Martin Gramatica had the best day of his NFL career Sunday in Carolina’s Ericsson Stadium. The Bucs needed every bit of it to escape the Panthers’ lair with a 12-9 victory and a 6-2 record for the first half of the season. Gramatica hit four field goals on the day, including three in the fourth quarter. His final-period heroics included a 52-yard field goal with 10 minutes remaining, a 53-yard shot with 1:55 left and a 47-yard game-winner at the five-second mark. Head Coach Jon Gruden, who backed up his professed faith in Gramatica by allowing him to try what was basically an all-or-nothing shot just after the two-minute warning, was rewarded with a kick that sailed through with 10 yards to spare. That game-tying kick was set up by another play on special teams, as outstanding return man Steve Smith made one mistake, fumbling a punt near midfield with just under three minutes. RB Aaron Stecker, who played a larger role than usual in the Bucs offense, recovered for Tampa Bay at the Carolina 42.
Gramatica’s accuracy salvaged another outstanding defensive performance that almost went to waste. Facing rookie QB Randy Fasani in his first NFL start, Tampa Bay’s top-ranked defense allowed just 130 total yards, the fifth-lowest total in team history. For the fourth time this season, the Bucs did not allow a touchdown in the game. The Buccaneers, who under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin were 6-1 against rookie quarterbacks coming into Sunday’s the game, made life difficult for the newcomer from Stanford. Fasani did not complete a pass until just over five minutes were remaining in the first half, and finished with just five in 18 attempts for 46 yards. He was also sacked three times for a loss of 26 yards. The Panthers did balance those 20 net passing yards with 110 rushing yards, as RB Lamar Smith gained 82, including 62 in the second half.
The Buccaneers will almost certainly retain their top defensive ranking, but credit must be given to the Carolina defense, as well. Twelve points is the Bucs’ second lowest total of the season, and they needed a late push to get to 226 total yards. QB Rob Johnson, filling in for an injured Brad Johnson and making his first NFL start, was able to complete 22 of 33 passes for 179 yards, but he took six sacks, was intercepted once on a deflected pass and did not get the ball into the end zone.
However, Johnson did move the team down the field in the closing seconds when the Bucs had to have it. After Gramatica’s 53-yarder tied it, the Bucs’ defense forced a three-and-out and took over on their own 28 after a Panther punt. WR Keyshawn Johnson, who had no catches in the game’s first 58 minutes, got two for 21 to start the drive, including a toe-dragger on the sideline that was reviewed. The key play of the drive, however, was a scramble by Johnson. After a false-start penalty had pushed the Bucs out of field goal range, Johnson ran around left end for a gain of nine on third-and-nine. Johnson was hurt on the play, and third-string QB Shaun King completed one seven-yard pass to WR Karl Williams before Gramatica came on to try the game-winner.
The game was a defensive struggle, as expected, in the first half. The Bucs set a team record for a single half by holding Carolina to 15 yards overall, and another team record with negative-four net passing yards allowed. Still, the score was just 3-3 at the break, thanks to a fumble forced by standout rookie DE Julius Peppers that set up a 20-yard Shayne Graham field goal. That evened up a first-quarter three-pointer by Gramatica from 32 yards out after two catches for 29 yards by WR Joe Jurevicius. Jurevicius, playing for an injured Keenan McCardell, was hurt himself in the third quarter, sustaining a knee sprain. He still led the Bucs, however, with five catches for 55 yards. TE Ken Dilger added four receptions for 45 yards, including a 12-yarder on the final scoring drive and an acrobatic 22-yarder earlier in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers nearly got the victory thanks to a dominant third quarter. Smith repeatedly found seams in the Bucs’ defense, gaining 57 yards on eight carries. That allowed Fasani to play-action and roll out effectively, completing a few mid-range passes to WR Muhsin Muhammad. Of the Panthers’ five receptions for 46 yards, Muhammad had three for 31.
DE Simeon Rice had two sacks for the Buccaneers, and DT Warren Sapp had one. Peppers had two of the Panthers’ six sacks and now has nine in his first NFL season. Buccaneer S John Lynch had two interceptions, including one on the final play of the game. Atlanta’s wild, 37-35 victory over New Orleans on Sunday.