For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, youth is no excuse.
The Buccaneers beat the Carolina Panthers, 31-16, on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, becoming the first team in eight years to start seven rookies in a victory. The last team to pull off the feat was the Dallas Cowboys in a 21-19 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on November 24, 2002.
The Buccaneers completed a series sweep of the Panthers and improved to 6-3 on the season, keeping pace with the 6-3 New Orleans Saints and remaining one game behind the 7-2 Atlanta Falcons. Carolina fell to 1-7. They did it despite relying on the league's youngest roster and seven rookies on the field for the first snaps on offense and defense: FB Erik Lorig, WRs Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, G Ted Larsen, DT Gerald McCoy, LB Dekoda Watson and S Cody Grimm. Amazingly, all three players the Buccaneers drafted in the seventh round this past April – Lorig, Watson and Grimm – got the start.
Still, the Panthers fought hard despite their season struggles and a rash of injuries to the running back corps, pulling within five points in the third quarter. Tampa Bay's offense, which would finish with a season-high 422 yards, finally put the game away in the fourth quarter on Cadillac Williams' 45-yard touchdown run.
The Bucs were poised to take control of the game early after acrobatic touchdowns by rookies Arrelious Benn and LeGarrette Blount, taking a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. However, a muffed punt – one of several miscues by Tampa Bay's usually excellent special teams crew, led to Carolina's only touchdown of the game and kept the Panthers in it. The Buccaneers added a third touchdown before halftime on Kellen Winslow's leaping 20-yard grab between two defenders, but the Panthers answered with a pair of field goals in the third quarter.
In the end, the Bucs were too much for the fourth-place Panthers, with an exceedingly efficient QB Josh Freeman supported by the team's best rushing attack of the season. Freeman completed 18 of 24 passes (75.0%) for 241 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions and was rewarded with a passer rating of 134.2. He made great use of his tight ends, with Winslow and John Gilmore combining for nine receptions, 117 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Blount continued to revive the Buccaneers' rushing attack, leading a season-high 186-yard effort. Blount ran 19 times for 91 yards and a touchdown, averaging 4.8 yards per tote. On the drive that produced his own 17-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Blount ran on six of the seven plays and picked up 73 yards. In the fourth quarter, with the Bucs trying to run out the clock and facing a third-and-11 near midfield, fan-favorite Williams took a draw play up the middle and ran untouched for the game-clinching score.
The Bucs exceeded 400 yards on offense for the second time in their last three games (also 407 yards at Arizona) and continued to serve notice that they are a legitimate threat on that side of the ball.
"It's fun," said Head Coach Raheem Morris of the team's explosiveness on offense. "You sit back and watch LeGarrette Blount and Cadillac Williams fill those roles, do what they can do for you. To get that sort of production and have Josh Freeman get the ball to Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow is exciting. It's an exciting brand of football. It's a lot easier to win when you've got a quarterback like that."
The Buccaneers also got a faster start than usual, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive for the first time this season. That came after DT Gerald McCoy forced a fumble near midfield on Carolina's opening possession. Tampa Bay's defense did give up 100 yards to reserve back Mike Goodson with both Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams out, and perhaps surprisingly did not pick off rookie QB Jimmy Clausen, starting in place of Matt Moore. Still, the Bucs surrendered just one touchdown and 300 total yards of offense, and they punctuated the effort with a goal line stand in the game's closing seconds, stopping Clausen on two sneaks from the one-yard line.
"We've talked about working on consistency and turning up that dial on everyone," said Head Coach Raheem Morris of the need for a 60-minute defensive effort. "Our offense took it to heart, too, and went out right away and got a touchdown. Hopefully we can get a couple games where we can learn how to win when we're ahead."
LB Barrett Ruud led the defensive charge with 10 tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss and one quarterback hit. CB Aqib Talib waged a battle all afternoon with WR Steve Smith, allowing Smith just three catches for 47 yards. Talib finished with eight tackles and was consistently outstanding in run support. McCoy, one of those brilliant rookies, had one of his finest efforts of the season with five tackles, one forced fumble, one tackle for loss and two passes defensed.
A week after their special teams nearly led them to a comeback win in Atlanta, the Bucs uncharacteristically struggled in that phase of the game. The muffed punt was something of a fluke play – CB Elbert Mack was unwittingly dragged into the bouncing ball on a short kick and Carolina recovered it off his back – but the Bucs also averaged just 15.3 yards on kickoff returns and 1.7 yards on punt returns. Tampa Bay's stellar cover teams also allowed return man Captain Munnerlyn to return a third-quarter punt 37 yards into Tampa Bay territory, setting up the last of John Kasay's three field goals.
The Buccaneers got a quick start for one of the few times this season, forcing a turnover on Carolina's opening drive and immediately marching 47 yards for a touchdown. S Sean Jones recovered the ball after McCoy punched it out of Goodson's grasp, and two plays later Freeman hit Gilmore for a gain of 29. Benn scored for the second time in as many weeks, taking a short pass in the left flat and diving for the pylon on a second-down catch.
Carolina's second drive crossed into Buccaneers territory, and even though a sack by Ruud forced a punt, the field position switch eventually turned into three points. Freeman was sacked at the Bucs' five-yard line on third-and-10, and the resulting punt went out of bounds at the Bucs' 42. Carolina got only 14 yards from there but still netted Kasay's 46-yard field goal.
That was all the scoring in the first quarter but the Bucs rolled the scoreboard again early in the second period thanks to the power running of Blount. It took Tampa Bay's offense just six plays to go 87 yards, and all of it was gained on the ground. A 13-yard designed run by reserve QB Josh Johnson helped, but the rest of it was six Blount carries, including a 24-yarder and two consecutive 17-yarders after the Bucs got to the Carolina 34. On the scoring run, Blount leaped from the four-yard line over S Charles Godfrey and after completing a midair spin extended the football over the goal line.
The Bucs seemed to have all the momentum after that drive, and it built as the defensed forced a quick punt. Unfortunately, Jason Baker's short wobbler glanced Mack and was recovered by Carolina at the Bucs' 46. That proved disastrous for the home team, as the Panthers drove 46 yards on six plays for a touchdown to make it 14-10. Vaughan ran it in from two yards out to complete the drive.
The Bucs' offense got the last laugh in the first half, driving 65 yards for its third touchdown and scoring with just under one-minute left. Freeman's connection with Winslow produced much of the drive, beginning with the TE's shoestring catch of a 13-yarder on third-and-10 in Bucs territory. Another pass down the middle to Winslow was incomplete but drew a pass-interference flag to put the ball at Carolina's 36. Three plays later, Freeman zipped a pass down the middle into the end zone and Winslow made a leaping catch between two defenders for a 20-yard score.
Click here for a detailed description of the first half of action.
The Bucs started the second half with a game of one-step-forward, one-step-back. They immediately committed a pair of first-down procedure penalties but followed the first with a 15-yard completion to TE John Gilmore and a 28-yard catch-and-run by Mike Williams. Unfortunately, Blount then fumbled and Carolina recovered at their own 48. This time, it was the defense that answered, forcing a quick three-and-out that ended in two throwaways by a scrambling Clausen.
Another false start pushed the Bucs backward to start their second drive of the half, but Freeman moved the sticks with a nifty pump-fake and run, dashing up the middle for a first down at the Bucs' 25. Two plays later, Freeman and Winslow once again hooked up in the middle of heavy defensive traffic, gaining 11 yards to the 38. Williams just missed a big play down the left sideline two plays later and another third-down strike to Winslow came up short.
The Panthers marched quickly into Buccaneers territory with two big plays, a 34-yard fly down the left sideline by Steve Smith and a 13-yard run by Goodson that had a facemask penalty tacked on the end. The Bucs held in their red zone but Kasay's second field goal, a 28-yarder, made it 21-13 with 4:28 left in the third quarter.
The Bucs found themselves backed up again for their ensuing drive, as Spurlock muffed the kickoff and then got tangled up with Maurice Stovall, getting out only to the nine-yard line. They went nowhere from there, punting from the 17 and not getting much net yardage out of the kick. Malone blasted a 53-yarder that Munnerlyn caught back at the Carolina 30, but Munnerlyn got around the right edge of the Bucs' coverage and raced back to Tampa Bay's 33.
A heads-up play by Aqib Talib on the backside of a cutback run by Goodson prevented a big play on first down and led to a loss of one. Two plays later, on third-and-seven, Clausen almost got a crossing-route pass into Smith's hands but Talib made a dazzling play to knock it away. Yet another Kasay field goal, this one from 48 yards out, reduced Tampa Bay's lead to just five points, 21-16.
Starting from their own 20 after a touchback, the Bucs picked up 21 quick yards on Freeman's post pass to Benn. A five-yard toss out to Mike Williams on the left edge brought on the end of the third quarter. A penalty made it second-and-10 after the two teams switched sides, but another pass to Williams moved the ball into Carolina territory as the rookie broke away from the initial defender and scrambled down to the 35. A Blount pinball run around left end made it third-and-two at the 27 and Freeman went to Williams again on a quick slant down to the 16. The Bucs couldn't get any closer, however, and had to settle for Connor Barth's 32-yard field goal and another eight-point lead.
A fine open-field tackle by E.J. Biggers and a holding call on Carolina forced the Panthers to start up again at their own 10 with 10 minutes left in the game. McCoy's pressure forced Clausen to scramble for three yards on first down, but Clausen converted a third-and-five with a lob over Biggers to WR David Clowney for a gain of 25. Goodson got handoffs on the next two plays but was stopped quickly both times for a net loss of three yards. On third-and-13, the downfield coverage was superb and the pocket eventually collapsed on Clausen, leading to a scramble and a throwaway.
Starting at their own 34 after the punt, the Bucs tried to grind out the clock with the running game but a second-down carry was erased by a holding penalty, making it second-and-17 at the 27. The Bucs still ran the ball on second down but risked a pass on third down and called the perfect screen to Cadillac Williams over a blitz. Williams got out to the 45, twisting through a leg tackle for the last necessary yard. Blount then ripped off an 11-yard run, plus a one-yard plunge to the Carolina 43. The Panthers used their second timeout to stop the clock at the 2:56 mark. Another run forced Carolina to use their last timeout with 2:52 left. On third-and-11, the Bucs lined up in a shotgun but Freeman gave it to Williams on a draw play and he shot through a gap over right guard, breaking free and going the distance untouched for a 45-yard touchdown.
Leading by 15, the Buccaneers laid back on defense, allowing Carolina to move the ball but drain most of the clock. A pass interference penalty on Talib led to a first down for the Panthers at the Bucs' five. Clausen tried a fade pass to Clowney but it was well-defended by Sean Jones and incomplete. A pass to Goodson was complete but stopped by the Buccaneers at the one-yard line. A review of the play upheld the call but also gave Carolina time to set up a third-down play instead of spiking the ball. Clausen thus had time for two QB sneaks up the middle, but the Bucs held him out both time to preserve the 15-point lead.
Game Notes: Carolina still leads the all-time series with the Buccaneers, 12-9, but Tampa Bay completed the season sweep with Sunday's win. That marked the Bucs' first sweep in the series since 2002, the inaugural season of the NFC South. … LB Barrett Ruud's sack of QB Jimmy Clausen in the first quarter was his first since the 2008 season. … Third-year DE Alex Magee, acquired from Kansas City in a trade in October, saw his first action as a Buccaneer on Sunday. … The Bucs' 21 points at halftime marked their highest first-half scoring total of the season so far. … The Bucs' defense has produced eight sacks through nine games this season, and six of those have come in two games against the Panthers. … CB Ronde Barber's sack in the fourth quarter was the 26th of his career. He is eighth in Buccaneers history in that category, a half-sack behind Broderick Thomas (26.5). … The Bucs' 31 points on Sunday was their most ever in a game against the Carolina Panthers. The previous high was 27. … C Jeff Faine made his first start since Week Five after missing four games with a quad injury suffered in Cincinnati.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, CB Myron Lewis, FB Earnest Graham, LB Quincy Black, T Will Barker, DE Kyle Moore, DT Ryan Sims and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. Stroughter, Graham, Black, Moore and Sims were out due to injury.
The Panthers deactivated these eight players: RB DeAngelo Stewart, RB Tyrell Sutton, RB DeAngelo Williams, CB C.J. Wilson, LB Abdul Hodge, DE Greg Hardy, WR Devin Thomas and designated third quarterback Armanti Edwards. Stewart, Sutton, William and Hardy were out due to injury.
Injuries: The Buccaneers did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.
For the Panthers, G Travelle Wharton suffered a toe injury in the second quarter and did not return.