The Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell to the Carolina Panthers 21-3 in the Queen City, sputtering to a 3-4 overall record. The Bucs have lost four of their previous five contests, sending the club back to the drawing board. Tampa Bay was defeated by a one-win team for the second-consecutive week as the offense failed to find cohesion and the defense got gashed by the Panthers' running backs – a unit not featuring Christian McCaffrey (traded, 49ers). The Buccaneers fell below .500 for the first time since the beginning of the 2020 season. The divisional matchup could have provided the Bucs a chance to fortify their hold on the NFC South in first place, instead, the team left Bank of America Stadium with another tally in the loss column. "We're not playing well," Head Coach Todd Bowles summarized. "We're not playing well as individuals, we're not playing well as a team, we're not coaching it well." That candid statement became a microcosm of the outcome in Charlotte.
"As a result, we have to wear this on our sleeve. They've got to be grown men. We're going to see what we're made of, how many people can handle adversity, and this is about as dark as it's going to be right now…We're going to see what we have going forward, see how many crumble in the dark and see how many people step up and start playing better, start coaching better."
The Buccaneers offense nearly jumped to a 7-0 lead just moments into their opening possession as Tom Brady found a wide-open Mike Evans downfield. Brady hit him in stride, and a surprising, uncharacteristic outcome ensued. Ole' reliable, Evans, bobbled and then dropped what would have been a 64-yard touchdown to shift the momentum to Tampa Bay. Evans went on to lead the Buccaneers with nine catches for 96 yards, exploiting the Panthers' secondary when they used off-man and Cover 3, which gave up the outside. However, the Bucs' offense could not get into a rhythm. The offense did not sustain drives and the team's sole points came in the fourth quarter by way of Ryan Succop's leg. The same issues that have hindered the embattled Buccaneers, were evident once again in Week Seven: red zone, short-yardage and third-down woes popped up. The Bucs converted only two-of-12 attempts on third down and the unit started the day with four-straight punts. The Panthers outrushed the Buccaneers, 173-46, however that result was influenced by the Bucs trying to play catch up in the second half. The Bucs need to be able to hold their opponent honest in the run game, putting stress on linebackers and the middle safety but they were not able to achieve success on the ground. Tampa Bay turned it over on downs twice inside Carolina's 30-yard line, including a failed attempt on third-and-one and fourth-and-one on a chance to tie the ballgame halfway through the third quarter. Miscues contributed to the team's demise.
"We're plenty capable of making plays, we're just not making them consistently enough to score points," Tom Brady stated. "We make a big play, make a bad play, make a big play, make a bad play. In football that is just not good enough. You can't play like that. You've got to string enough good plays together to get the ball into the red area and score points."
Defense Fails to Close
The Panthers tested the Buccaneers with the ground game to see if they could tackle in the open field and maintain gaps. Carolina won that battle on Sunday afternoon. Just days after the Panthers traded away Christian McCaffrey, garnering underdog status, running mates D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard combined for 218 yards from scrimmage, including a demoralizing 60-yard run by Foreman in the third quarter that set up Hubbard's 17-yard touchdown run (77 yards gained on back-to-back plays). Blown coverages, missed opportunities and an inability to set the edge resulted in the Panthers' production on off-tackle runs. Missed tackles and over-pursuit led to vacated gaps and containment struggles on the edge for the Buccaneers. With both Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold dealing with respective ankle sprains, P.J. Walker commanded the unit, completing 16 of 22 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns. Carolina heavily utilized screens and underneath-intermediate passes utilizing the running backs and receivers to stretch C-gap assignments, mitigate pressure and complement the run game. The Panthers sealed their victory with a 29-yard touchdown to Tommy Tremble in the fourth quarter. The Bucs were playing with a decimated secondary, with Carlton Davis III, Logan Ryan and Sean Murphy-Bunting all out with injuries. In addition, Antoine Winfield Jr. exited the game in the third quarter to be evaluated for a concussion. He did not return. The inability to finish out the game on defense led to the Bucs' downfall.
"We had two busts," said Bowles of the Bucs' run defense. "We had a bust on that 60-yard one and we had a bust on another run. The defense cannot play well and then have two busted coverages that you put in from Day One and two busted running plays and expect to win the ballgame. It's not a three-and-a-half quarter ballgame."