Panthers Extend Bucs' Rough October
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 30 October 2017

Halloween is still two days away, but the month of October has already turned from good to frightening for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

On Sunday, the Buccaneers lost to the visiting Carolina Panthers, 17-3, at Raymond James Stadium, recording season lows in points, yards (279) and first downs (16). That marked the Buccaneers' fourth loss in a row after they beat the New York Giants on the first day of the month, and it dropped the team to 2-5 overall and 0-1 in NFC South divisional play. With the Saints' 20-12 win over Chicago on Sunday afternoon, the Buccaneers fell three games out of first place as they prepare to head to New Orleans next weekend. Carolina improved to 5-3 and Atlanta also won on Sunday to move to 4-3.

Tampa Bays' offense had been clicking throughout the month, particularly in the second halves of games, but no big comeback was forthcoming on Sunday. The Bucs trailed 10-0 at the half and got no closer than 10-3. Tampa Bay's run of four straight games with 400-plus yards came to an end and the NFL's number-one ranked passing attack managed just 194 net yards.

Jameis Winston who has only seen minimal practice time in the last two weeks due to a shoulder injury, completed 21 of 38 passes for 210 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He also lost a fumble while trying to pitch a ball to Doug Martin to avoid a sack. "We've just got to execute," said Winston. "I didn't play near good enough for us to win, and that's definitely on me. My performance was not good today."

Winston and the Bucs' offense penetrated Carolina's side of the field six times on 12 drives, including four times in the second half, but failed to reach the end zone for the first time all year. Ill-timed penalties (six for 55 yards) frequently killed momentum and Winston's two interceptions came in Carolina territory in the second half. The Bucs didn't capitalize on strong running from Doug Martin, who had 71 yards on 18 carries.

"We had some success moving the ball, Doug running hard and the line blocking for him, but [the mistakes] seemed to be at the worst times, maybe a penalty that brought us back and killed the momentum or a turnover," said Adam Humphries. "Those are things we've got to fix. Nine games left, there's a lot of ball to play, so just keep our heads up and keep working."

Winston also took three sacks to tie a season high and absorbed several hard hits while scrambling three times for 13 yards. However, his fellow offensive players did not think his shoulder injury was an issue.

"He prepares all week," said Humphries. "Even the days he doesn't throw he's preparing like any other day. He's right behind the huddle mentally taking every snap. There's no difference. He's one of the toughest people I've ever met. For him to take some of those hits and keep plays alive with his feet says a lot about who he is."

In contrast, the Buccaneers' defense was stingier than it had been for most of the month. Tampa Bay had allowed more than 400 yards in three straight games and four of the last five but held Carolina to 254 net yards. QB Cam Newton completed just 18 of 32 throw for 154 yards, though he did hit WR Kelvin Benjamin with a 25-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.

However, third downs remained a problem for Tampa Bay's defense. Carolina converted on eight of 17 attempts, including one that turned a third-and-16 into Benjamin's touchdown, effectively putting the game out of reach. The Panthers also converted five third downs on a nine-minute touchdown drive in the first quarter.

In addition, Tampa Bay's defense caused just one turnover Chris Conte's interception in the third quarter and Tampa Bay lost that battle again, 3-1. "Yeah, it's frustrating, especially when you hold a team under 20 points and under 100 yards rushing," said defensive tackle Chris Baker. "But at the end of the day, we've got to find a way, whether it's us getting some more turnovers and giving our offense a short field or us scoring. We've just got to find a way to win. The only way to get this feeling out of our mouths is to keep coming to work and keep focusing on the little things. Hopefully that translates to wins in the game."

Baker had one of his better games as a Buccaneer, recording four solo tackles and a key pass deflection in the end zone in the third quarter. Cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves and Ryan Smith also held up well in the absence of injured teammates Brent Grimes and Robert McClain; both Hargreaves and Smith finished with six tackles and two passes defensed.

In the end, however, it wasn't enough, and now the team will turn to its efforts to get back into the division race with a number of games against NFC South foes looming. "It's just one week at a time," said Baker. "We still have a lot of division games left, still have a chance to win our division. We've just got to take it one week at a time, go to work and work on the things we need to get better at. Just keep working that's the only way to get better."

Carolina took a 10-0 lead into halftime. The Buccaneers' offense had difficulty sustaining drives, getting into Carolina territory twice but ending one with a punt and one with a Winston fumble. The Panthers had one very long drive, covering most of the field in just under nine minutes while converting five third downs. That drive ended in Stewart's one-yard TD dive on third-and-goal in the first quarter. Carolina's other three points came on a short two-minute drill that ended in Graham Gano's 28-yard field goal. Tampa Bay was held to 108 net yards in the first half.

Despite a free five yards from an encroachment penalty before the game's first snap, the Buccaneers went three-and-out and had to punt to start the game. Carolina also failed to pick up a first down thanks to three good defensive plays. Defensive tackle Chris Baker caught Newton from behind on a first-down, one-yard scramble and cornerback Javien Elliott set up third-and-five with a fine open-field tackle on McCaffrey. Newton tried to hit Benjamin down the right sideline but Vernon Hargreaves had good coverage and knocked the receiver out of bounds before he could complete the catch.

The Bucs got a first down on their next drive on an eight-yard Martin dash but had to punt again after Evans couldn't hold on to a sliding grab on a quick slant. Fine coverage on Bryan Anger's second punt forced Carolina to start at its own 18. The Panthers' first first down of the game came on a typical Newton third-and-one keeper, and Newton found McCaffrey over the middle for 14 more on the next third down.

Russell Shepard got open in the left flat for 14 yards on the next third down, taking it to the Bucs' 48. Hargreaves broke up a deep shot to Funchess at the goal line, but yet another third down was converted when Newton hit Dickson for 14 yards to the Bucs' 15. Cameron Artis-Payne then ran it down to the Bucs' three, but two more Artis-Payne runs up the gut were denied. Carolina brought out a jumbo line on third-and-goal and Stewart jumped over the top for the game's first score.

The Buccaneers took their next drive into Carolina territory, overcoming two holding penalties in part due to a personal foul on a hit by Thomas Davis on Adam Humphries. However, Humphries couldn't quite get to the sticks on a third-and-eight clear-out pass and the Bucs elected to punt from the Carolina 42. Rookie WR Chris Godwin made a great leaping play at the goal line to help down Anger's punt at the Panthers' two-yard line.

The Bucs forced a punt from the Carolina seven thanks to a pair of nice plays from Baker, the first a stop for no yards on a designed Newton keeper and the second a batted pass at the goal line. However, a penalty on the punt return killed the field position advantage, pushing it back to the Bucs' 29. An O.J. Howard 10-yard catch and two good runs by Martin got the ball close to midfield, and Winston converted a third-and-11 with a 17-yard pass to Brate in traffic.

However, consecutive penalties on the Bucs' O-Line moved the ball back 15 yards and Winston committed the game's first giveaway two plays later. As Peppers was dragging him down for a sack, Winston tried to get off a flip to Martin but he lost control of the ball in the process and fumbled, with Carolina recovering at their own 33.

The Bucs avoided giving up points off the turnover, with Hargreaves ably defending another deep shot to Funchess on third down near midfield. However, Carolina punted the ball down to the Bucs' eight with just under three minutes left and were able to get it back with a quick three-and-out. A series of short passes over the middle to McCaffrey got the Panthers into the red zone but rookie safety Justin Evans broke up a third-down pass inside the five and Carolina settled for Gano's 28-yard field goal.

Carolina got the ball and good field position to start the second half when Patrick Murray's kickoff into the wind was fielded at the 12 and returned to the Carolina 47 by Shepard. However, three plays into the drive, Conte read a pass to Dickson on the left side and cut in front of it for a diving interception at the Bucs' 36.

Tampa Bay got into Carolina territory after the takeaway on a 14-yard run by Martin and a 14-yard catch by Evans, but a third-down sack by Kyle Love forced the Bucs to punt, with Anger angling the ball out of bounds at the Carolina seven. Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back on a quick three-and-out and Bernard Reedy's 12-yard punt return put the ball at the Bucs' 46 with eight minutes left in the third quarter.

A deep shot to Jackson went unfulfilled when CB Daryl Worley appeared to get away with late contact, but Martin followed with runs of 17, nine and three to make it first down at the Carolina 25. The drive stalled outside of the red zone but the Buccaneers got on the board on Murray's 41-yard field goal into the wind.

The Bucs got the ball back three minutes later after Alexander dropped McCaffrey for a loss of five on a sweep and cornerback Ryan Smith broke up a scrambling deep pass attempt to Samuel. Carolina punter Michael Palardy angled a bouncing kick out at the Bucs' nine. Unfortunately, the Bucs punted it right back and Carolina started again at its own 44.

Yet another stop by Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back less than a minute into the fourth quarter but another big punt by Palardy forced the Bucs to start at their own three. Winston got the offense out of that hole with first-down throws to Evans and Jackson, but he was then intercepted by Adams when cornerback Captain Munnerlyn hit the quarterback's arm on a blitz. The result was a tumbling pop-up of a throw that Adams dived to intercept. Humphries then forced him to fumble but Kuechly recovered for Carolina at the Bucs' 48.

A zone-read run by Newton picked up 20 yards to the Bucs' 19 and Newton then found Benjamin for a 25-yard touchdown on third-and-16. Carolina went up by two touchdowns with just under nine minutes to play. A 23-yard catch by Cam Brate got the Bucs into Carolina territory on the ensuing drive but a holding call erased a 13-yard scramble by Winston. After a deep ball to Evans just missed Winston tried to find Brate over the middle but it was intercepted by Kuechly at the Carolina 25.

The Bucs got the ball back on a punt. Down two scores and moving fast, Winston started the drive with completions of 19 yards to Evans and 18 to Brate. However, a sack by Mario Addison soon put the Bucs into a third-and-14 at the Carolina 28. After an incompletion, Winston was forced to run on fourth down and could only get off a desperation throw that hit the ground with 2:34 left.