WR Antonio Bryant's 116 yards on five catches repeatedly put the Bucs in scoring position, but the offense struggled to punch it in
Though rookie quarterback Josh Freeman was able to red-line the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense for the majority of Sunday's game at Carolina on Sunday, he was error-prone when his team entered the red zone. And as Freeman went on Sunday against the division-rival Panthers, so did the Buccaneers in a 16-6 loss.
Freeman was impressive for much of the day, throwing for 321 yards on 23 of 44 passing. However, he was also intercepted five times, including once in the end zone and twice near the goal line. The Buccaneers came into Sunday's game with the most efficient red zone offense in the NFL, as measured by percentage of drives that resulted in touchdowns, but failed on all four tries against the Panthers.
Five other Buccaneer drives entered Carolina territory but stalled outside the red zone. In all, the Bucs racked up 469 yards of offense, their highest total of the year, but netted just two Connor Barth field goals, both in the second quarter. Barth also missed twice, including a 42-yard attempt with six minutes left that would have pulled Tampa Bay within a single score.
Freeman's main target on the day was WR Antonio Bryant, who memorably caught nine passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns in the Bucs' last trip to Bank of America Stadium almost exactly a year ago. Carolina pulled away in a close game for a 38-23 victory in that contest, thanks to an unstoppable rushing attack that eventually racked up 299 yards. On Sunday, Bryant caught five passes for 116 yards, several of them unbelievably acrobatic grabs along the sideline. TE Kellen Winslow added four catches for 39 yards and WR Maurice Stovall, starting for the injured Michael Clayton, had four for 69 as Freeman posted his first 300-yard passing game in his fifth career start.
The Panthers also ran for 267 yards in an October meeting in Tampa, and the early going of Sunday's game appeared to be setting up a repeat. Even without lead dog DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers ran for 86 yards on their first two while opening up a 10-0 lead. The Bucs fared better the rest of the way, however, though replacement starter Jonathan Stewart finished with 120 yards on 26 carries and the Panthers put up 157 rushing yards overall.
The Panthers were also playing without starting QB Jake Delhomme, but they seemed intent on keeping the pressure off his replacement, third-year man Matt Moore. Moore threw only 20 passes, completing 14 for 161 yards and also throwing one interception. Much of his yardage came on a 66-yard strike to WR Steve Smith after Chris Harris' interception in the end zone on a fourth-down pass in the Bucs' attempt to tie the game at 13-13. The Panthers did try to get the ball deep to Smith and WR Muhsin Muhammad on several other occasions, but the Buccaneers, playing with an injury-depleted secondary, gave up no other completions longer than 15 yards.
Trailing 10-6 at the half, the Buccaneers took the opening drive of the third quarter 68 yards to the Carolina four-yard line, but a play-action pass on first-and-goal turned into the first of LB Jon Beason's two interceptions. After Kasay's second field goal made it 13-6, the Bucs got the ball back near the red zone on a muffed punt by Chris Gamble, but Beason again picked Freeman off over the middle on the next play.
The Bucs' best chance to get back into the game came when a 25-yard run by Cadillac Williams helped the Bucs drive 58 yards to the Carolina three. However, the Bucs elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal and Harris intercepted a pass intended for Stovall in the back of the end zone. Williams finished the game with 92 yards on 17 carries, his highest total since opening day, and the Bucs gained 154 rushing yards, also the best team mark since Week One.
The opening minutes of the game could hardly have unfolded in worse fashion for the Buccaneers. RB Clifton Smith suffered a concussion while covering the opening kickoff and was lost for the game, marking the second time he has been concussed in a Panthers game this season. In the first matchup, Smith was knocked out by an illegal hit by Carolina CB Dante Wesley while trying to field a punt.
Adding insult to injury, the Panthers then drove 64 yards on 10 plays for a touchdown to open the scoring, once again finding little difficulty in gashing the Bucs' run defense. Stewart capped the drive with a three-yard TD run five minutes into the game. Tampa Bay's first drive reached Carolina territory but ended on an interception over the middle by S Charles Godfrey, and the Panthers immediately took off on a 65-yard field goal march. Runs of 23 yards by Stewart and 20 by Tyrell Sutton provided much of the forward motion, with Stewart repeatedly slipping out of tackles in the backfield to turn potential losses into big gains.
After just two drives, the Panthers had 86 rushing yards and had controlled the ball for nine of the game's first 11 minutes, and of course had a 10-0 lead.
However, the Bucs went to the air to get back into it. After a fine 16-yard punt return by Stroughter, Freeman threw deep on first down and Bryant made an acrobatic catch on the sideline for a 40-yard gain down to the Carolina 12. Head Coach Raheem Morris challenged the initial ruling of an incompletion and replays showed Bryant getting both feet down and maintaining control. The Bucs ran three times from there but rookie FB Chris Pressley's carry on third-and-one was stopped cold and the visitors had to settle for a 21-yard Barth field goal.
Barth hit a 46-yarder five minutes later, following an interception by LB Geno Hayes and a 20-yard catch over the middle by Bryant. The drive was hamstrung by a personal foul call on Trueblood, who was then replaced in the lineup by rookie Demar Dotson. The Bucs drove down into the red zone again on their next possession on the strength of Bryant's 27-yard sideline catch, but were denied any points when Barth's 36-yard attempt bounced off the left upright.
The second half started out well for the Bucs, as Williams broke through a seam on the right side for 19 yards and Freeman scrambled up the middle for 20 more on the very next play. From the Carolina 30, Freeman once again threw to Bryant down the left sideline, and the sizzling receiver made what appeared to be an almost impossible one-handed catch between two receivers. It was ruled a reception on the field and challenged by the Panthers, but replays upheld the original decision, resulting in a first down at the Carolina four. Unfortunately, a play-action pass turned into a disaster when Beason intercepted a ball intended for Bryant in the back of the end zone and returned it to the Carolina 18.
Having regained a measure of momentum, the Panthers went back to their early formula, with Stewart bouncing a run around left end for a gain of 11 and getting eight more two plays later. After a short pass to Rosario moved the chains, Stewart broke loose again two plays later and rambled 12 yards to Tampa Bay's 40. The Bucs' defense eventually held just outside the 20 but Carolina was able to regain its seven-point lead on Kasay's 40-yard field goal.
Ward's 18-yard run over left guard got Tampa Bay's next drive off to a fine start but the drive stalled shortly after. However, the Bucs got the ball right back on the punt, as it was muffed by Gamble and recovered by Earnest Graham at the Carolina 20. Freeman tried to put the ball in the end zone on the very next play but it was once again intercepted over the middle by Beason, who got it back to the Carolina 21.
Jackson's hard hit on WR Charly Martin on a third-down catch forced Carolina to punt after a three-and-out, but the damage was done as the kick and a block-in-the-back penalty pushed the Bucs all the way back to their 17. After one first down, Freeman avoided a disastrous setback by eluding two near-sacks and reserving field to buy enough time to throw it away on first down. On the next play, Williams bounced his carry to the left sideline and got around the corner for a gain of 25, with a facemask penalty on the end pushing the ball all the way into Carolina territory as the third quarter expired.
From the Carolina 33, two Williams runs made it third-and-three and a pass interference penalty on CB Richard Marshall resulted in a first down at the 19. The Bucs faced a third-and-one at the Carolina 10 and appeared to convert it on a Williams run, but the Tampa Bay sideline had called timeout just before the snap. Freeman then converted the third down on his own with a two-yard run, but the Bucs quickly found themselves in a third-and-goal at the five. Williams couldn't punch it in and the Bucs went for it on fourth down. After a Carolina timeout, perhaps forced by the confusion of the Buccaneers first running their field goal team on the field, then switching back to offense, Freeman bounced in the pocket for a long time before trying to hit Stovall in the back of the end zone. It was intercepted by Harris for a touchback.
Two plays later, Moore reared back and threw an enormous rainbow of a pass that eventually settled into Smith's hands on the right sideline for a 66-yard gain. Tampa Bay's defense stiffened in the red zone but a 23-yard field goal by Kasay gave Carolina a 10-point lead with seven minutes to play.
TE Kellen Winslow's leaping catch gained 25 yards and put the Buccaneers in Carolina territory, and a sliding catch by Winslow on the next play picked up 18 more to the 26. After a second-down sack by DT Nick Hayden put the Bucs into a third-and-12 hole at the 28, and another completion to Winslow picked up four more. Needing two scores, the Bucs brought out Barth to try a 42-yard field goal but he missed it wide to the right with a little over five minutes to play.
The Bucs were down to one timeout, so the Panthers kept the ball on the ground, so even though three Stewart runs gained little, the clock still ticked down to three minutes as Jason Baker came on to punt. His deep shot trapped Stroughter at the Bucs' 15 with 3:03 left. Freeman had to settle for a series of underneath passes on the ensuing drive. A shoestring grab of a 22-yard pass by Winslow did put the ball into Carolina territory, and a fourth-down catch by Stovall resulted in a first down at the 24, but Gamble's interception at the eight ended that threat.
With the loss, the Buccaneers dropped to 1-11 on the season. Carolina improved to 5-7.
Game Notes: Carolina now leads the Buccaneers in the all-time series, 12-7, and has won three in a row. The Bucs are 4-6 on the road against the Panthers. … DE Jimmy Wilkerson played in his 100th NFL game on Sunday. … DE Tim Crowder's sack of QB Matt Moore gave him 3.5 on the season, nearly matching his career total coming in. Crowder had four sacks as a rookie with the Denver Broncos in 2007 and now has 7.5 in his career. … The Buccaneers led the Panthers in total yardage at halftime, 208 to 168. That marked Tampa Bay's second-highest yardage total in a first half this season, and their most since opening day. The Bucs had 231 first-half yards against Dallas in Week One. … QB Josh Freeman's 20-yard run early in the second half is his longest of the season. … WR Antonio Bryant caught five passes for 116 yards in Sunday's game. That marked the 14th 100-yard game of his career, and exactly half of them have come over the past two seasons in just 25 games with the Buccaneers. Bryant is the first Buccaneer other than TE Kellen Winslow to post a 100-yard receiving game this season; Winslow has two.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: CB Aqib Talib, DL Michael Bennett, G Shawn Murphy, T James Lee, WR Michael Clayton, WR Terrence Nunn, DT Roy Miller and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Talib, Bennett, Clayton and Miller were out due to injury.
The Panthers deactivated these eight men: QB Jake Delhomme, RB DeAngelo Williams, CB Captain Munnerlyn, FB Tony Fiammetta, DT Derek Landri, G Duke Robinson, WR Dwayne Jarrett and DE Charles Johnson. Delhomme, Williams, Munnerlyn, Jarrett and Johnson were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, RB Clifton Smith suffered a concussion on the game's opening kickoff and did not return.
For the Panthers, LB Na'il Diggs left the game in the third quarter with a rib injury and did not return.