The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost 37-23 to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in a game that swung on turnovers…and two takeaways that weren't.
Panthers tight end Ed Dickson recovered a Jonathan Stewart fumble in midair early in the second half and ran 57 yards untouched for a touchdown. That play came on the very next snap after a missed field goal by Kyle Brindza following a Cam Newton fumble; that sequence was essentially the difference in the game.
"I was just trying to make a tackle," said S Chris Conte, who applied the hit that caused Stewart's fumble. "The ball pops up – I didn't even see the ball pop up – and the next thing you know I look back and they're running with the ball. I don't even know how that happened, but it was just indicative of the way things went today for us.
"We had some turnovers on offense and we tried to do everything we could to keep them from getting in the end zone. We didn't do a good enough of a job doing that but at least we were able to keep ourselves in the game on defense."
Photos from Buccaneers vs. Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.
Indeed, a strong finish to the second half had the Buccaneers back in the game after Carolina built an early 17-3 lead off of a trio of turnovers, most notably Josh Norman's 46-yard pick six on Jameis Winston's first pass of the game. However, Brindza missed a 29-yard try at the end of the first half and the Panthers restored their two-touchdown lead on Dickson's fluky play.
"We had a chance for momentum," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "We're down by seven and at the very worst we're down by four going in with momentum. That's what we'd like to do. We'd like a touchdown in that situation but we needed points and at the very worst we thought we'd get three.
Moments after Dickson's touchdown, Norman grabbed his second interception of the day and the Panthers converted that into another touchdown and a 31-10 lead midway through the third period. WR Ted Ginn's second touchdown catch came two plays after Buccaneer LB Lavonte David couldn't hold on to a potential interception at the goal line.
In all, Carolina recorded five takeaways to the Bucs' one and scored 27 points off of them. Dickson's touchdown wasn't technically the result of a turnover, but it was essentially in the same category.
"You can't have five turnovers and win the game," said Winston. "You just can't do that. We had so many opportunities. The defense is playing well, but you can't win a game with five turnovers. No matter how good someone plays, if your quarterback turns the ball over five times you can't win. You've got to learn from it and put it behind you."
After a fantastic outing in the Bucs' Week Two win at New Orleans, Brindza struggled for a second straight week. He has misfired on five of six field goal tries plus two extra points since hitting on a 58-yarder to open the Week Three game at Houston. Brindza did hit a 42-yarder in the first quarter on Sunday for the Bucs' first points and was good on his first two extra point tries, but his rough day was capped by a missed extra point in the game's closing minutes. Carolina kicker Graham Gano made three short field goal tries, meanwhile, and that plus the turnover differential helped separate two teams that might have otherwise been evenly matched.
"We played a good football team today and they did some things that good football teams do. Until we stop doing things like that, we're not going to win a whole lot of games," said Smith. "You can't turn the ball over [five] times. We know what we did with our special teams and our kicking game. Those are things that don't give you a chance to win, as much as anything. We didn't give ourselves a chance to win.
The turnovers were clearly and obviously the difference in a game that saw Tampa Bay win the net yardage battle, 411 to 244. Both teams ran the ball well - 141 yards for the Bucs to 133 for the Panthers – and Tampa Bay showed great improvement on third downs after struggling in that category for three weeks. The Bucs converted eight of 16 third downs plus both of their two fourth-down attempts while holding Carolina to three of 11 conversions on third down.
Still, the Panthers won by a wide margin, and that's because the Buccaneers were unable to take control of the game when they had a chance before and after halftime.
"As we talk about finishing the first half on a downer, we came right back out, the defense got the takeaway and we got ourselves in position," said Smith. "Eventually, as we get ourselves back in position, that's when we're going to take advantage. That momentum will keep going forward. We're not there yet. These are correctable things, fixable things, and there's a lot of football left to go in this football season."
Winston completed 26 of his 43 passes for a career-best 287 yards, and he tossed two touchdown passes while taking just two sacks. He targeted veteran receiver Vincent Jackson 15 times, and Jackson ended up with 147 yards and a touchdown. RB Doug Martin ran well yet again, gaining 106 yards on 20 carries and scoring his first TD of the season. But the four interceptions rendered most of that moot at the end of the day.
"I think he's making some rookie mistakes," said Smith of Winston. "We'd like for him to be a vet. We've seen signs that he can be a great player, but we're not there yet. There will be growing pains. He's a rookie that just played his fourth NFL game. When things like that happen, others, us, need to be able to help him out a lot more. We're talking about one guy. There's more than one guy on the field. There were guys who had opportunities to make plays today, and didn't make them. Simple as that. Coaching staff, players…we're all going to share the blame for this bad loss."
Conte had a strong outing to go with his forced fumble on Stewart, recording eight tackles, a passed defense and a tackle for loss as well. Gerald McCoy and Danny Lansanah had the Bucs two sacks of Newton and McCoy also recorded two tackles for loss. Tampa Bay's defense held Carolina under 250 yards and allowed just 111 net passing yards, but the Panthers had an average drive start of their own 41, thanks to all the turnovers.
The Buccaneers dropped to 1-3 with the loss, with a 1-1 record within the division. Carolina improved to 4-0 and remained in a tie for first in the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons, who beat Houston 48-21 on Sunday. Carolina has won eight straight regular-season games, dating back to the last month of 2014. The Buccaneers are three games out of first place but believe they have time to get back in the race.
"We're 1-3 in the first quarter," said Smith. "We have an opportunity to start back up. We have a lot of football left to go, and we will improve our game in all areas. Eventually I'm not going to stand up here and try to explain a loss. Right now, we're not there yet but we'll get there."
The Buccaneers honored former six-time Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott at halftime, inducting him into the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. Alstott's name and #40 were revealed on the stadium façade and the fan favorite spoke at a podium at midfield. Alstott is the seventh person in the Ring of Honor, joining Lee Roy Selmon, John McKay, Jimmie Giles, Paul Gruber, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. Former Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams will be added to the Ring later in the season.
Carolina scored just three minutes into the game, but the Buccaneers' defense did salvage something out of an early offensive mishap. Winston fumbled the snap on the game's second play and Carolina recovered at the Bucs' 21, but the result was just a 24-yard Graham Gano field goal. Jacquies Smith made the big defensive play when he chased Newton out of bounds for a loss of eight on a designed QB run.
Bobby Rainey followed that with a fine kickoff return out to the Bucs' 38, but any thought that the Bucs had recaptured the momentum went away moments later when Norman jumped a third-down out intended for Brandon Myers and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown. Carolina had a 10-point lead before the game was five minutes old.
Winston and the Bucs' offense responded with a seven-play field goal drive, much of it on a 23-yard catch over the middle by Jackson. Brindza hit from 42 yards to close the gap to 10-3. However, another Carolina interception, this one by S Kurt Coleman on a tipped pass, set up a short field for the Panthers in the second quarter and they turned it into seven points on a seven-yard TD reception by Ted Ginn.
Tampa Bay came right back on the ensuing drive, marching 80 yards on 13 plays for a touchdown, with Martin's five-yard run on first-and-goal the capper. Winston converted a pair of third downs with passes to Jackson and Martin got a critical yard on third-and-one near midfield. Winston also drove the Bucs down into scoring range in the last two minutes but Brindza hit the right upright with a 29-yard field goal try.
The second half began with the Bucs coming up empty after Newton's fumble and Dickson's touchdown. The Buccaneers did then respond with another 80-yard touchdown drive, this one including four carries for 61 yards by Martin. Winston finished it by scrambling to buy time on second down from the 10 and finding Sims at the left edge of the end zone for a touchdown. Carolina made it a three-score game by answering with a field goal drive and Graham Gano's 27-yard chip shot.
LB Thomas Davis snared the Panthers' fourth interception of the day later in the fourth quarter, setting up Gano's third field goal.
Additional notes and in-game details:
- G Logan Mankins logged the 150th start and 150th game played of his career on Sunday. The last 20 have come as a Buccaneer.
- The Bucs' 13-play march in the second quarter was their longest scoring drive, in terms of plays, of the season. In terms of yards, it matched an 80-yarder at New Orleans on Sept. 20. The Bucs later put together another 80-yard drive in the third quarter.
- RB Doug Martin gained 106 yards on 20 carries and scored his first rushing touchdown of the season in the second quarter. It was Martin's first 100-yard game of the 2015 season and the eighth of his career.
- RB Charles Sims scored on a 10-yard pass from Jameis Winston in the third quarter. It was his second career TD reception, but also his second in as many games. Sims is the first Buccaneer running back to have touchdown catches in consecutive games since fullback Robert Wilson on Oct. 6 and Oct. 20, 1991 (there was a bye week in between those two games).
- LB Danny Lansanah has 2.5 career sacks, and all of them are against Carolina. Lansanah got one of Newton on Sunday after having 1.5 sacks at Carolina on Dec. 14, 2014.
- Tampa Bay's opening possession lasted just two plays, as Winston fumbled the snap on the second one and Lotulelei recovered for Carolina at the Bucs' 21. Stewart's sweep right found an open field and 13 easy yards, but the Bucs sniffed out a Newton keeper two plays later and Jacqueis Smith chased him out of bounds for a loss of eight. That made it third-and-goal back at the 15 and a screen to Olsen came up nine yards short. Carolina settled for Gano's 24-yard field goal.
The Bucs got a good start to their next possession when Bobby Rainey got the kickoff all the way out to the Tampa Bay 38. However, two Martin runs gained little and Winston's attempt to convert the third-and-eight went south when Norman jumped the pass intended for Myers and returned it 46 yards untouched for a touchdown.
An unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Norman and another nice return for Rainey put the Bucs at their 37 to start the next drive and Winston immediately hit Jackson over the middle for a gain of 23 yards. Four hard runs by Doug Martin made it third-and-four at the Carolina 24, and a shot downfield to Evans was broken up by Norman. Brindza came on to booth a 42-yard field goal for the Bucs' first points of the game.
The Buccaneers appeared to get a three-and-out on the next drive when David stopped Newton short of the sticks on a scramble. However, Jacquies Smith was flagged for illegal hands to the face on the backfield and that created a new set of downs. A 19-yard strike to Olsen down the middle moved the ball across midfield. The Bucs held just outside of field goal range thanks to a big tackle-for-loss by Chris Conte and Carolina punted away. The ball went into the end zone for a touchdown and an 18-yard net.
Photos from Buccaneer legend Mike Alstott's Ring of Honor halftime ceremony.
Early in the second quarter, the Bucs started a new drive at their own 19 but immediately turned the ball over again. This time Winston's pass was tipped at the line by DT Kawann Short and it fluttered to the middle of the field, where it was intercepted by a diving Kurt Coleman. Once again the Panthers turned the takeaway into points, driving 45 yards on eight plays, the last a seven-yard TD catch by Ginn near the right front pylon. Ginn was originally ruled to have stepped out of bounds on the catch but a Carolina challenge was successful and the Panthers had a 17-3 lead.
The Bucs came back with their best drive of the first half, converting three third downs, two of them on passes to Jackson. The second of those came on third-and-one from the Carolina and got the ball down to the five. Martin ran over right guard on the next snap and powered into the end zone for his first TD of the year, closing the gap to 17-10.
A nine-yard sack by Gerald McCoy helped kill Carolina's next drive and got the ball back to Winston for one more try with a little less than two minutes to play. Rainey's 15-yard punt return got the ball almost to midfield and a nice juke at the end of a 13-yard catch by Sims put it into Carolina territory. Brandon Myers made a diving catch for eight yards and a first down at the Carolina 29. The drive reached Carolina's 11 but the Bucs ran out of time and had to settle for a 29-yard field goal try. Unfortunately, Brindza hit the right upright with his kick so the score was still 17-10 at halftime.
In a play reminiscent of the opening of the game, but in much more favorable fashion for the home team, Newton fumbled trying to hand off on the first play of the second half. The ball bounced off Stewart's leg and deflected forward, where it was recovered by Jenkins at the Carolina 25. A third-down sack by DE Ryan Delaire forced the Bucs to settle for a 43-yard field goal and Brindza missed again.
On the very next play, Stewart ran up the middle for eight yards but lost the ball on a hard hit by Conte. Unfortunately, the loose ball flew directly into the hands of Dickson, who sprinted 57 yards for a touchdown.
The Bucs' next drive ended on Norman's second interception, and the Panther cornerback got all the way back to the Bucs' 33 on his return. That drive ended on Ginn's second touchdown, a 12-yard swing pass on third-and-seven.
Runs of 10 and 26 yards by Martin started the Bucs' next drive, and a 20-yard completion to Jackson nearly converted a third-and-21. The Bucs went for it on fourth-and-one from the Carolina 35 and got the conversion and more when Martin broke free for 24. Winston finished the drive two plays later with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Sims.
Carolina came back with a 60-yard field goal drive at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Bucs' defense held inside the 10-yard line but Graham Gano connected on a 27-yard kick to make it 34-17. Thomas Davis' interception with seven minutes remaining set up Gano's third field goal.