Locked-In Brady, Defensive Takeaways Lead Bucs to Win Over Panthers
Now that's more like how it's supposed to look. After an underwhelming opener in New Orleans, Tampa Bay's offense was sharp - at least in the first half and at crunch time - in the Buccaneers' 2020 home opener, a 31-17 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at a crowd-less Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers improved to 1-1 with the victory, two games into their new Brady era.

"I think he has a pretty good history of that, and this game never should have gotten to as close as it did. We let them back in. But I thought he played outstanding. His leadership on the sideline was great and he put us in the right play on a number of different audibles and played really, really well."

In retrospect, the Buccaneers' communication issues and lack of cohesion in Brady's first game was unsurprising, given the lack of any offseason program or preseason games. Brady, who was out on the stadium turf four-and-a-half hours before kickoff on Sunday, was intent on improving those issues in Week Two and the results were, again, unsurprising.

"Execution was a little bit better," said Brady. "I think we are still a long way from where we need to be. I think we have the ability to make plays; I think consistency, dependability are going to be things we really need. It feels good to win and it's going to feel good to watch the film and learn. It's a long season. We've got a tough game ahead on the road. We didn't do very well in our first road game and we're going to have to do really well this time to beat this team."

The Buccaneers got a much-needed win within the NFC South with Sunday's decision and watched Carolina and Atlanta fall to 0-2. New Orleans will play in Las Vegas on Monday night and will either be 2-0 or 1-1 by the end of the NFL's second week. Tampa Bay's next game is at Denver on Sunday, September 27 and the Bucs will try to continue their progression on offense to pair with a defense that has started the season with two strong efforts, including four critical takeaways on Sunday.

"We're 1-1," said Arians. "It's 16 games. Like I just told the guys, 'Are we going to practice, are we going to show up any different this week because we won versus last week when we lost? No.' We're going to come to work and get ready for the next one and play another really, really good football team on the road. "I don't think there's any doubt," said Arians as to whether Brady and the offense will show steady improvement as they become more familiar with each other. "It's going to take time. With having no preseason and all those practices we missed, we're just growing day by day with Tom and the receivers and the entire offense. I think we'll just get better and better."

Brady completed 23 of 35 passes for 217 yards, one touchdown and one interception and led the home team to a 21-0 halftime lead. The Buccaneers capitalized on the first four takeaways by their defense in 2020, scoring two touchdowns and a field goal on drives after turnovers. They also got another touchdown after a failed fake punt and scored the clinching touchdown on a one-play drive after a failed onside kick.

Brady's lone interception, early in the third quarter, did lead to a swing in the momentum as Carolina scored on the ensuing drive and mounted a rally that got them within seven points with most of the fourth quarter still to be played. After out-gaining the Panthers in total yards by a 230-109 margin in the second half, the Bucs had a chance to put the game out of reach after Lavonte David forced and recovered a fumble by Robby Anderson at the Carolina 27. However, CB

Donta Jackson picked off a pass that went over Rob Gronkowski's head and returned it from inside the 10 to midfield. Carolina subsequently scored on that drive and the one that followed, with Christian McCaffrey running it from one and seven yards out. The Panthers got into a groove offensively and had 228 yards on their last five drives. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, their final takeaway of the day swung the momentum back to the home team for good with 10 minutes to play. Carlton Davis made an acrobatic interception over intended target D.J. Moore and the Bucs took the ensuing possession down for a 33-yard Ryan Succop and a 10-point lead with six minutes left.

"Turnovers come in bunches; they're week-to-week," said Arians. "We had our hands on balls last week but we didn't catch them. I thought defensively we set the tone for this whole ballgame getting turnovers. I thought we were a little leaky in our run defense but that was a big [turnover] to start the second half and then we give it right back to them, let them back in the game. And then Carlton was a great interception to ice this thing with Leonard [Fournette]'s run."

McCaffrey's two touchdowns came on 88 total yards from scrimmage as the Buccaneers' defense continued to fare better against the Panthers' all-around star back than most other teams. McCaffrey also missed the Panthers' last two drives due to an ankle injury. In addition to holding McCaffrey to 3.3 yards per carry, the Bucs' defense also collected five sacks after only getting one in Week One in New Orleans. DL Ndamukong Suh led the day with his first multi-sack game as a Buccaneer and Pierre-Paul, Will Gholston and Antoine Winfield added one each. Winfield's sack also forced a fumble in the first quarter that led to a touchdown.

"I thought we had a good rush, especially our interior guys," said Arians. "They were focused on our outside guys a little bit and our interior guys got great push up the middle - Suh, Gholston, I thought Vita [Vea] got held a couple times but nobody's throwing flags this year that. Yeah, I thought the pass rush was good."

Brady, meanwhile, was not sacked once and only absorbed one QB hit as he often had a lot of time to survey the field. In the first half, that led to frequent connections with Mike Evans, who played a bigger role in Week Two with Chris Godwin sidelined by a concussion. Evans finished the day with 103 yards on seven catches, recording the 25th 100-yard game of his career. Evans' lone catch in the opener was a two-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter. He scored again against Carolina on a 23-yard reception one play after Pierre-Paul recovered the fumble forced by Winfield's sack.

"It was better," said Brady of his connection with Evans. "We left some out there, I think he and I both know that. We've just got to practice and work hard at it. It's not an easy game. We've got to work at it. There's no easy way about it. We've got to get to work, find our rhythm and keep it for the rest of the year."

In the second half, that strong work by the offensive line led to a rushing attack that was able to put things away. The Bucs finished with 122 yards on the ground an average of 5.5 yards per carry, punctuated by Fournette's game-clinching 46-yard touchdown run on the next play after Carolina's unsuccessful onside kick. Fournette gained 103 yards on just 12 carries and also scored on a one-yard run in the first half. It was his first 100-yard rushing game as a Buccaneer. Ronald

Jones opened the scoring with a seven-yard run in the first quarter following Whitehead's interception but Arians rode the hot hand down the stretch. "It's nice to have a hell of a player with fresh legs in the fourth quarter," said Arians. "Our guys did a good job of mixing the backs in. [LeSean McCoy] did a great job of catching balls and making first downs. I know he wants that one back that he dropped for a touchdown but he'll make some more in the future. The running game, I thought our line blocked well all day."

The Buccaneers opened up a double-digit lead in the first quarter when they turned their first two takeaways of the season into a pair of touchdowns just 64 seconds apart. Whitehead's diving interception preceded a 78-yard drive that ended in Jones' seven-yard touchdown run to the right pylon, and Pierre-Paul's fumble recovery deep in Carolina territory led to a one-play drive on Brady's 23-yard strike to Evans.

"We knew we had to step up to the challenge this week because of what happened last week," said Whitehead. "We had a couple penalties last week so we had to try to eliminate that today and make some plays on the ball with no interceptions last week. We got a couple turnovers today…so that was really great to see. We started off the game, first drive, with an interception, and the next drive we had a forced fumble. Those are big plays. We got 14 points off of that."

A fumbled exchange between Brady and Jones ended another Buccaneer scoring opportunity in the second quarter but Brady got the ball back after Whitehead stopped Jeremy Chinn short on an attempted fake punt. A 36-yard flea-flicker from Brady to WR Justin Watson, after a pitch-back from Fournette, helped the Bucs take the ensuing drive 65 yards for a third score, with Fournette scoring from one yard out.

Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 21 September 2020