Bucs offense finally takes flight in Carolina
The tiny, private Sheltair terminal at Tampa International Airport was crammed with a football team whose season has had trouble getting off the ground. The Bucs boarded their Delta charter flight bound for Charlotte at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. They sat on the plane for several hours due to mechanical problems. Some players slept only to be awakened by an announcement that they would have to disembark and wait for a new aircraft to be flown in.

They had pizzas and sandwiches delivered. The team didn't get to the hotel until close to midnight, about eight hours later than scheduled. A quick turnaround was needed, both for the 1 p.m. game against the Panthers on Sunday and for their turbulent season. The Bucs' 46-23 win was the kind of soft landing they hoped for.

Ronald Jones rushed for 192 yards, including a franchise-record 98-yard scoring run that essentially put the game away. The Bucs also followed the pre-flight order to return quarterback Tom Brady to his upright and locked in position. Brady passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns while running for another score as the Bucs scored on nine consecutive possessions after Jones opened the game with a fumble.

"We had card games everywhere," Antonio Brown said of Saturday night. "There was camaraderie everywhere. We weren't going to let that be a factor today. We came out and weathered the storm and had a lot of fun."

Consider what the Bucs endured in the past week. They were gobsmacked 38-3 by the Saints last Sunday night, completing a series sweep at the hands of the NFC South champs. Then came inclement weather sparked by Eta, which interrupted their practice routine.

After trailing 14-7 and 17-10 Sunday at Carolina, the Bucs locked in on both sides of the ball. The offense racked up 544 yards, five touchdowns, four field goals and 46 points. The defense held Carolina to 187 total yards.

"With the disruption of the storm on Wednesday, having to leave early on (Wednesday), practice late on (Thursday) and then the plane, you know, I can't say enough about our guys' focus," coach Bruce Arians said. "The first half it wasn't our best defensive half. The second half was outstanding."

It wasn't perfect. The Bucs allowed Trenton Cannon's 98-yard kickoff return in the second half. But that was about it. The game changed on Jones' historic run. Pinned at their own 2-yard line, the Bucs gave Jones a chance to atone for his fumble on the first possession. He took a handoff from Brady, made safety Tre Boston miss and outraced linebacker Jeremy Chinn, who made a desperate diving swipe at his ankle.

"I started looking up on the Jumbotron and I had to change the angle a little bit," Jones said. "So again, the offensive line getting a good push and making my job a little easier. We needed that."

On the next series, Jason Pierre-Paul, who also had a sack in the game, intercepted a pass to set up one of Ryan Succop's four field goals. It was redemption for Pierre-Paul, who dropped a pass thrown his way by Drew Brees last Sunday. Or whatever you want to call it.

"I didn't drop the interception," Pierre-Paul said of the Saints game. "That was a pass deflection. I thought I was on (Alvin Kamara) and he kind of shook me up a little bit. I was stumbling and I realized the ball was coming toward me and I'd rather bat it down than him catch it. And this week I said, ‘I'm going to catch it this week if I ever get another chance' and I did. It felt good!"

Brady had reason to feel good about the way he played, and it helped that he was only sacked once. With Ali Marpet missing a second game with a concussion, the Bucs moved Ryan Jensen from center to left guard and started veteran A.Q. Shipley at center. Against the Saints, Joe Haeg started for Marpet, and Brady was sacked three times and hit on nine occasions.

The win improved the Bucs to 7-3 and put them back on track to compete with the Saints for the NFC South title. They have huge games coming up on Monday Night Football against the Rams and Nov. 29 against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs.

"That was a lot of mental toughness from the guys this week and (Arians) just said from the beginning, there's no excuses," Brady said. "We got delayed. You're frustrated by it but whatever. Got in at 11:30. Dealt with the storm earlier in the week. But we just had to focus on coming out and doing a better job. We played better than we played last week obviously. And it's in there, we've just got to do it consistently and continue to make plays and run the ball like we ran it today."

The Bucs are back on schedule. They proved they are resilient as long as they never lose sight of their ultimate destination.

Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times, published 16 November 2020