In a plot twist, Tampa Bay escapes grisly outcome
Thomas Bassinger, Tampa Bay Times, published 13 September 2019

When watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you can never feel safe. Danger, it seems, is only a play or penalty away. That was certainly the case Thursday as the clock lurched toward midnight and the Panthers crept toward the end zone. Be honest. You wondered what fresh terror Friday the 13th would bring.

The fear is understandable, especially if you lived through the Bucs’ many blown fourth-quarter leads in recent years, like the ones against the Saints and Browns last season. And the ones against the Panthers, Packers and Bills in 2017. And the ones against the Cowboys and Raiders in 2016. If the Bucs were a character in a horror movie, they would be the babysitter who, instead of running out the front door, runs up the stairs and waits for the bogeyman to find her in the closet.

What happened
The Bucs seized control late in the third quarter when Peyton Barber knifed through the Panthers defense for a 16-yard touchdown run. It was Tampa Bay’s longest touchdown run since Barber’s 44-yard score against the 49ers in October 2016.

After forcing a Cam Newton fumble, the Bucs were in position at the end of the third quarter to extend their lead to 20-12, but Matt Gay’s 42-yard field goal drifted wide right. That was bad, but Tampa Bay’s next drive was worse: It resulted in points … for Carolina. A safety cut the Bucs’ lead to 17-14 with about 13 minutes left in regulation. Tampa Bay’s win probability, which had peaked at about 75 percent before the field goal miss, plummeted. The game became a virtual coin flip.

What changed
The Bucs defense was relentless. Coordinator Todd Bowles blitzed the snot out of Newton. He sent at least one extra defender after the Panthers quarterback on more than 60 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s truly staggering. Defenses blitzed Newton on 28.4 percent of his dropbacks last season, down from 28.7 percent in 2017, which was down from 40.0 percent in 2016. He hadn’t seen blitzes to that degree since Week 12 of the 2017 season.

His opponent that week? Bowles’ New York Jets. The Jets held a fourth-quarter lead in that game, but Newton and the Panthers rallied to win 35-27. There was no such rally against the Bucs. Newton was ineffective against the blitz, completing 16 of 31 passes and averaging 6.5 yards per attempt. It didn’t help that his receivers dropped a couple of his fastballs.

But Bowles’ aggressiveness seemed to rattle Newton even when he didn’t call a blitz. The threat was so constant that he could never settle into a rhythm and looked more like Yosemite Sam than a former MVP. When not blitzed, he completed only 8 of 19 passes and averaged 6.4 yards per attempt. Most important, the Bucs kept him out of the end zone. He has now gone four straight games without completing a touchdown pass, the longest streak of his career.

One example of Bowles’ effectiveness: When Carolina was driving for the potential winning touchdown, it faced second and 10 from the Tampa Bay 11. Before the snap, it appeared as if the Bucs would rush five defenders. The Panthers countered by keeping Christian McCaffrey, arguably their best receiver, in the backfield for extra pass protection, at least initially.

Tampa Bay ultimately rushed only four defenders, but linebacker Shaquil Barrett got in Newton’s face anyway. He rushed his throw and skipped a pass to DJ Moore, who was open in the end zone. Without Barrett’s pressure, the game is over. Vernon Hargreaves’ touchdown-saving tackle of McCaffrey on fourth and inches ceases to exist.

What it means
Could it be? Do the Bucs finally have a defense? Maybe. Just maybe. Before Thursday night, Tampa Bay had not held an opponent to 14 or fewer points and 5 yards per play since halfway through the 2017 season. In fact, the Bucs have done it only three times in the past three seasons (twice in 2017 and once in 2016).

Before, Tampa Bay would have folded after the missed field goal, the safety and coach Bruce Arians’ double-timeout gaffe. These Bucs, in desperate need of a win after a dispiriting loss at home to a beatable 49ers team in Week 1, flipped the script and held on.

It’s far too early, however, to declare that Tampa Bay has arrived. The Newton the Bucs faced is clearly broken. Whether it’s his health or his offensive line, he is not the quarterback we’re used to seeing. Bigger tests and better quarterbacks loom, like the Rams and Jared Goff in Week 4 and the Saints and Drew Brees in Week 5. In the meantime, the Bucs deserve credit for avoiding an early-season tailspin. Given what we’ve witnessed over the past decade, that’s a big step forward.