QB Chris Simms rebounded from a number of hard hits to rally his team from two second-half deficits
Again and again, Chris Simms got up off the mat. Now we'll have to find out if his Tampa Bay Buccaneers can do the same.
Racked by cramps and shaken by a number of tough hits, including one on a gritty, two-yard touchdown drive, Simms managed to rally the Buccaneers from deficits of 17-0 and 23-21 to a one-point lead with five minutes left to play. However, his counterpart, the irrepressible Jake Delhomme, once again beat the Buccaneers with a late rally, a 48-yard field goal drive that produced a 26-24 Carolina victory.
John Kasay finished that drive and an incredible day with a 47-yard field goal, the shortest of his four successful kicks on the day. Kasay also hit from 49, 50 and 51 and proved to be the difference in an incredibly hard-fought contest.
The loss dropped the Bucs to 0-3 and into the NFC South basement, soon to be three games behind the winner of Monday night's matchup between Atlanta and New Orleans. The team's inspired reaction after another slow start, powered by Simms' gutsy work and a turnover-crazy Bucs defense, can at least lend hope that the season is far from over.
"I'm proud of our team," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We were down 17-0 against a very good team, our backs were against the wall, and I thought we responded."
The Bucs fell into that 17-point hole in the second quarter before their offense finally woke up. Simms directed a 10-play, 82-yard touchdown drive, capped by his eight-yard scoring pass to Joey Galloway, to cut the lead to 17-7. More importantly, the offense's belated arrival appeared to spark the defense, which suddenly returned to its swarming, turnover-inducing form. DE Simeon Rice ended each of Carolina's first two drives of the second half with forced fumbles, each turnover leading to a Buccaneer touchdown. The home team took a 21-20 lead in the third quarter when Simms dove past LB Adam Seward and the left front pylon on a fourth-and-two bootleg run.
Simms had to leave the game during the Bucs' next possession, however, after Carolina had grabbed the lead back on Kasay's 49-yarder. He was taken to the locker room to treat cramps and was replaced for two plays by rookie Bruce Gradkowski. Simms returned to cheers to start the Bucs' next drive, a rapid turnaround for a player who was booed heavily when his first pass of the game was intercepted. Simms certainly earned another chunk of respect from his head coach, who revealed that his quarterback had played most of the day through bruised ribs, the product of a hard hit he took in the second quarter while throwing a pass away.
"He got hit early and he hurt his ribs," said Gruden. "He played hard today, he played tough. He showed a lot of grit. He made some big plays when we needed him. We tried a lot of things today – a flea-flicker, going for it on fourth down – and he responded to a lot of scenarios. He's a very sore and tired man right now and I'm proud of how he hung in there against a tough defensive team."
Simms finished the day with 13 completions in 24 attempts for 139 yards, one touchdown and one interception. TE Alex Smith was his top target, catching four passes for 72 yards. Midway through the final period, Smith fought off CB Ken Lucas and made a tough, 27-yard catch at the Carolina 11, setting up Matt Bryant's 28-yard field goal attempt. Bryant nailed it to give the Bucs a 24-23 lead with five minutes to play.
The Bucs' defense held once but Delhomme led one of his patented game-ending drives in the last 1:41. The Panthers faced a fourth-and-seven at the Bucs' 42 with 41 seconds to play and Delhomme took matters into his own hands, rushing up the middle for a gain of 12 yards. Kasay hit his game-winner two plays later. Gruden believed the scramble by Delhomme was an instant reaction rather than a play called in the huddle.
"He made a play that you would expect an NFL veteran quarterback of his caliber to make in crunch time," said Gruden. "It was the play of the game, certainly."
Hoping for their first good start of the season, the Bucs instead got their worst one yet. Simms' first pass of the game was intercepted by CB Chris Gamble on the game's second snap, as Gamble dove around Galloway to pick it off the turf. Thus positioned at the Bucs' 31, Carolina needed just one. Delhomme had plenty of time to find WR Keyshawn Johnson all alone at the 10, and Johnson scored easily after spinning inside a tackle attempt by S Jermaine Phillips.
Thus, the Bucs were down 7-0 just 59 seconds in the game, and were punting the ball away less than two minutes later after a three-and-out. Carolina immediately moved back into Buccaneer territory, but Tampa Bay's defense was able to turn this drive away using one of the oldest tricks in their book: Send Ronde Barber on a corner blitz. Barber rushed at Delhomme untouched and leaped to knock down a pass on third-and-seven from the Bucs' 37.
Still, Tampa Bay's offense went three-and-out again after the ensuing punt and gave the ball right back to Carolina just over midfield. The Panthers were back to the 37 within seconds, but only briefly, as they continued on a 21-yard field goal march that put the home team in a familiar position, down by two scores in the first half. The Bucs' defense did stiffen around its own 30, once again succeeding through aggressiveness. On third-and-12 from the Bucs' 33, Tampa Bay brought a big blitz, including LBs Barrett Ruud and Derrick Brooks and S Will Allen, which allowed DE Dewayne White to get in and hit Delhomme's arm as he threw, forcing a wobbly incompletion.
After Kasay's 51-yard field goal made it 10-0 with 1:31 left in the first quarter, things got tougher on Simms. He was hit hard while throwing the ball away on first down, and on third down was sacked for a loss of 10 by DE Julius Peppers.
Explosive playmaker Steve Smith played for the first time this season for the Panthers and made an immediate impression. His 33-yard grab over the middle early in the second quarter set up the Panthers' second touchdown and was one of seven catches for 112 yards Smith made on the day. That score, which improved Carolina's lead to 17-0 with 13 minutes left in the first half, had a certain rub-it-in-your-face quality, as it was capped by Johnson's four-yard scoring run on an end-around. As if the message wasn't clear enough, Johnson ran through the corner and over to a wall banner that read "BK's Corner" in order to make an exaggerated cutting gesture through the words. It was an interesting choice of banners, however, given that Kelly wasn't even active for the game.
The Bucs recorded their initial first down of the game on the next possession, bringing a somewhat derisive cheer from the crowd. Williams moved the chains with a nine-yard catch and a seven-yard run, igniting a drive that finally invaded Carolina territory…and finally got the ball into the end zone. The play that got the ball over midfield was a rare trick play, as Williams pitched it back to Simms on a flea-flicker that turned into a 22-yard completion to Smith.
Tampa Bay's first touchdown of the year came six plays later. After FB Mike Alstott broke through the line for a 10-yard gain on third-and-inches, Simms executed a perfect play-action fake to Williams and found Galloway cutting from right to left across the back of the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown.
Not wanting to let the Bucs assume the game's momentum, the Panthers tried to come right back with a big play but CB Juran Bolden stayed step for step with WR Drew Carter on a straight fly down the right sideline and nearly intercepted it deep in Buc territory. Brooks then blew up an attempted receiver screen to Smith and Delhomme had to call a timeout on third-and-10 with the Raymond James Stadium crowd noise reaching a defensive level. The resulting pass attempt to Smith was well overthrown, seemingly killing the drive.
However, Allen gave the ball back to the Panthers' offense by taunting Smith after the incompletion, a move that drew a flag and a 15-yard penalty out to the Carolina 38. The Bucs' defense remained fired up and still killed the drive at midfield, but the penalty cost the home team valuable field position and several minutes off the clock. When they did get it back, after a muffed punt and a block-in-the-back penalty, it was at their own seven with 2:37 to play in the half.
When they couldn't get out of that hole, the Bucs had to give the ball back to Carolina inside the Tampa Bay 40 with 1:44 still left on the clock. The Panthers couldn't move the chains, but they did tack on three more points on Kasay's 50-yard field goal, making it 20-7 at the half.
Tampa Bay's defense continued to swarm impressively as the second half started, quickly getting the ball back for the offense. Carolina had the ball first but Rice sacked Delhomme on third-and-six, forcing a fumble that White recovered at the Carolina 15. The Panthers challenged the play but it stood as called, and Williams ran it in from four yards out two plays later, cutting Carolina's lead to 20-14 with 12:42 left in the third quarter.
Rice struck again just three plays later, stripping RB DeShaun Foster on a run up the middle, with DT Chris Hovan recovering for Tampa Bay at the Bucs' 49. That in turn seemed to spark the offense, which marched methodically on a 51-yard touchdown drive to take the lead, 21-20, with 5:56 left in the game. Simms converted consecutive third downs with completions to Smith and Michael Clayton, then capped the drive himself with his two-yard touchdown run. The Bucs tried to convert a third-and-one from the two with an Alstott dive but DE Julius Peppers met Alstott at the apex and denied the gain. On fourth-and-one from the two, Simms faked another handoff to Alstott and rolled left, with FB Jerald Sowell running parallel. Sowell gave Simms the block he needed and the quarterback leaped into a tackle attempt by Seward, just flipping backward over the pylon.
After the exchange of field goals, Tampa Bay stopped Carolina's next drive, forcing a punt that put the ball back in Tampa Bay's hands with 2:30 to play. Brooks denied a potential third-down completion to Smith by leaping high to bat Delhomme's short pass away. The Bucs' offense couldn't secure a first down, forcing a punt that put the ball back at the Carolina 23 with 1:41 to play. From there, Delhomme put together his latest game-winning drive.
The Buccaneers now enter their bye week before traveling to New Orleans in Week Five. Either New Orleans or Atlanta will be in first place in the South, three games up on Tampa Bay, after their meeting on Monday night.
Game Notes: Veteran LB Shelton Quarles moved back to the position he first occupied on the Buccaneers' defense, from 1999-2001: strongside linebacker. With Ryan Nece out due to injury, Quarles moved to the strongside and second-year man Barrett Ruud drew the start at middle linebacker. Quarles made 43 starts at SLB from 1999-2001 before moving to the middle in 2002 and earning a Pro Bowl berth in his first season at that spot. … The Bucs were ready for a particular special teams gambit pulled by the Panthers in the first quarter. Ostensibly, Carolina lined up to try a 55-yard field goal attempt. However, the ball was snapped directly to kicker John Kasay, who booted a short pooch punt down the middle of the field. The Bucs had CB Ronde Barber deep for just such a contingency, and Barber fielded the punt and returned it eight yards to the Bucs' 20. That stood as the second punt return in Barber's career. At Chicago on November 29, 1999, Barber picked up a deflected punt and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown. … WR Joey Galloway recorded the Bucs' first touchdown of 2006 on an eight-yard catch in the second quarter. It was the 65th touchdown of Galloway's career, which began in Seattle in 1995. … DE Simeon Rice's sack of QB Jake Delhomme early in the third quarter was the 120th of his career. It also produced the 35th forced fumble of Rice's career. Rice finished the game with four tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles. … The Buccaneers enjoyed their first lead of the season at 5:56 in the third quarter when QB Chris Simms dived over LB Adam Seward on a two-yard touchdown run. Matt Bryant's extra point made it 21-20 in the Bucs' favor.
Inactives: Each team was required to declare eight players inactive 90 minutes before the game. Four of the Bucs' inactives were sitting out due to injuries: G Davin Joseph, TE Dave Moore, LB Ryan Nece and CB Brian Kelly. WR Paris Warren, TE Dave Moore, WR Maurice Stovall and designated third quarterback Tim Rattay completed the list.
The Panthers' eight inactives were C Justin Hartwig, LB Dan Morgan, S Shaun Williams, RB Nick Goings, DT Jordan Carstens, DE Stanley McClover, T Rashad Butler and TE Jeff King. Hartwig, Morgan, Williams and Goings were all out due to injuries. The Panthers have only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster and thus did not name one as a designated third quarterback among their inactives.
Injuries: DT Anthony McFarland suffered an injury to his ribs in the second quarter but he did return to the game. QB Chris Simms was taken to the locker room to treat cramps at the end of the third quarter. Simms did return early in the fourth quarter.
For Carolina, TE Mike Seidman suffered a knee injury in the second quarter and did not return.