seven players declared inactive by the team. The other inactive Bucs were CB Myron Lewis, CB Anthony Gaitor, CB E.J. Biggers, LB Najee Goode, T Jamon Meredith and DE Wallace Gilberry.
- The Panthers were without RB Jonathan Stewart due to an ankle injury. In addition to Stewart, Carolina deactivated QB Jimmy Clausen, S D.J. Campbell, RB Jonathan Stewart, G/C Jeff Byers, T Bruce Campbell, DT Sione Fua and DE Thomas Keiser.
- K Connor Barth broke the Buccaneers' record for consecutive field goals made during the first half of the game. His second field goal, a 20-yarder in the second quarter, was his 17th consecutive successful attempt, obviously dating back to the 2011 season. The previous record was 16, shared by Martin Gramatica and Michael Husted. Barth finished the game with three successes in three attempts, pushing his ongoing streak to 18.
- The Buccaneers held Carolina to -1 rushing yards on six attempts in the first half. That tied for the second-lowest total ever allowed by a Tampa Bay defense in a single half and was just one shy of the record. The Bucs allowed the New England Patriots -2 rushing yards in the first half on September 16, 1997.
- Three of the Buccaneers' seven 2012 draft picks started the season opener. First-rounders Mark Barron and Doug Martin started at strong safety and running back, respectively, and second-round LB Lavonte David opened the game at weakside linebacker.
- Aqib Talib's block of Brad Nortman's punt in the fourth quarter was the first blocked punt by a Buccaneer since 2009. The last was recorded by S Corey Lynch against Atlanta on November 29, 2009, and the victim was actually current Buccaneers punter Michael Koenen.