The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost the turnover battle in their season opener, 3-0 , and not surprisingly came up on the short end of a 20-14 decision against the Carolina Panthers. The game wasn't decided, however, until one final giveaway…and one near takeaway that could have changed everything.
Despite a flat performance for three quarters from the team's reconstructed offense, the Buccaneers were in position to at least force overtime with just under two minutes left in the game. After Josh McCown's second touchdown pass of the final period cut Carolina's lead to 17-14, LB Lavonte David pressured QB Derek Anderson into a hurried throw that was nearly intercepted by S Dashon Goldson deep in Panther territory. Goldson couldn't hang on, however, and after a Carolina punt the Bucs' comeback hopes ended on a Bobby Rainey fumble with 1:27 to play.
"I don't even remember that play, to be exact," said Rainey, who fumbled on a short reception just minutes after closing the gap to three points on a six-yard scoring pass. "I just know that I fumbled the ball – that's the play I remember. I don't remember anything leading up to that. I need to do a better job of holding onto the ball and making a play when the team needs me."
Tampa Bay scored twice in the final quarter on touchdown catches by Rainey and WR Chris Owusu. For much of the afternoon, however, the Bucs' offense struggled to find a rhythm, gaining just 136 yards through the first three quarters, and 264 by game's end. McCown completed 22 of 35 passes for 183 yards and the two scores, but he also committed two turnovers on ill-advised passes when he was in the clutches of Panther defenders.
McCown threw 13 touchdown passes against just one interception while starting for much of the second half of last season with the Chicago Bears, and the Buccaneers rushed to grab him in free agency expecting the same sort of heady leadership. Head Coach Lovie Smith, who stresses takeaways as perhaps the most important element in his formula for success, considered Sunday's opener to be an aberration for McCown.
"I don't think I would analyze it too much," said Smith. "He made two bad plays he normally wouldn't. He won't do that again."
McCown also absorbed three sacks and wasn't helped by the early departure of Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, who suffered a left knee injury in the second quarter. The Bucs didn't run the ball particularly well, either; the team's 6.0 yards-per-carry average on 17 totes was skewed by a 54-yard run on an underneath handoff to FB Jorvorskie Lane. Starting tailback Doug Martin found very little room to run, gaining just nine yards on nine carries.
Tampa Bay's defense was relatively stout but never came up with the big play. Pro Bowl DT Gerald McCoy set the tone with a stop of jumbo RB Mike Tolbert on third-and-one three plays into the game, but Carolina eventually turned the tide with series of short passes. Carolina's longest play was a 26-yard touchdown catch by rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin in the fourth quarter, one of only three plays of 17 or more yards on the day. McCoy finished the game with eight solo tackles, two tackles for loss and the Buccaneers' only sack of the game.
LB Lavonte David led the Buccaneers with 10 tackles, including two for a loss, but he and the Bucs' defense couldn't take advantage of Newton's absence.
"[Anderson] was smart with the football," said David. "He came in and managed the game. I'm sure that was their game plan, for him to come in and manage the game, not try to make too many plays. I take my hat off to him; he did a good job of doing that."
A relative lack of pressure from Tampa Bay's defense allowed Carolina to leave Tampa with a win despite resting starting quarterback Cam Newton, who suffered a rib fracture in the preseason. Anderson, making his first start since the 2010 season, completed 24 of 34 passes for 230 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 108.7. He rarely looked downfield but found consistent success throwing over the middle to TE Greg Olsen, who caught eight passes for 83 yards and a touchdown.
The Bucs deferred after winning the toss and the defense lived up to Lovie Smith's confidence, forcing a three-and-out when McCoy stone-walled RB Mike Tolbert on third-and-one. McCown got the Bucs into Carolina territory with a 26-yard completion to rookie TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins on third-and-nine, but it stalled outside field goal range on a third-down sack by DT Dwan Edwards.
The Panthers got the ball back at their own 11 and got a quick first down on an Anderson scramble and a short rollout pass to Greg Olsen. Two more first downs followed, including an 11-yard catch by rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin that got the ball just over midfield. The Bucs got the stop after that, but a very short punt by Brad Nortman took a lucky bounce and rolled down to the Bucs' three-yard line.
FB Jorvorskie Lane immediately took care of that problem, taking an underneath handoff through the line and rambling 54 yards into Carolina territory. Unfortunately, two plays later, McCown made an ill-advised attempt to escape a sack and his pass in Seferian-Jenkins' direction was deflected and intercepted by CB Antoine Cason.
The Bucs' defense forced a third-and-seven right after the turnover but Anderson had a lot of time to throw and eventually found Benjamin downfield at the Bucs' 44. The Bucs brought a big blitz three plays later on third-and-five but Anderson was able to find WR Jerricho Cotchery for a gain of eight. The next third down was converted with a play-action rollout pass to Olsen, making it first down at the Bucs' 14. S Dashon Goldson stopped a third-and-one run at the five by Tolbert but the Panthers elected to go for it on fourth-and-one. Anderson did his best Cam Newton impression, sneaking up the middle for a first down at the three. Two plays later, a play-action pass to Olsen completed the touchdown drive.
The Bucs' offense failed to follow up with a first down, and G Logan Mankins was hurt in the process. A penalty on the ensuing punt helped push the Panthers back to their own 18 with six minutes left in the half. Two quick passes down the middle of the field got the Panthers out to midfield but a pair of running plays were swallowed up by David and LB Mason Foster to set up a third-and-10. The Panthers ended up punting from the Bucs' 47 with three minutes left in the half.
Unfortunately, the Bucs' offense gave the ball back without a first down, and Carolina started up against at its own 43 with 1:53 to play. That gave the visitors enough time to drive for a field goal, with Gano knocking home a 28-yarder on the last play of the half.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half after a touchback and mounted a drive that reached into Carolina territory. McCown got one first down on his own 12-yard scramble, then put the ball over midfield with a seven-yard strike to Jackson on second-and-six. Evan's catch two plays on a quick buttonhook made it first down at the Panthers' 27, but two Martin runs were bottled up and a third-down dropback by McCown led to a sack by Luke Kuechly and a punt.
The Panthers got one first down to start the ensuing drive but a big Bucs blitz pressured Anderson into a throwaway that brought a grounding penalty and a third-and-long. A short pass underneath to Benjamin failed to move the chains and the Panthers punted from their 23.
Starting from their own 30, the Bucs ran into a third-and-one and got it on a McCown sneak. On the next play, however, McCown held the ball too long as he looked downfield and got sacked from behind, forcing a fumble that TE Brandon Myers recovered. An illegal-contact call on third-and-long kept the drive alive, but disaster struck on the next play. McCown had the ball slip from his hand on a quick pass attempt; when he picked it up and tried to complete the play, S Roman Harper walked into an easy interception.
Carolina turned that into the game-clinching score. After converting a third-and-five with yet another pass to Olsen on the final play of the third quarter, Anderson went deep to Benjamin on the first play of the final period. Despite coverage tight enough to draw a penalty, Anderson got the ball into Benjamin's hands for a 26-yard score. The Panthers had another scoring opportunity early in the final period but Gano missed a 48-yard field goal attempt.
The Bucs answered with their first scoring drive, marching 62 yards on six plays to set up McCown's 19-yad touchdown pass to WR Chris Owusu. The play was reviewed but Owusu was seen to tap both feet before stepping out of bounds.
The Bucs' defense got the ball back with four minutes left thanks in part to a sack by Gerald McCoy on third-and-three from midfield. Patton fielded the ensuing punt at his own six and found a seam to get it all the way back to the 39.
McCown moved the Bucs downfield from there, hitting Jackson on a 15-yard out after Bobby Rainey's six-yard run on third-and-two. McCown's own 13-yard scramble go the ball down to the eight-yard line, and two plays later Evans appeared to catch a tipped pass for a touchdown while lying on his back. However, Evans was ruled to have stepped out of bounds right before making the catch and the Bucs faced a third-and-goal. On the next play, McCown waited for the patterns to develop and then dropped off a seven-yard TD pass to Rainey.
The Bucs had all three timeouts left when the Panthers took over with 2:06 left. A false start helped push Carolina into a third-and-nine at the 16, and Anderson threw a pass that was nearly intercepted by S Dashon Goldson. After the punt, Tampa Bay took over at its own 32 but immediately lost five yards on a false start by Garrett Gilkey. Worse yet, Rainey fumbled after catching a short pass on the next play, ending the Bucs' comeback hopes.
- The Buccaneers named the following seven players inactive before Sunday's game: CB Rashaan Melvin, S Bradley McDougald, T Kevin Pamphile, G Rishaw Johnson, G Kadeem Edwards, DE Da'Quan Bowers and DE William Gholston. Melvin, McDougald, Bowers and Gholston were out due to injury.
- The Panthers deactivated the following players: QB Cam Newton, WR Brentson Bersin, S Tre Boston, T David Foucault, G Andrew Norwell, TE Brandon Williams and DE Kony Ealy. Newton was out due to injury.