QB Jeff Garcia completed 75% of his passes in his first start since Week One
After years of struggling in the end-game against Carolina, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hoped to get out to a fast start on Sunday and avoid any last-minute rally by Jake Delhomme and company.
They succeeded in the first half of that equation, scoring two touchdowns in the first quarter for the first time since Week 15 of last year, then finished it off with a dominating second half against their biggest rivals to win going away, 27-3.
With the victory, the Buccaneers moved into a first-place tie with Carolina in the NFC South, as both teams are 4-2. Atlanta also won on a last-second field goal on Sunday against Chicago, making it a three-way tie at the top of the division.
Three takeaways on defense and good work on special teams allowed the Bucs to improve significantly in terms of field position from the week before. In a 16-13 loss at Denver in Week Five, Tampa Bay was held back by an average drive start of their own 20-yard line. In beating Carolina by 24 – their largest margin of victory ever against the Panthers – Tampa Bay's offense had an advantageous average start of its own 38-yard line.
All four of the Bucs scoring drives covered 56 or fewer yards. Another touchdown came courtesy of special teams when rookie LB Geno Hayes blocked Carolina's first punt of the game and returned it 22 yards for his first career score.
"It was a collective effort today, starting with the special teams effort, the blocked punt by Geno Hayes," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Our defense came up big for us all day. And I was really pleased with the offense. Our ability to sustain drives against a very good defense was incredible."
A smattering of big plays didn't hurt, either. The Bucs had gone two straight weeks without a passing play of 20 or more yards but got four such plays on Sunday against the Panthers, who came into the game with the league's third-ranked pass defense. QB Jeff Garcia's first pass of the day, in fact, was a 29-yard strike to TE Alex Smith.
Obviously, Garcia provided the spark the Bucs were hoping for when he was re-inserted into the lineup this week. Garcia's avenue back to the starting job, which he ceded to Brian Griese after the season-opening loss in New Orleans, was opened by Griese's elbow injury, suffered in Denver. However, Garcia's performance on Sunday was an indication – as the Bucs had hinted throughout the week – that the veteran passer is returning to his 2007 Pro Bowl form.
Enjoying outstanding protection for most of the afternoon, Garcia completed 75% of his passes (15 of 20) for 173 yards and one touchdown. He was not intercepted or sacked. The Bucs' offense as a whole did not turn the ball over once, and that is definitely a formula for success. Since Gruden took over the helm in 2002, the Bucs are 18-0 in games in which they do not commit a turnover.
Garcia enjoyed the support of a productive running game, too. The Bucs' ground approach changed by necessity after fullback Byron Storer suffered a knee injury covering a punt in the second quarter. With Storer out, Graham played primarily fullback the rest of the way, with Dunn carrying the load at tailback. The selfless Graham helped Dunn gain a team-high 115 yards on 22 carries and still contributed heavily with two receptions for 47 yards and a one-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
Dunn, who moved into the top 20 in NFL history in rushing yards last week in Denver, looked like a young man in his second go-around in Tampa. Dunn averaged 5.2 yards per carry, running mostly between the tackles, and became the first back this season to pass the century mark against Carolina. Other prolific backs who had failed in that effort against the Panthers this year include LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Larry Johnson, Matt Forte and Michael Turner.
The offense rolled for 315 yards against Carolina's fourth-ranked defense despite incurring a number of injuries. In addition to Storer's knee mishap, the Bucs lost G Arron Sears (knee) and WR Maurice Stovall (hamstring) to injuries in the first half. Rookie Jeremy Zuttah filled in well for Sears and Garcia still found plenty of targets in the passing game, completing passes to eight different players.
That was more than enough for the Bucs' proud to make stand up. In addition to its three takeaways, that defense limited Carolina to 282 yards, 123 of it on the Panthers' last three drives after the score was pushed to 27-3. Carolina simply couldn't run the ball, with just 40 yards on 20 carries despite having two of the NFL's top 20 rushers in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. And while Delhomme was not sacked, he was hurried into 19 incompletions in 39 attempts. Buccaneer defenders could have more than doubled their interception total – they broke up 10 passes, several of which were nearly picks.
"We had pressure," said Gruden. "We mixed coverages. [Defensive Coordinator] Monte [Kiffin] did a great job again, but our players played their hearts out today. We have some opportunitistic guys back there and we let three or four other interceptions get away. We've got guys with range, they have tremendous ability and they really hit today."
It was indeed a hard-hitting team effort on defense. Nobody on the squad had more than five tackles, but almost everybody got in a hard lick on a Panther pass-catcher at some point. All three of the Bucs' interceptions came off of deflections.
Tampa Bay's special teams got into the act, too. P Josh Bidwell was masterful, hitting a 60-yarder, averaging 44.6 yards per boot and dropping three punts inside the 10-yard line. K Matt Bryant made field goals of 38 and 49 yards (missing from 51) and Carolina was held to nine punt return yards and a 21-yard average on five kickoff returns.
The Bucs nearly turned in a huge defensive play in the opening minutes. On Carolina's third play from scrimmage, Adams dropped back into coverage in the right flat and was coming up to cover TE Jeff King when Delhomme missed King badly and threw directly to Adams. The pass was on Adams so quickly and surprisingly that it bounced off his chest. That did force a third-and-nine, though, setting up a huge play by the special teams instead. Hayes beat the right tackle in Carolina's punt alignment to take the ball almost directly off P Jason Baker's foot. He then picked up the bouncing ball and returned it 22 yards for the score.
Tampa Bay's defense came out energized after that score, making short work of Carolina's next drive. S Jermaine Phillips shot around left tackle on second-and-14 to drop Williams for a loss of one and Delhomme threw incomplete in Muhsin Muhammad's direction on third down. However, Carolina's second punt attempt went much better for the visitors when Dexter Jackson ran around for an 11-yard loss after fielding Baker's 56-yard blast.
That pushed the Bucs all the way back to their own 13 to start their first possession, but Garcia gave the offense breathing room by hitting Steve Smith with a 29-yard seam pass on the first play from scrimmage. A botched pitch play nearly killed the drive at the Bucs' 40 but Bryant converted a third-and-12 by making an outstanding catch of a high pass and fighting through a tackle for a gain of 14 to Carolina's 46.
Moments later, WR Ike Hilliard converted another third-down with a seven-yard grab but the play was erased by a pass interference call on TE Jerramy Stevens. The crowd wanted a similar call on Carolina's defense on the next play when Garcia tried to go deep to WR Antonio Bryant, but there was none and the Bucs had to punt.
The Bucs did get their first turnover on the next drive. Delhomme tried to hit TE Dante Rosario over the middle on third-and-nine but the ball deflected off Rosario's hands as he dived and went straight into S Tanard Jackson's hands. Jackson returned the ball to Carolina's 11 but a hard-to-decipher personal foul on Ronde Barber pushed the ball back to the 26. No matter, the Bucs scored five plays later when Garcia ran a play-action fake on third-and-one from the two-yard line and hit a wide-open Smith in the back of the end zone. That gave Tampa Bay a 14-0 lead with three minutes still to play in the first quarter.
The Panthers struck back with a familiar weapon, as Smith got behind the Bucs' defense and hauled in a 48-yard rainbow from Delhomme. The Bucs were fortunate that Smith fell down at the 24 making the catch, and the defense managed to keep Carolina out of the end zone. The Panthers did get down to the one, but Stewart tripped over Delhomme on second-and-goal and lost the ball upon hitting the ground. The Bucs challenged the ruling that Stewart was down before fumbling but lost on replay. Barrett Ruud then nearly intercepted Delhomme's third-down pass in the end zone and the Panthers settled for John Kasay's 20-yard field goal.
The Bucs' offense struck right back. With Storer out with a knee injury, Graham lined up at fullback and Dunn ran behind him for gains of seven and six yards. After an 18-yard strike to Clatyon, Dunn ran out of a single-back set for 18 yards, down to the Washington 18. The drive stalled there, but Matt Bryant matched the Panthers' field goal with a 38-yarder, making it 17-3 with nine minutes left in the half.
An exchange of punts followed, and worked out well for the Bucs when Josh Bidwell crushed a 58-yarder down to Carolina's six. Unfortunately, Smith converted a third-and-five with a 22-yard catch-and-run, getting the ball out to the 33. Carolina reached the Bucs' 36 at the two-minute warning, but lost the ball moments later. Delhomme tried to hit Muhammad deep down the right side but CB Aqib Talib broke up the play and Phillips nabbed the deflection in the end zone. Phillips actually returned his pick all the way to midfield but a taunting penalty on Jovan Haye (he executed a 300-pound cartwheel near the sideline after the play) pushed it back to the Bucs' 36.
A perfectly executed screen to Graham picked up 24 yards but the Bucs eventually had to try a 51-yard field goal in the closing seconds. Bryant's kick had the distance but sailed about a foot wide of the right upright.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half but saw their first drive almost killed by a holding penalty on G Davin Joseph. Smith kept it going with an impressive run-after-the-catch on third-and-11, fighting through two tackles to gain 12 yards. The Bucs had to punt three plays later, however. It worked out again when Bidwell stopped this one at the one. The Bucs had to use another replay challenge to get that ruling.
It was worth it, as the defense stood up against three middle runs and forced a punt from the five. Jackson's 13-yard return got the football back to Carolina's 39 and the Bucs capitalized on Bryant's 49-yard field goal to make it 20-3.
Tampa Bay's offense forced yet another three-and-out on the ensuing possession and got the ball back for the offense at the Bucs' 44 after a 29-yard shank by Baker. That set up another scoring drive, as Garcia moved the offense 56 yards for a touchdown and a 24-point lead. Graham's 23-yard catch was the big-gainer, and he finished the march, too, with a one-yard run after Garcia had scrambled down to the one on third-and-two.
Piscitelli made a touchdown-shaving foot tackle of Muhammad on the first play of the next drive when Muhammad shot through the defense on a quick slant. Two plays later, the Bucs' defense took it away again. Delhomme hit Smith with a short pass but Jackson's big hit jarred the ball loose and Talib caught the deflection for his second interception of the season.
The Bucs were once again hit with a taunting penalty after the turnover but Dunn quickly made those yards back with runs of 10 and nine yards. Dunn got over 11 for the day with a spinning, weaving 20-yard run a few plays later, then gave way to Michael Bennett for the next series. The drive eventually ended at the Carolina 35 but the ensuing punt was fair caught at the 10 with 7:15 to play.
Carolina moved into Bucs territory against a Bucs' defense playing soft to kill the clock, then nearly lost the ball on consecutive near interceptions by Brooks and Barber. The Panthers soon faced a fourth-and-10 at the 45 and CB Elbert Mack denied a sideline completion to Smith with perfect coverage.
The Bucs ran a few more minutes off the clock and then punted again, down to the Carolina 34. The next drive also ended on downs and the Bucs had to kneel just once to end the game.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers snapped a five-game home losing streak against Carolina with Sunday's win. The Bucs had last beaten the Panthers in Raymond James Stadium during their 2002 Super Bowl season. … The Bucs closed their deficit in the all-time series with Carolina to 12-10. … The Buccaneers have started the season 3-0 at home for the second year in a row. The Bucs have now won their first three home games seven times in 33 seasons: 2008, 2007, 2005, 1998, 1997, 1984 and 1981. Only in 1998 and 1981 did the Bucs go on to win their fourth home game, too. … Rookie QB Josh Johnson was inactive for the sixth straight week, but against the Panthers he was the designated third quarterback for the first time this year. Brian Griese was simply inactive, while Jeff Garcia and Luke McCown were the two active QBs in the game. … Rookie LB Geno Hayes became the first Buccaneer to score on a blocked punt return since TE Todd Yoder did so against Cincinnati on December 2, 2001. On that play, CB Ronde Barber blocked a kick by Nick Harris and Yoder returned it 11 yards for the score. Hayes was also the first Buccaneer to block a punt since David Gibson did so against New Orleans' Mitch Berger on December 7, 2003. … Matt Bryant's season-opening streak of successful field goals finally ended in the second quarter when the seventh-year kicker just missed to the right on a 51-yard attempt. Bryant came back to hit a season-long 49-yarder in the third quarter and finished the game two-of-three and 12-of-13 on the season … Earnest Graham's 24-yard catch just before halftime was the longest of his career. … RB Warrick Dunn's 115-yard day marked his first 100-yard game since November 4 of last season, when he turned the trick against San Francisco while playing for the Atlanta Falcons.
Inactives: The Buccaneers named the following eight players inactive before Sunday's game: QB Brian Griese, FB B.J. Askew, LB Matt McCoy, T Anthony Davis, T James Lee, WR Joey Galloway, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Josh Johnson. Griese, Askew and Galloway were out due to injury.
The Panthers named the following eight players inactive: WR D.J. Hackett, S Quinton Teal, LB James Anderson, C Ryan Kalil, T Jeff Otah, WR Kenneth Moore, DT Darwin Walker and designated third quarterback Matt Moore. Hackett, Teal, Kalil and Otah were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Maurice Stovall suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter and did not return. FB Byron Storer sustained a right knee sprain in the first quarter and did not return. G Arron Sears sustained a knee sprain in the first half and did not return.
The Panthers' sideline did not report an injury during the game.