On overall day of atonement, Bucs defense surges in second half
As if taking a cue from its previous night's charter flight, the Bucs defense was late arriving to Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. Thirty minutes into its must-win NFC South matchup with the Panthers, the discombobulation that besieged Todd Bowles' unit seven days earlier against the Saints had manifested itself again. Teddy Bridgewater was dissecting the Bucs, perhaps cutting away a few grafts of pride in the process.

"We weren't communicating," said coach Bruce Arians, who watched Bridgewater complete his first 13 passes as the Panthers played the Bucs to a 17-all halftime tie. "It was the same problem we had."

At that point, Arians said Bowles got into his players' collective grill, though the still-raw memories of the Saints debacle probably carried a more profound sting than his salty speech. At arguably the season's most critical juncture, the defense could regress or re-boot.

"The normal was said," defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. "Bruce got in there and said what he had to say. A couple of players, but there wasn't really nothing to be said. We know what happened last week, and we weren't trying to repeat that or actually lose a game, but the focus was basically on us." In the end, so was a chunk of the spotlight.

Bowles' unit blanked the Panthers in the third quarter and held them to 35 total yards after halftime in Sunday's 46-23 triumph. For the game, Carolina went only 1-for-9 on third down and totaled only 187 yards, a season-low for a Bucs foe. "We basically said it was 0-0 (at halftime)," said Pierre-Paul, whose third-quarter interception came one play from scrimmage after Bucs tailback Ronald Jones' historic 98-yard scoring run. That was basically it. We were just competing, I was competing."

Buoyed by an offense that scored on all six of its second-half possessions (not including the final one), Pierre-Paul and Co. flourished against a Panthers unit forced into passing situations. Tampa Bay's three second-half sacks included Pierre-Paul wrapping up Bridgewater at thigh level and forcing him from the game with an apparent right-knee injury.

"Once we got the two-touchdown lead, the running game was going to be iffy at best," Arians said. "And our guys were just turning loose after the passer." The resurgence capped a turbulent week that challenged the Bucs' psyche (after the New Orleans loss), routine (due to Hurricane Eta) and even resilience (several-hour flight delay Saturday night).

In 30 fierce minutes, the defense proved it had tackled every challenge. "We can't fly a plane; only the pilot did and the captain can. But we made a bad situation into a great situation," Pierre-Paul said. "And just winning this game today with my brothers made it even better. ... No matter what adversity throws at us, we're going to handle it pretty well and we did. We didn't start off great, but we finished the game pretty well."

Joey Knight, Tampa Bay Times, published 16 November 2020