1. Pressure and consistency from the defense once again leads the charge.
After a tremendous defensive showing in a losing effort last week, it was great to see a repeat performance from the defense that ended up in the win column. Make no mistake, either – down six points, the Panthers got the ball back with over two minutes to play in the game and got inches from the goal line, only to have the Bucs’ defense come up big once again and get a stop to effectively end the game in favor of Tampa Bay. The emotions of a goal line stand are strong enough, but to have it decide the game is a whole other level.
Consider this: Panthers quarterback Cameron Newton didn’t score a single touchdown. Not a one. The Carolina offense was 0-for-3 inside the red zone, suffering the same fate as the 49ers the week before. The Bucs’ defense improved upon their stifling 38% third-down conversion percentage from Week One, keeping the Panthers to a 21% rate, instead. Carolina went for it on fourth down three times – each time only a yard away from the line of gain – and they didn’t yield a first down on any of them.
"It’s two weeks in-a-row we did a good job of not giving up touchdowns and defending every blade of grass," Head Coach Bruce Arians said. "That’s what we talk about all the time ... It’s not over when it’s over. They’ve done a hell of a job for two weeks.
Every blade of grass. As a whole, the defense played cohesively and completely but part of that effort were some individual performances of note. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves had the play of the game when he stopped running back Christian McCaffrey on the final fourth-and-one attempt at the goal line. McCaffrey took a direct snap and took off toward the boundary, attempting to get a score that would have put the Panthers up by a point with a minute to go in the game. Instead, Hargreaves headed him off, stopping him just shy and after a lengthy review, the Bucs took over on downs. Hargreaves also recorded a career-high 12 tackles on the night, his previous high being nine set back in 2017 against the Giants. Rookie outside linebacker Anthony Nelson batted down a pass attempt from Newton on third-and-long leaping up to block the ball that would have made Dikembe Mutombo proud. In the third quarter, he then forced a fumble that was subsequently recovered by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for the Bucs’ only takeaway of the game – which, by the way, proved enough to win the turnover battle as the Buccaneers’ offense didn’t turn the ball over once.
Then there was Sack *coughs* Shaq Barrett with his THREE sacks, all of which came in a cluster of about seven minutes and two of which were back-to-back. He became just the second player in Buccaneers history to register three sacks in a single quarter. The other player? Simeon Rice. Barrett finished with four quarterback hits, three sacks and three total tackles.
The defense also stopped an individual performance on the other side from Panthers’ star running back Christian McCaffrey – who was held to 37 total rushing yards and 16 total receiving yards. This was the same McCaffrey that put up over 200 yards from scrimmage against the defending NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams last week.
"To tackle him," inside linebacker Lavonte David said of their plan to defend McCaffrey. "You’ve got to bottle him up. You can’t let him get out in space. For the most part at the beginning of the game he was slipping out of our hands, but we had to make a conscious effort of everybody gang tackling and getting to the football. That’s what we did. We held him under 100 yards rushing, so it’s a pretty good effort collectively by the whole defense."
2. Defensive effort part of emphasis on complementary football.
When you trust your defense, it makes settling into your offense that much easier. You’ve heard the term ‘complementary football’ thrown around but that’s what it means. When you know that your defense has your back, you can play much more fluidly as an offense and even take some risks. In return, you can do things like run the ball to extend drives, keeping your defense off the field, and therefore fresher, longer. Thursday night was the start of those two phases of the ball working in concert with each other. The Bucs’ time of possession on offense was 33:53 compared to the Panthers’ 26:07. Tampa Bay’s longest drive of the game was over six-and-a-half minutes. The offense could have put up some more points to further take the pressure off – they only got inside the red zone twice and scored only once from inside the 20.
But the offense is starting to play complementary football within itself. The Buccaneers haven’t had a ground game to talk about as of late but it looks as if the tides are turning in that aspect of the ball. Week One, rookie Ronald Jones had 75 yards rushing as part of a 121-yard effort. Thursday night, it was running back Peyton Barber who had 82 yards with the Bucs recording 100 yards on the ground. This was in contrast to the Panthers who were held to just 39 yards rushing. These kind of stats aren’t gaudy, but they force the opposing defense to at least respect that phase of the ball and therefore open up opportunities in play action, which relies on the threat of the run. If you think Winston might actually hand it off instead of throw it, when he fakes the handoff, you can actually get defenders to bite, delaying the pass rush or pulling the secondary down in the process.
"When the offensive line dominates the line of scrimmage, you have a great chance to win," quarterback Jameis Winston said of getting the running game going. "When you run the football effectively it allows the passing game to open up. When they try to play two high coverages, it allows the running game to be better. We definitely dominated the line of scrimmage today."
It directly benefits the receiving game, which was evident in wide receiver Chris Godwin’s performance, who had 121 yards receiving, catching eight of nine passes thrown his way, including a 20-yard touchdown. Veteran wide receiver Mike Evans added four receptions for 61 yards, giving him a 15.3 yards-per-reception average in the process.
The point of all of this is that it seems the Bucs really are coming together as a team, in more ways than one.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 2 matchup against Carolina.
3. Tangible improvement from last week evident, but there’s still a ways to go.
Ok, so the Buccaneers’ biggest downfall last week was what? Turnovers and penalties, right? Well what if I told you that Tampa Bay didn’t commit a single turnover in Thursday Night’s division matchup on the road. Quarterback Jameis Winston was 16-of-25 passing with 208 yards and one touchdown, giving him a passer rating of 103.4. He looked way more comfortable in the pocket, which is a combination of credit to the offensive line for holding up and to Winston for making quicker decisions. These were all things that suffered last week that took a big step forward this week. Was it a perfect performance? Absolutely not. But it was improvement that is sending Winston and the offense on an upward trajectory, currently.
The other issue was penalties. Against the 49ers, the Bucs had 11 penalties for 87 yards. That’s a heck of a gift to the opposition. On Thursday night, the Buccaneers actually had one more penalty with 12, but they only amounted to 66 penalty yards. That’s improvement – but don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest it’s near enough. There’s no excusing a lot of those penalties, which including false starts on both offensive tackles as well as a tight end.
More concerning were the team penalties, though. Tampa Bay got called for 12 men in the huddle on offense. That’s just straight confusion that shouldn’t happen. There were also two delay-of-game penalties, one of which was on offense that preceded the Carolina safety, the other of which was on defense that preceded an attempt to call two timeouts in a row (which isn’t allowed).
Mental errors like that will need to be cleaned up across the board but again, there is tangible improvement - and on a short week at that. That’s encouraging as long as the trend continues upwards and it resulted in Head Coach Bruce Arians' first win as a Buccaneer.