CB Ronde Barber and the Bucs' defense hit WR Steve Smith hard on several occasions, but the Panther wideout still gained 106 yards and a touchdown
The first half of the season ended poorly for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Fortunately, the battle for the NFC South is just beginning.
It will obviously be an uphill battle for the Bucs, though, after their discouraging, turnover-riddled, 34-14 loss to the division-rival Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. It was Carolina's fifth straight victory over the Buccaneers.
"I'm very disappointed in the loss," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Carolina is a very physical football team and they proved that today."
Tampa Bay's first home loss of the season was also the first of six intra-division games the Bucs will play in a nine-game stretch. On Sunday, they did not appear to be on equal footing with the Panthers, enduring their most lopsided loss in what has generally been a very tight series. The 20-point final margin marked the Bucs' worst loss since a 33-13 defeat at Tennessee to end the 2003 season.
Carolina moved to 6-2 and the Bucs dropped to 5-3 with the decision. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons won at Miami, 17-10, to move to 6-2 and push the Bucs into third place in the South.
Third-year QB Chris Simms was sharp during the first half of his home starting debut, but no sharper than Carolina starter and long-time Buc nemesis Jake Delhomme. The Panther quarterback led three first-half scoring drives, including a 90-yard march keyed by a 62-yard completion to ageless WR Ricky Proehl in the second quarter.
Then, trailing 17-7 to start the second half, Simms made his first real mistake of the game, trying to hit WR Michael Clayton on a short out that CB Chris Gamble read all the way. The result was a 61-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 17-point lead that proved too much for the home team to overcome. Forced to pass on nearly every down, the Bucs became victim to Carolina's supercharged pass rush and the offensive mistakes it generates. Five sacks and four Buccaneer giveaways, in fact, turned this one into a rout.
"We fumbled early in the game, set up Carolina for the score," said Gruden. "The interception in the second half, we had a good drive going. Those are big plays in the game. The [third-quarter] interception was a decisive blow in this game."
After a much less productive second half, Simms finished the game with 25 completions in 42 attempts for 259 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He was also responsible for three of the Bucs' four turnovers, as a Mike Rucker sack in the third quarter forced a fumble that Carolina converted into one of John Kasay's two short field goals. The Bucs have turned the ball over seven times in the last two weeks and not taken it away once.
Tampa Bay's defense, ranked first in the league and allowing only 230 yards per game coming into the weekend, was stung for 287 yards, most of it through the air. Delhomme completed 11 of 18 passes for 216 yards and one touchdown, a 35-yard bomb to NFL MVP candidate Steve Smith in the fourth quarter. Smith, who seemed to be angered by a late hit by S Jermaine Phillips near the goal line in the third quarter, finished the game with five receptions for 106 yards and an average of 21.2 yards per catch.
The Bucs' running game struggled early for the second straight week and was abandoned by necessity in the second half. Tampa Bay gained just 44 yards on 18 carries, and rookie back Cadillac Williams was held to 29 yards on 11 totes Since his amazing start – an NFL-record 434 rushing yards in his first three games – Williams has been derailed by a left foot sprain and has gained just 62 yards on 35 carries since. He also fumbled for the first time in his career, a first-quarter giveaway that set up Carolina's first touchdown.
Thankfully for the home team, WR Joey Galloway also continued his own trend of prolific games. He caught five passes for 83 yards and briefly got the Bucs back in the game in the second quarter with his sixth touchdown of the year. In fact, the Bucs may soon be wondering if there is nothing the seemingly unstoppable speed merchant can't do. On Sunday, he even got Tampa Bay's defense untracked, for awhile.
After Williams fumble led to a Stephen Davis touchdown and a 10-0 Carolina lead 12 minutes into the first quarter, Galloway scored on a 50-yard bomb over the middle on the first play of the second period. Tampa Bay's defense had put virtually no pressure on Delhomme on the Panthers' first two drives, but it was all over Delhomme on the series after Galloway's score. DE Dewayne White had a sack and a pass defensed in rapid succession and the defense forced a three-and-out. That was, however, the Bucs' only sack of the game after getting none last week in San Francisco.
Unfortunately, the momentum was short-lived. Three false starts in rapid succession by T Kenyatta Walker killed a promising Buccaneer drive, and Carolina responded by going 90 yards for a touchdown, recapturing its 10-point lead. The big play was the 62-yard completion over the middle to Proehl on third-and-10. Davis scored his second touchdown two snaps later on a one-yard run. That restored Carolina's 10-point lead, which it took into halftime.
FB Mike Alstott, one of the most popular players in franchise history and still a fan favorite, provided a few of the game's most uplifting moments, including a one-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter. Alstott's run, which followed a pass interference call on a fourth-and-goal pass attempt that fell incomplete, merely pulled the Bucs within 20. It did delight the remaining crowd, however, which had begun to chant his name. Earlier in the game, with the result still in doubt, Alstott had fought and spun through two apparent tackles to get a first down on a third-and-10 reception. Alstott finished the game with two receptions for 21 yards, plus his one TD run.
One matchup that has gone poorly for the Buccaneers during much of the ongoing series with Carolina was at the center of some trouble again on Sunday. Walker, charged with blocking the dangerous Julius Peppers, drew those three false-start penalties in the span of four attempted snaps in the second quarter, killing a Buc drive that had reached the Carolina 43. Peppers also broke through the Bucs' line for two of the Panthers' five sacks on the day. After a very strong start to the season, Tampa Bay's offensive line has allowed 10 sacks and blocked for just 87 rushing yards over the past two weekends.
"Offensively, we have to do a much better job of creating running lanes to run through and in pass protection," said Gruden. "They got to us. This is a very good front for Carolina. We did not do a good enough job."
The offensive line also was victim of some injury misfortune, as starting left tackle Anthony Davis went down with a left knee sprain on the penultimate play of the first half. Veteran Todd Steussie, the former Panther, replaced Davis in the second half. The Bucs weren't certain about Davis' long-term health status by the end of the game.
"We don't know yet," said Gruden. "We'll get that evaluated tonight. We are concerned obviously."
This one figured to be a struggle between two strong and aggressive defenses and Tampa Bay's crew appeared to make a statement on the first play from scrimmage, when CB Brian Kelly thwarted a staple of the Carolina offense, reacting immediately to a pass down the line of scrimmage to Smith. Kelly arrived with the ball and tackled Smith hard, forcing an incompletion. However, it was the Panthers who could talk first, as they still took that drive 59 yards for a game-opening field goal.
Carolina also made the first big defensive play of the game. Williams lost the first fumble of his NFL career as he inadvertently swung the ball into T Kenyatta Walker's elbow. DE Mike Rucker recovered for the Panthers and would have scored if not for a strong tackle by Simms at the Bucs' 32. The save was only temporary, as Delhomme converted a third-and-12 with an 18-yard pass to Smith and Davis finished the drive with a four-yard touchdown run. Carolina had a 10-0 lead with only 12 minutes gone in the game.
LB Shelton Quarles led the Bucs' defense with a season-high 14 tackles, many of them hard hits around the line of scrimmage. He also forced a fumble by RB DeShaun Foster, though it went out of bounds on a day when little else could be expected. Phillips added nine tackles and a pass defensed. White had the Bucs' only sack of the game.
The Bucs remain at home for another week to take on Washington next Sunday.
Game Notes: Sunday's loss dropped the Bucs to 3-1 at home this season and ended their chance to post the first undefeated home slate in franchise history. The best home record in Buccaneer history is 7-1, established in 1999. The Bucs can still exceed their 4-4 home mark of 2004. … TE Dave Moore played in the 199th game of his career on Sunday. Of those 199, 169 have come as a Buccaneer, which puts him second all-time on that franchise list. Paul Gruber played in the most games for Tampa Bay, 183. Moore has the most games played among all active tight ends in the NFL. Assuming he also plays next weekend against Washington, Moore will be just the eighth tight end in league history to play in 200 games, joining Trey Junkin, Pete Metzelaars, Rodney Holman, Ed West, Jackie Smith, Howard Cross and Shannon Sharpe. … The Bucs' defense had an impressive goal-line stand in the third quarter, particularly considering Carolina's usual success in that situation. Before this stop, the Panthers had scored touchdowns on all 16 of their goal-to-go situations in 2005, including their first two of Sunday's game. LB Shelton Quarles stopped RB Stephen Davis on a sweep left on third-and-one to force a field goal. … FB Mike Alstott's one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was the 63rd score of his career, as he extended his all-time franchise lead in that category. It was his 51st rushing touchdown.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: S Dexter Jackson, LB Wesly Mallard, T Chris Colmer, DT Anthony Bryant, C Scott Jackson, TE Nate Lawrie, WR J.R. Russell and designated third quarterback Tim Rattay.
The Panthers named the following eight players inactive: WR Drew Carter, RB Jamal Robertson, T Dave Kadela, C Geoff Hangartner, TE Mike Seidman, DE Jovan Haye, DT Atiyyah Ellison and designated third quarterback Stefan LeFors.
Injuries: Starting LT Anthony Davis sustained a left knee sprain just before halftime and did not return.