Bucs Lose Ground with 21-3 Loss to Panthers
In a game that started with one of the most surprising missed opportunities possible, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers once again failed to take advantage of a struggling team and lost another chance to regain sole possession of first place in the NFC South on Sunday.
The Buccaneers lost for the fourth time in the last five weeks on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, dropping a 21-3 decision to the Carolina Panthers. It marked Tampa Bay's second straight loss to a one-win team, after a 20-18 defeat in Pittsburgh in Week Six, and dropped the Buccaneers' overall record to 3-4.
While that remains good enough for a tie for first place in the division, thanks to Atlanta's 35-17 loss to Cincinnati, it also put Tampa Bay below .500 for the first time since they started the 2020 season 0-1.
"We're not playing well," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "We're not playing well as individuals, we're not playing well as a team, we're not coaching it well. All the way around - we're not scoring enough on offense and we're not stopping them enough on defense. And as a result, we have to wear this on our sleeve. They've got to be grown men. We're going to see what we're made of, how many people can handle adversity, and this is about as dark as it's going to be right now.
"Those guys who are going to step up are going to show up this week in practice. Our leaders are going to lead, our coaches are going to coach and we're just going to dig and keep our head down. … We're going to see what we have going forward, see how many crumble in the dark and see how many people step up and start playing better, and start coaching better."
The Buccaneers' offense nearly opened the scoring just moments into the game when Tom Brady found a wide open Mike Evans deep downfield. Brady hit Evans in stride but the sure-handed receiver stunningly bobbled and then dropped what would have been a 64-yard touchdown on the opening possession.
Though Evans would go on to lead the team with nine catches for 96 yards, the offense struggled to find any rhythm for a second consecutive week and didn't score until the fourth quarter, when the Bucs were already down, 14-0.
"It would have been a good jump start but it was like the second or third play of the game," said Bowles of the Evans drop. "We had the whole game to go through, and it was a 7-0 lead all the way down to the end of the third quarter. We had plenty of chances to come back and win that ballgame."
Carolina snapped the Buccaneers' four-game winning streak in the head-to-head series and prevented Tampa Bay from running its division record to 3-0. The Panthers overcame serious underdog status just days after trading running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Robby Anderson. That was an obvious turn to the future for the now 2-5 Panthers, who fired Head Coach Mike Rhule on October 10. However, RBs D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard combined for 218 yards from scrimmage, including a 60-yard run by Foreman in the third quarter that set up Hubbard's 17-yard touchdown run.
"It's still there," said Brady of the Buccaneers' need for self-assessment. "We talked about execution the other day and it still comes up. I think we all just need to do our job better. There's no easy way about it. They're trying to keep us from doing our job, we're trying to do it, and they're doing a better job than we are. Anytime you score three points, that pretty much sums it up."
Carolina was also down to its third quarterback, with both Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield dealing with ankle sprains. Third-year QB P.J. Walker, making his fourth career start, completing 16 of 22 passes for 177 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Panthers' passing attack depended largely on screens and underneath passes but Walker hit WR D.J. Moore on a 20-yard touchdown pass for the game's first score in the second quarter and played largely mistake-free. Walker then essentially put the game out of reach with a pretty 29-yard touchdown pass to TE Tommy Tremble in the fourth quarter.
In fact, for the third game in a row, the Buccaneers and their opponents combined to commit zero turnovers. That's the first time that has happened in franchise history. Tampa Bay's last takeaway was a Sean Murphy-Bunting interception in the fourth quarter of a Week Four loss to Kansas City.
"It's been three weeks," said Bowles. "We pride ourselves off turnovers; we have not gotten one in three weeks. We haven't punched the ball out. We haven't gotten an interception. That's part of winning football as well."
Tampa Bay's defense was playing with a depleted secondary that lost two more players along the way. With Murphy-Bunting, cornerback Carlton Davis and safety Logan Ryan all out with injuries, the Bucs saw safety Antoine Winfield Jr. leave the game to be evaluated for a concussion in the third quarter. He did not return. Cornerback Anthony Chesley, elevated from the practice squad for the game, was also knocked out by a hamstring injury.
The Bucs were out-rushed on the day, 173-46. Tampa Bay's rushing total was influenced by the scoreboard in the second half, as the team was chasing a deficit and running out of time, but the Buccaneers came into the game with the league's 32nd-ranked rushing attack. That left Brady to throw 49 passes, which resulted in 290 yards and, of course, no touchdowns. In addition to Evans' big day, Brady found rookie TE Cade Otton four times for 64 yards and WR Chris Godwin seven times for 43 yards.
"We had two busts," said Bowles of the Bucs' run defense. "We had a bust on that 60-yard one and we had a bust on another run. The defense cannot play well and then have two busted coverages that you put in from Day One and two busted running plays and expect to win the ballgame. It's not a three-and-a-half quarter ballgame."
Neither offense could sustain a drive for long for most of the first half. The first seven possessions in the game ended in punts, including two times the home team punted on fourth-and-inches and one when it chose to kick away from the Bucs' 36. That surprisingly conservative approached worked in part because Carolina punter Johnny Hekker consistently flipped field position with booming punts, averaging 51.4 yards on seven kicks.
In addition to the early Evans' drop, the Buccaneers also turned it over on downs twice inside Carolina's 30-yard line. With a chance to tie the game midway through the third quarter, the Buccaneers failed on third-and-one and fourth-and-one at the Panthers' 25, both on Fournette runs. Fournette was held to 16 yards from scrimmage on eight runs and two receptions.
The Bucs' rushing attack has struggled in recent seasons, too, but that never stopped the Brady-led offense from scoring in bunches. Now the Buccaneers are facing a myriad of problems that must be resolved before they can return to winning on a consistent basis. "We own it, we have to own it," said Bowles. "To a man, we have to stand up here and own it and make no excuses. We've just got to start digging."
Added Brady: "We're plenty capable of making plays, we're just not making them consistently enough to score points. We make a big play, make a bad play, make a big play, make a bad play. In football that's just not good enough. You can't play like that. You've got to string enough good plays together to get the ball into the red area and score points."
The Buccaneers got the ball first but missed a golden scoring opportunity when a wide-open Evans dropped an on-target pass on a deep post. Godwin nearly made a brilliant diving catch of a deflected ball two snaps later but couldn't hang on and the Bucs had to punt. Rookie P Jake Camarda angled a booming 55-yard punt out of bounds at the Carolina 10.
The Panthers also missed a big-play opportunity on their first drive when WR Terrace Marshall couldn't quite hold on to a deep pass down the right side. The play was originally ruled a 38-yard catch but Bowles through the challenge and replay showed Marshall losing control as he hit the ground. A surprising third-and-seven handoff to Hubbard nearly worked but OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and S Mike Edwards combined to stop him just inches short and the Panthers punted.
The Bucs got across midfield on their second drive but had to punt it away again. Brady somehow fit a third-down pass into the hands of a sliding Godwin on the first third down and then found rookie TE Ko Kieft over the middle for 18 yards. However, a bobbled snap on the next play and a failed tunnel screen to Evans left the Bucs in third-and-seven and Brady's pass to Godwin was incomplete.
The Panthers' second drive was almost exactly like their first, as a third-down catch by WR D.J. Moore came up less than a yard short of the sticks and the punting unit came on to kick it away. That put the Bucs back at their own 22 and White got the drive off to a nice start with eight yards on a well-designed screen and an 11-yard burst up the middle. However, the Panthers trapped White immediately after his next handoff for a loss of six.
Brady kept the drive alive with a pass to Evans, who ran a curl right at the sticks. The Bucs then faced another third down at the Carolina 42, needing three, and initially got it on an 18-yard catch by Godwin. However, the play was erased by an illegal formation penalty and the first quarter came to an end before the Bucs could run another one. After the teams switched sides Brady lofted another deep ball in Evans' direction but the receiver was well-covered and the ball sailed over his head. Camarda followed with another excellent punt, angling it out of bounds at the Carolina 10.
The Panthers got their initial first down of the game when Hubbard powered up the middle for six on third-and-one. DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches made an excellent open-field tackle on Moore on a reverse for a loss of three, but two plays later Walker converted a third-and-five with a 20-yard sideline strike to Marshall.
From the midfield stripe, Hubbard dashed for nine yards into Bucs territory. After a quick pass to Moore made it first down at the Bucs' 35, the Bucs shut the drive down on Vea's third-down sack. The Panthers lined up to punt from the 36, took a delay-of-game penalty and then did kick it away, with the ball going into the end zone for a touchback.
Two Fournette power runs up the middle gained one first down and a flare pass right to WR Russell Gage just converted a third-and-five. Brady and Evans just missed yet another downfield connect and then DE Brian Burns killed the drive with a second-down sack for a loss of 14. Camarda blasted a 62-yard punt for a touchback.
With the two-minute warning looming, the Panthers got their longest play of the game to that point on a long-developing 21-yard pass to Moore. Carolina let the clock run down to two minutes, then after the break set up a perfect screen to Foreman for a gain of 23 down to the Bucs' 31. A quick slant to Marshall led to another first down at the Bucs' 20 and walker stood in against a big rush to hit Moore in the back of the end zone for the game's first score. The Bucs had 23 seconds to work with before halftime and got the ball to midfield before running out of time.
After the intermission and a touchback to start the second half, the Panthers had the ball at their own 25. They punted after a three-and-out thanks to a hard hit by S Keanu Neal to dislodge the ball from Hubbard's grasp. Johnny Hekker blasted another big punt but WR Jaelon Darden was able to tack on a 20-yard return to the Bucs' 28. Tampa Bay's offense got one first down but punted after a near-miss to Godwin down the right sideline.
The Panthers' second drive of the half started at their own 20. Winfield helped end the drive quickly by dropping RB Raheem Blackshear for a loss of four on third down, though he was shaken up on the play and had to come off the field. After another punt, the Bucs got it back at their own 30. Brady hit Evans on a deep out for 13 to kick start that drive, and a similar play two snaps later picked up 18 more.
Brady scrambled left to buy time on the next play and eventually zipped a pass over the middle to Evans for nine. After an incompletion and a run by Fournette that was stuffed the Bucs went for it on fourth-and-one at Carolina's 25. The Bucs tried a toss-sweep right to Fournette and LB Shaq Thompson cut him down short of the sticks.
The Panthers thus took over on downs but quickly punted it back after two incompletions and yet another screen to Hubbard that was three yards short. Hekker's punt pushed the Bucs back to their own 17 and the resulting drive went nowhere. Carolina then doubled its lead with a three-play drive that included a 60-yard run by Foreman and a 17-yard TD scamper by Hubbard.
Moving in a hurry-up against a Carolina defense that was aiming not to give up a big play, Brady hit a series of quick passes to get the Bucs back into scoring range, most notably a 20-yard strike to Evans down the right seam that ended with a pair of very hard hits but the ball still in the receiver's hands. Evans took another big hit on a third-down slant that made it fourth-and-two at the Panthers' 12 and the Bucs went for it.
Brady converted that one with a quick slant to Gage for four yards to the eight. Three incompletions followed, however, and the Bucs settled for Ryan Succop's 27-yard field goal with 13:38 left in regulation.
Hubbard's 13-yard run on the next drive converted a third down and Foremen then promptly got around right end for a 27-yard breakaway. The Bucs' defense was able to force a third-and-11 but Walker got that and more with a perfect pass over the top to Tremble at the right front pylon. Carolina hit the extra point for a 21-3 lead with nine-and-a-half minutes to play.
Otton caught a seam pass in stride for a career-long 35-yard catch to start the next drive but this one ended in downs at the Carolina 28 with 7:15 left. The Bucs' defense allowed one first down and then got a stop but OLB Genard Avery was flagged roughing Hekker on the ensuing punt and the 15-yard penalty made it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 39. Carolina was able to run off most of the rest of the clock before punting and the Bucs ran it twice to kill the last minute on the clock.
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 24 October 2022