Bucs force four turnovers in a 31-17 win over Carolina
By 8:45 a.m. Sunday, Tom Brady was alone with his thoughts, strolling across the 50-yard line before his first home game at Raymond James Stadium. Brady likes to visualize making plays before a game in his empty ballpark, now as the new captain of the pirate ship moored in the stadium's north end zone. But even in his mind's eye, Brady may not have seen this coming. While the Bucs' offense continues to struggle to find a rhythm, nearly giving away a three-touchdown lead to the Panthers, the defense is stealing the show.

Tampa Bay forced four turnovers Sunday, including an interception by cornerback Carlton Davis that snuffed out a late Panthers rally, and running back Leonard Fournette sealed a 31-17 win with a 46-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.

"Our defense, since the second half of last season, they've been playing unbelievable," receiver Mike Evans said. "It was a little frustrating as an offensive captain that we can't do what we're capable of doing. I know it's going to take time. But our defense is bailing us out a lot."

At least there was no talk of miscommunication or bad hamstrings on the offense this time, like there was after Week 1′s loss to the Saints. Brady completed seven passes to Evans for 104 yards, including a beautiful back-shoulder throw for a 23-yard touchdown. Brady finished 23-of-35 for 217 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. But he was only 6-of-12 for 19 yards in the second half.

The Panthers trailed by only a touchdown in the fourth quarter at 21-14 and had the ball at midfield when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's pass was stolen by Davis, who stepped in front of a throw intended for wide receiver D.J. Moore. Davis had dislocated a finger earlier in the game and had two fingers taped together when he made the biggest play in the game.

"The training staff came and put (the finger) back in and wrapped it up and sent me back out there," Davis said. "I knew that I had to battle through that because of the pain. It wasn't a big factor, obviously."

The Bucs intercepted Bridgewater twice in total and sacked him five times. Safety Jordan Whitehead had the first pick, of an overthrown screen pass to running back Christian McCaffrey, and rookie safety Antoine Winfield forced a fumble.

The Bucs also snuffed out a fake punt at midfield, which was as good as a turnover. "Turnovers come in bunches," coach Bruce Arians said. "They're week to week. We had our hands on balls (against the Saints); we didn't catch them. I thought defensively, yeah, we set the tone with this whole ballgame getting turnovers."

Credit Brady for cashing in on those turnovers. Whitehead's interception led to the Bucs' first touchdown, running back Ronald Jones' 7-yard scoring run in the first quarter. The stop on the fake punt produced Fournette's 1-yard scoring run in the second quarter that made it 21-0.

But when linebacker Lavonte David recovered the fumble he forced after hitting receiver Robby Anderson early in the third quarter, Brady gave the ball right back with an interception by overthrowing tight end Rob Gronkowski. "The defense played great the first two games, and we've got to match them," Brady said. "We've got a lot of improvement to make in a short period of time."

This time, however, Arians was very complimentary of Brady's play. At the end of the day, the Bucs hung 31 points on a division opponent to move to 1-1 heading into next week's game at Denver. Arians was counting on a bounce-back game from Brady after watching him throw two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, at New Orleans. After all, Brady has never started a season 0-2.

''I think he has a pretty good history of (bouncing back)," Arians said. "This game should've never gotten as close as it did, but we let them back in. But I thought he played outstanding."

Receiver Chis Godwin missed the game with a concussion, but Evans had a big day and Fournette finished with 103 yards on 12 carries along with the two touchdowns. "It's nice to have a hell of a player with fresh legs in the fourth quarter," Arians said. "Our guys did a good job I thought of mixing the (running) backs in."

The offensive line also protected well, allowing no sacks and only one hit on Brady. But it is the defense —inspired, aggressive and cocky — that is capable of carrying the Bucs until Brady and the offense can get on track. Linebacker Devin White had 15 tackles and David had nine. Winfield, a rookie playing like a 10-year veteran, pitched in with 11 tackles, including a sack and a forced fumble. "We've got some great leaders on defense with Devin White and Lavonte (David), they get us going," Whitehead said. "They tell us every day, we run this team. That's their mindset, that's the whole defense's mindset. Those are two vocal leaders that's taken control. You follow the lead and just do what they do."

Brady knows how to work the clock, and the Bucs defense will buy him some more time until the offense gets rolling. "I think we're just getting better and better," Arians said. "We're nowhere in September where I think we will be in November."

Now that's something to visualize.

Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times, published 21 September 2020