There doesn't seem to be too much concern about Josh Freeman's thumb anymore. On the other hand, opposing teams are definitely starting to worry about his legs.
That was definitely a problem for the Carolina Panthers, who were beaten 20-7 by Freeman's Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. The win produced Tampa Bay's first 2-0 start since 2005 and sent their bitter division rivals to 0-2.
The powerful right arm has never been questioned, though it was potentially compromised when Freeman suffered a fractured thumb in the second week of the 2010 preseason. That worry has been erased by two straight outstanding performances by the second-year passer. Against Carolina, he completed 12 of 24 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, compiling a passer rating of 102.4.
Freeman is rapidly developing into big-time, every-week weapon the Buccaneers have been searching for at quarterback for years. By tossing touchdown passes to Earnest Graham (14 yards) and rookie WR Mike Williams (35 yards), Freeman became the first Buc passer to throw at least two touchdown passes in consecutive games in almost four years, since Bruce Gradkowski did so early in 2006.
They didn't come easy, however, as Freeman repeatedly bought time by avoiding pressure and creating big gains out of broken plays. One play before his touchdown pass to Williams, Freeman stepped out of two potential sacks and threw on the run for a 40-yard sideline completion to Winslow. Freeman also scrambled effectively, running four times for 43 yards, twice converting long third downs in the process.
In contrast, young Carolina quarterback Matt Moore, who came in with a 2-0 record as a starter against Tampa Bay, never found a rhythm on this afternoon, completing just six of 16 passes for 125 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He was replaced in the fourth quarter by rookie QB Jimmy Claussen, who tried to help Carolina mount a rally but didn't fare much better. Overall, the Buccaneers held Carolina's passers to 13 completions in 29 attempts for 184 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a 48.6 passer rating.
Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib had interceptions for Tampa Bay's defense, which produced three turnovers for the second straight week. Barber's pick set up the first of Connor Barth's two field goals and Talib's ended Carolina's last attempt at a comeback drive. DE Kyle Moore also recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter that was forced by DE Tim Crowder, who had two of the Bucs' four sacks. LB Quincy Black also contributed a sack, as well as seven tackles, two tackles for loss and a quarterback pressure.
Most importantly, the Buccaneers fared better against Carolina's powerful rushing attack than it had in the past two seasons. The Panthers did run for 119 yards but they averaged only 3.6 yards per carry and had no rush longer than 19 yards. In the fourth quarter, LB Geno Hayes stopped RB Jonathan Stewart on a fourth-and-goal run from the one-yard line. Stewart finished with 43 yards on eight carries but his running mate, DeAngelo Williams, had just 54 yards on 17 carries, an average of 3.2 per tote.
While the Bucs' defense took the ball away three times, Freeman and the Bucs' offense took care of the ball. The Bucs did not commit a single giveaway, which almost always leads to victory. Since 2002, the Bucs have played 21 games in which they did not commit a turnover ,and they are now 19-2 in those contests.
Part of the Bucs' ball control offense was a continued commitment to the run. Tampa Bay ran 33 times a week after recording 33 rushes, and both times the team stuck with the run even when it wasn't terribly effective in the early going. RB Cadillac Williams ran into the teeth of the Carolina defense repeatedly, racking up 51 yards on 27 carries. Since the Bucs drafted Williams in 2005, they are 13-4 in games in which he gets at least 20 carries, including 2-0 in 2010.
Williams wouldn't have had nearly as many opportunities to carry the ball if Freeman didn't convert one long third down after another in the first half. The Bucs were successful on five of their seven third-down tries in the first two quarters, and each one of the conversions was from six yards or further. Four of the five were conversions of third-and-10 or longer. Winslow was the target of several of Freeman's third-down completions and he finished the game with four receptions for 83 yards despite practicing only briefly during the week.
Each team punted on its first possession but the Buccaneers' punt coverage was much better, and Micheal Spurlock's 23-yard return allowed Tampa Bay to start at its own 46. From there, Freeman drove the team 54 yards on eight plays, converting one long third down with a pass over the middle to Winslow and another on his own 17-yard scramble. A first-down play-action pass to Graham was perfectly designed, as the fullback found himself alone in the right flat, with an easy path to the end zone.
Williams ripped off runs of 11 and 10 yards to get Carolina into Buccaneers territory on the next drive, but the threat ended thanks to two consecutive pressures by Stylez G. White, forcing a pair of incompletions. However, the Panther running game continued to find its legs, starting with a 19-yard burst by Stewart up the middle. A play-action 26-yard strike to TE Donte Rosario put the Panthers over midfield, but Rosario dropped a third-down pass three plays later. The Panthers chose to go for it on fourth-and-four from the 37 and got more than a first down. Steve Smith caught a sharp pass over the middle and broke away from a diving Aqib Talib to run free down the middle of the field for the game-tying score.
Freeman answered back, however, with yet another example of his creative play-making. Facing a third-and-17 at his own 25, Freeman eluded two almost certain sacks and, as he approached the right sideline, threw on the run to Winslow. Winslow made a sparkling sideline catch for a gain of 40 but didn't have enough room to turn it upfield. Williams took care of the remaining 35 yards on the next play, turning a square-in into his second career touchdown by weaving and bashing his way through a gang of would-be tacklers. That would be the final score of the first half, as the Bucs turned back one more Carolina foray into their territory thanks to Stylez G. White's third-down sack.
Click here for a detailed report of the game's first half.
The Bucs' defense came out hot after the intermission, as it had the week before, forcing a quick punt when Crowder forced Moore out of bounds for a sack on third-and-three. However, the Bucs' first drive of the second half was similarly short and Carolina started up again at its own 16. This time, however, Barber came up with the game's first turnover, cutting in front of Smith for an interception at the Carolina 25.
A late-hit, dead-ball flag on Carolina's Greg Hardy moved the Bucs halfway to the goal line, but they soon found themselves in a third-and-four at the six. The Panthers sniffed out a play-action rollout and Freeman was forced to throw it away, but Barth came in to nail a 24-yard field goal to give the visitors a 10-point lead.
Return man Mike Goodson put the Panthers in a hole after that score by fumbling the kickoff out of bounds at the six and the Bucs quickly forced Carolina into a third-and-seven. The Panthers escaped that hole, however, as Moore faked a draw and fired a 17-yard pass over the middle to Rosario. WR David Gettis got open deep behind the defense on the next play but Moore overthrew him. Tanard Jackson's run blitz led to a one-yard loss by Stewart, and on third down Black buried Moore for a loss of 11 with a well-timed loop from the outside into a middle seam.
Winslow converted another long third down to get the next drive started, catching a pass shy of the sticks but faking out one defender in order to get the necessary yardage. Freeman then took off for the fourth time and once again moved the chains with his 12-yard run. Three plays later, CB Chris Gamble was called for pass interference on a wobbly pass that Mike Williams was trying to break back to get. Cadillac Williams dropped a third-down middle screen that looked promising but Barth came on to hit his second field goal of the game, a 33-yarder to push Tampa Bay's lead to 20-7.
Goodson did much better on the ensuing kickoff return, slicing up the right seam for a 43-yard return to the Carolina 44. Goodson also made his first contribution on offense three plays later, converting a third-and-eight with a 23-yard catch-and-run to the Bucs' 31. A tackle for a loss by Hayes and an incompletion in which Talib didn't fall for a pump-and-go. On third down, Moore was sacked by Crowder and lost the ball, with Moore recovering for Tampa Bay at their own 43.
Two plays later, Mike Williams made a sliding, 19-yard catch at the Carolina 36 but two cracks at the end zone failed. The Bucs lined up in a field goal formation but instead of trying a 51-yard field goal Barth pooch-punted. Carolina FB Tony Fiammetta made an outstanding play, blocking LS Andrew Economos away from the rolling football so that it could get into the end zone for a touchback.
Claussen came in to direct the next drive, and his first-pass incompletion was sandwiched by two runs that produced a first down at the Carolina 34. Two more incompletions made it third-and-10, but the Panthers moved the sticks when Goodson turned a short pass into a 10-yard gain. Three plays later, Barber broke up a sideline pass on third-and-two, and the Panthers elected to go for it on fourth down from the Bucs' 48. Claussen unsurprisingly went to Smith on the play and the speedy receiver spun after making the catch to get all the way to the Bucs' 29. DeAngelo Williams got down to Tampa Bay's four on a swing pass as the clock ticked down to five minutes left.
That's where the Bucs' defense stiffened. Claussen threw one incompletion under pressure and then Goodson got two cracks at getting it in to no avail. Stewart tried left end on fourth-and-goal but Hayes stopped him for a loss of one.
The Panthers used their final two timeouts to help pin the Bucs near the end zone and force a punt, which worked. Carolina started again at the Bucs' 46 with 3:10 to go but ran two very unsuccessful plays. The first was a fumbled snap that the Panthers recovered, but the second was a tipped-pass interception for Talib. He returned it to the Carolina 39, and the two-minute warning arrived one play later. By the time the Bucs punted down to the Panthers' six, there was only 22 seconds left in the contest.
Game Notes: Tampa Bay closed the gap in the all-time series, as Carolina now leads 12-8. The Bucs are 5-6 in games played at Carolina, however. Sunday's win snapped a three-game winning streak by the Panthers in the series. … The victory at Bank of America Stadium could be seen as a good omen. Since the NFC South was formed in 2002, the Buccaneers have made the playoffs every year in which they've won at Carolina, and missed the playoffs every year in which they've lost at Carolina. … RB Kregg Lumpkin, who was claimed off waivers from the Green Bay Packers on September 5, saw his first action as a Buccaneer on Sunday. He did not have a carry. … T Donald Penn played in his 50th NFL game on Sunday. He has appeared in 50 consecutive games since the 2007 opener. Penn has also started 46 consecutive games at left tackle, beginning with the Buccaneers' road game at Carolina in Week Four of the 2007 season. … WR Micheal Spurlock made his first career start when the Buccaneers opened in a three-wide formation on their first possession. … Rookie DT Gerald McCoy started at defensive end for the second game in a row. Though he primarily played the three-technique tackle during the game, the Bucs opened with McCoy at RE, usual LE starter Kyle Moore at DT and usual RE starter Stylez G. White at LE. … RB Earnest Graham scored the game's first touchdown on a 14-yard catch in the first quarter. It marked the first receiving touchdown of Graham's NFL career. … CB Ronde Barber's third-quarter interception was the 39th of his career, further increasing his hold on first place in that category in the franchise record books. … The Bucs' four sacks of QB Matt Moore was their highest single-game total since recording six at Atlanta on November 29 of last year.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: CB Myron Lewis, RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Kareem Huggins, LB Niko Koutouvides, C/G Ted Larsen, DL Michael Bennett, WR Preston Parker and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Huggins and Koutouvides were out due to injury.
The Panthers' eight inactive players were WR Armanti Edwards, WR Brandon LaFell, CB C.J. Wilson, LB Jordan Senn, T Jeff Otah, DT Louis Leonard, DE Tyler Brayton and designated third quarterback Tony Pike. LaFell, Otah, Leonard and Brayton were out due to injuries.
Injuries: The Buccaneers did not report an injury from the sideline during the game, though C Jeff Faine left the game on Tampa Bay's last drive.
The Panthers did not report an injury from the sideline.