The Buccaneers faced their second division opponent in as many weeks this past Sunday. They completed their series against the Saints and then the Panthers, with two very different results. Looking to bounce back from a primetime loss in Week Nine, the Buccaneers were able to cruise past the Panthers to a 46-23 victory in Charlotte. It was a tale of two halves, though. The two teams went into halftime tied at 17 apiece before the Buccaneer offense exploded, while the defense suffocated Carolina in all phases.
It was an encouraging game all around though, proving for the third time this season that the Bucs are capable of shaking off losses in convincing fashion. It came even after the team was delayed over seven hours the day before the game due to mechanical issues with the plane. They didn't arrive into their Charlotte hotel rooms until after midnight, with kickoff waiting just about 12 hours later. It meant no night meetings or last-minute preparations - but according to Head Coach Bruce Arians, it meant no excuses, either. Tampa Bay is now 7-3.
Let's take a look at some things that stood out from Sunday's win.
1. The offense put up a season high 46 points without even playing to their potential, thanks in large part to their run game.
Tight end Cameron Brate said on Monday that after the Week Nine loss to the Saints where the Bucs recorded just five rushing plays, running the football was a priority against Carolina this past Sunday. They had incorporated 'heavier' personnel sets into their game plan, which brought in multiple tight ends as a way of helping jumpstart the run game.
Running back Ronald Jones was the main beneficiary, though Leonard Fournette also got in the mix. After a first series fumble, Jones regained his composure to the tune of 192 rushing yards, setting a career high and recording the most since 2015 when Doug Martin rushed for 235 against Philadelphia. Jones now has the fifth-highest rushing total in team history, tied with Errict Rhett in 1994.
It was the third-best performance by a running back this season, helped by an insane 98-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter. That ties with former linebacker Shelton Quarles for the longest score in team history and marks the longest offensive score by a Buccaneer ever.
It also came thanks to a couple good blocks by players not in their normal positions. With left guard Ali Marpet out, the Bucs slid center Ryan Jensen to left guard and brought in A.Q. Shipley at center. Yeah, the Bucs really attempted to prioritize the run with 2/5ths of their offensive line out of position.
That also worked.
And not only did the Buccaneers have 200 rushing yards, but they had over 300 passing yards, too. Brate himself had more targets and even caught a touchdown as quarterback Tom Brady spread the ball around to eight different receivers on the day. Wide receiver Mike Evans was another who found the end zone, giving him eight receiving touchdowns on the season now. That was his total for all of last season. Evans' eight touchdown receptions in 2020 are tied for the third-most in the NFL this season and tied for the 10th-most single-season receiving touchdowns in team history. He also caught his 500th pass in his 100th game, which is so satisfying to read and must be even more satisfying to accomplish. Evans is the only player in Bucs history to surpass 500 receptions.
Brady completed 28-of-39 passes in the game for 341 yards and four total touchdowns – he did that thing where he rushed into the end zone on a quarterback sneak again. That was his third this year. He's only ever had four rushing touchdowns in a season, which was in 2012. And Sunday marked Brady's 61st career game in which he threw for three-or-more touchdowns without throwing an interception, which continues to stand as the most in NFL history.
As a team, the Buccaneers outgained the Carolina Panthers by 357 yards – the best net-yardage differential in a game by a team this season and the best in franchise history. The team's 544 net yards of total offense are the fifth-most recorded in a game by any team this season and the third-most in team history. Oh yeah, and the Bucs didn't punt the entire game.
2. The defense improved in key areas.
All season the Buccaneers have stressed third down on both sides of the ball. And up until the last couple weeks, the Bucs' defense had been one of the best at limiting opponents' conversions. On Sunday, they got back to it, allowing the Panthers to convert just one of nine third-down attempts throughout the game, for an 11% conversion rate. They also got back to stuffing the run, allowing just 65 yards on the ground and maintaining their top-ranked rush defense.
And though one of the sacks on the day came from a wide receiver (nope, not a typo), the Bucs got credit for three sacks on the day and are now tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most sacks in the league with 32.0.
The defense also came up with another takeaway as outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul intercepted Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the third quarter. It gives the Bucs' defense 17 takeaways this season – good for the best mark in the league.
They were also able to hold Carolina to under 200 yards of total offense. An overall impressive effort that gets even more stifling if you break it down further between the first quarter and the rest of the game. Tampa Bay allowed the Panthers to move pretty freely in the beginning, with Carolina accumulating 115 yards in the first quarter. While that wasn't ideal, what it means is that the Buccaneers only allowed 72 total offensive yards in the ensuing three quarters. That's not just on the ground. That's not just through the air. Total.
Carolina ran jus 47 offensive plays compared to the Bucs' 77. They had just 13 first downs compared to the Bucs' 30. And oh yeah, scored 23 points to the Bucs' 46, which in all honesty could have been a lot more.
3. The Bucs need to start faster.
On that note, yes the Bucs scored 46 points but they converted just four of eight trips into the red zone into points. Of those trips, three resulted in field goals from inside 25 yards. Those easily could have, and probably should have, been touchdowns. The offense also committed a turnover on the its first series after the defense had shut down the Panthers' first drive. It was great to see how well the offense fared even without firing on all cylinders, though.
"We were down there [and] we've been great in goal-to-go [but] we kicked too many field goals again today when we had plays we could've executed and gotten more touchdowns," said Head Coach Bruce Arians following the interception by outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul. "There's always room for improvement, but I'm really, really pleased with that play and especially JPP's interception."
As mentioned above, the Bucs' defense took a quarter to get going. That's what has doomed the Bucs in some of their previous losses, though. Getting behind, whether it's because of turnovers or because the defense has given up early drives, the Bucs can't have that going forward.
But hey, always room for improvement right? And if the game in Carolina is any indication – the Bucs are still trending upward.
"The staff – we feel like we left 20 [points] out there, so I'm never satisfied," said Arians. "I was really, really happy to rush for 200 [yards]. I thought that was huge for us and the O-Line takes a lot of pride in that. The tight ends did a great job and the receivers [in run blocking]. Tom [Brady] played great and we still see where we can leave things out there and still get better."