WR Ike Hilliard put the Bucs on top in the first quarter with a six-yard touchdown but Carolina pulled away after halftime
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers reversed roles on Monday night, but the final result was all too familiar for the visiting Buccaneers. The Panthers continued their recent domination of the Bucs, sweeping the season series and winning for the sixth time in the last seven meetings, this time by a score of 24-10.
Playing in prime time for the first time since 2004, the Bucs surprisingly took control of the game in the first half but let it slip away after halftime. Tampa Bay had been prone to slow starts all season but scored the game's first points on an Ike Hilliard touchdown in the first quarter and held Carolina scoreless all the way to halftime.
Carolina, by contrast, had made a habit of starting fast, particularly on defense, but losing control late. This time, the Panthers took the game over in the third quarter, scoring 17 unanswered points that were aided immeasurably by two Buccaneer turnovers. Tampa Bay tried to turn the tables once again in the fourth quarter but had their 59-yard field goal drive immediately trumped by Carolina's methodical 72-yard touchdown march. This one ended on a 36-yard touchdown pass to WR Steve Smith, who stung the Bucs for 149 yards and one score on eight receptions. Former Buccaneer Keyshawn Johnson also found the end zone, notching his third touchdown in two games against Tampa Bay this season.
Turnovers were the Bucs' undoing, as is the tale in many football games. An early fumble recovery helped the visitors jump on top, but two interceptions in the final two minutes of the first half killed a pair of good scoring chances. The Bucs gave it away four times in all, leading to 14 Carolina points.
The Bucs' first Monday Night Football game in two years seemed to invigorate the team on both sides of the ball. When Hilliard caught a six-yard touchdown pass with 2:23 to play in the opening stanza, it marked not only the second first-quarter touchdown for the Bucs all season but the first TD Carolina had allowed in the first quarter all year. By the time that quarter came to an end, the Bucs had a 7-0 lead, an 85-45 yardage advantage, a 6-1 edge in first downs and the game's only takeaway.
Knowing they needed to establish a passing game to loosen up the defense for Cadillac Williams, the Bucs came out throwing. Gradkowski threw on each of the game's first three plays, including a 16-yard slant to WR Michael Clayton on third-and-six. The tactic worked, at least in terms of getting the offense off to a better start than usual. Unfortunately, the Bucs had to punt from their own 40. Williams never did find a consistent groove, either, gaining just 44 yards on 15 totes.
The Bucs also got veteran fullback Mike Alstott involved on the first drive, giving him his first two carries in five games. The two runs up the gut produced a first down just past midfield and set up a perfect play call, as Gradkowski faked another handoff to Alstott and threw deep to Galloway, who had come wide open on a post pattern. Unfortunately, Gradkowski's pass led Galloway a bit too far and the game's first touchdown opportunity was lost. Still, the drive gave the Bucs' offense confidence it could move the ball against Carolina and before the first quarter they would have the lead. Gradkowski and Galloway would eventually hook up for five completions and 87 yards.
The Bucs' defense reversed its trend of slow starts, too, forcing the Panthers to punt on their first possession. The defense was without three starters, MLB Shelton Quarles, RDE Simeon Rice and DT Ellis Wyms, but looked very stout early against the run. Rice's replacement, fourth-year end Dewayne White, also recovered a fumble midway through the first quarter after Ronde Barber stripped WR Keyshawn Johnson near midfield.
The Bucs' defensive fill-ins played well, helping to hold Carolina to 78 yards on 30 carries and an average of 2.6 yards per run. LB Barrett Ruud had six tackles, including a key third-down stop on Foster in the second quarter; Dewayne White turned in five tackles and a fumble recovery. Long-time starter Barber was the team's defensive star once again, however, combing five tackles with one interception, one forced fumble and four passes defensed.
Gradkowski drove the Bucs 48 yards on five plays after Barber's first turnover, beginning with a 27-yard strike to Galloway, who was once again wide open. Hilliard put the ball in the end zone with a nice, reaching catch of a hard, six-yard pass over the middle and the Bucs led 7-0 with two minutes to play. Prior to that score, the Panthers had surrendered only three field goals in eight first quarters, the lowest point total allowed by any team in any quarter this season.
The Bucs' defense continued to hold strong and nearly forced turnovers on each of the Panthers' next two drives. On the first of those two possessions, White appeared to force a fumble by RB DeShaun Foster but the runner was ruled down and the Bucs' replay challenge was denied. On the second, Barber made a quick break on a pass to Smith and batted the ball into the air, where it was nearly intercepted by S Will Allen. Neither ball ended up in the Bucs' hands, but both drives came up empty as the Bucs took their shutout into halftime.
Gradkowski tried to pad the lead at the two-minute warning of the first half by lofting a deep ball for Galloway down the left sideline, but CB Ken Lucas made a leaping interception in front of the receiver. Lucas fell to the ground at the Carolina one-yard line and, three plays later, Barber intercepted a pass intended for WR Drew Carter on a deep crossing pass. Barber was ruled down at the Carolina 30, but the Buccaneer defenders were flagged for a group demonstration that resembled a bunch of guys rowing canoes.
The penalty moved the ball back to the Carolina 45 with roughly a minute to play in the half and three plays later, on third-and-one, Gradkowski was intercepted again. Clayton got past CB Chris Gamble and was open down the left hash marks, but Gradkowski's pass hung long enough for S Shaun Williams to run in front of Clayton for the pick.
Though the Bucs didn't score off Barber's interception, it was yet another example of the Pro Bowl cornerback coming up with a big play. This one was also a significant career milestone; it was the 31st interception of Barber's career, tying him with Donnie Abraham for most in team history.
The Panthers' offense finally put some points on the board to start the second half, thanks to a familiar foe. Smith raced past Juran Bolden down the right sideline for a gain of 43 to the Bucs' 27. An unnecessary roughness penalty on Bolden on the next play – replays appeared to show Johnson taking an Oscar-worthy dive out of bounds – moved the ball down to the nine but the Bucs' defense held and Carolina settled for John Kasay's 28-yard field goal.
Unfortunately, the Bucs turned the ball over three plays later to set up another Carolina scoring opportunity. Gradkowski scrambled for a first down on third-and-three but was hit hard by LB Chris Draft at the end of the run. The football popped back five yards and was recovered by DE Julius Peppers at the Bucs' 44. Another Smith long-gainer, this one a 21-yard catch-and-run down to the Bucs' four-yard line. The Bucs stopped the Panthers on the next two downs but Delhomme stood fast inside a collapsing pocket on third down and had just enough time to deliver a four-yard touchdown pass to Johnson in the back middle of the end zone. The Panthers thus took their first lead of the game, at 10-7 halfway through the third quarter.
Another Buccaneer turnover led to a second Carolina touchdown in the third quarter. On the first play of the Bucs' third possession of the half, Williams fumbled without being touched and S Mike Minter recovered for Carolina at the Bucs' 16. Four plays later, FB Brad Hoover trotted through an open gap over right guard for a five-yard touchdown and a 17-7 Carolina lead.
The Bucs did get within one score with a 59-yard field goal drive in the fourth quarter. Consecutive completions of 26 and 19 yards to Galloway got Tampa Bay into Carolina's red zone, but the drive stalled at the 10 and the Bucs' settled for Matt Bryant's 28-yard kick, drawing to within 17-10 with 8:32 to play.
Unfortunately, they would get no closer. The Panthers answered with a 72-yard touchdown march that looked too easy, not requiring a single third-down conversion. Smith got the drive started with a nine-yard gain on a screen, then finished it with an easy lope down the sideline past broken Buc coverage.
With the loss, the Bucs fall to 2-7 on the season, including 0-5 in NFC South play. Carolina's win improves the Panthers to 5-4 and puts them into a second-place tie with Atlanta, one game behind New Orleans. The Buccaneers return home to face the Washington Redskins next Sunday.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers fell to 9-8 all time on Monday Night Football with the loss. That mark includes a Saturday night win over Baltimore in 2001 that was considered part of the Monday Night Football series. The Bucs are 2-5 on the road all-time on Monday Night Football. … TE Dave Moore tied Paul Gruber for second place on the Bucs' all-time games played list on Monday night. Moore made his 183rd appearance for Tampa Bay, matching Gruber's mark. Both Moore and Gruber trail LB Derrick Brooks by two games. Brooks made his 185th appearance on Monday night. … DE Dewayne White's fumble recovery in the first quarter was the seventh of his career and his third this season. … WR Joey Galloway's 27-yard catch in the first quarter put him over 9,000 receiving yards in his career. After catching five passes for 87 on the evening, Galloway ended the night with 9,063 career receiving yards with the Buccaneers, Cowboys and Seahawks. … FB Mike Alstott's 18-yard catch in the second quarter was the 299th of his career, moving him past Keyshawn Johnson into third place on the Bucs' all-time receptions list. … CB Ken Lucas' interception just before halftime marked the first time Gradkowski had thrown an interception in four games. The turnover snapped a streak of 147 straight passes without a pick by the rookie quarterback. The team record for consecutive passes without an interception is 187, set by Brad Johnson in 2001 and 2002. Gradkowski threw only one interception in his first 202 NFL pass attempts, the lowest INT total in that many passes to start a career in league history.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: CB Alan Zemaitis, LB Shelton Quarles, T Donald Penn, G Jeb Terry, WR Paris Warren, DT Ellis Wyms, DE Simeon Rice and designated third quarterback Luke McCown. Quarles, Penn, Wyms and Rice were all out due to injuries.
The Panthers named the following eight players inactive: RB Eric Shelton, S Nate Salley, LB Brandon Jamison, DT Jordan Carstens, DE Stanley McClover, C Justin Hartwig, G D'Anthony Batiste and T Rashad Butler. Carstens and Hartwig were out due to injury.
Injuries: TE Alex Smith sustained a right foot sprain in the third quarter but returned to the game on the Bucs' next drive.