Panthers dominate Bucs in 38-19 romp
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 5 December 2011

On a day devoted largely to honoring their past, the Buccaneers spent most of Sunday afternoon creating more questions about their future.

One of the most pressing questions to come out of Tampa Bay's 38-19 loss to the Panthers, of course, dealt with the future availability of quarterback Josh Freeman, who missed Sunday's game with a sore right throwing shoulder. But that only begs the more ominous question: Does it even matter?

The Bucs, wearing orange throwback uniforms, fell to 4-8, losing their sixth straight and seventh of their past eight games largely because of the defense.

The offense, under replacement engineer Josh Johnson, produced less than 20 points for the sixth time in the past eight games, but Carolina led 14-0 after just 10 minutes as the defense took the Bucs out of the game early.

Speaking of being taken out, that's precisely what coach Raheem Morris did to second-year defensive tackle Brian Price after Price was penalized for unnecessary roughness on the last play of the third quarter.

The Bucs trailed 31-12 when Price's penalty for knocking down guard Mackenzy Bernadeau after the whistle wiped out a sack of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, and Morris had clearly had enough of the undisciplined play that sparked the route.

"I sent him to the locker room, told him to go home,'' Morris said of pulling Price from the lineup. "I'm just really disappointed as far as the foolish, un-smart things that we did today. We are not playing like a smart football team right now and we have four weeks left to prove that we can play smarter. If we don't play smarter the last four weeks, we won't win many games.''

With their goals of winning the NFC South, making the playoffs and finishing with a winning record all dashed, several Bucs players admitted their play this month could determine the fate of many. "These next four games are very important for us as a team, as an organization and for us as individuals,'' safety Tanard Jackson said. "This is a business and when you don't win, a lot of changes are made.''

Win or lose down the stretch, Morris suggested changes are coming on defense. After the Bucs allowed 163 yards rushing, Morris said, "there's no doubt'' the team need personnel upgrades. "We've got to try to constantly improve our football team, which we will try to do,'' he said. "You do see some positive pieces, but you have to make sure they become more consistent and smarter.''

Cornerback Ronde Barber said the Bucs' woes, at least defensively, are largely a result of youth and inexperience. "Our youth is rearing its ugly head right now,'' Barber said. "We have some things happening during games that we're not able to get corrected.

"Guys make mistakes that we shouldn't be making in Week 13 or whatever this is. It's unfortunate, but it's who we are. We practiced a whole lot better than we played today and I think that's really indicative of how this team needs to grow. We need to get better in a lot of areas.''

The 2010 team, which raised expectations for 2011 by going 10-6 and just missing the playoffs, was also laden with young players, but Barber said there are great differences between the teams. "This is a totally different football team from last year,'' he said. "To pretend like the guys we have out there playing (now) are the same guys we had last year is shortsighted.

"We're a young football team. We have a rookie middle linebacker, we have two rookie starting defensive ends, we've got guys that haven't played professional snaps for 16 weeks and you can see it during a game. We have too many mistakes that good disciplined teams, veteran teams don't make and we're not that at all. To pretend we are, we're lying to ourselves.''

The Panthers have some young players in key areas as well, but their young players, especially rookie quarterback Cam Newton, often looked like seasoned veterans against the Bucs.

Newton completed only 12 of 21 passes, but produced 204 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. He also ran 11 times for 54 yards and three 1-yard touchdowns, setting an NFL single-season record with his 11th, 12th and 13th rushing touchdowns.

"He's hard to deal with,'' Barber said. "Put the dude in the red zone and it's almost impossible (to stop him). He's a good young player the best rookie I've seen play the position in a long time.''

With Freeman out, the Bucs countered with Johnson, who succeeded in moving the offense between the 30-yard lines but struggled to get it into the red zone and end zone. Tampa Bay settled for first-half field goals of 50, 47, 46 and 44 yards by Connor Barth and trailed 24-12 at halftime.

"It just feels like we're bleeding out right now and we have to find some way to stop the bleeding,'' safety Sean Jones said. "I feel like we're a bucket with a bunch of holes and everything is just pouring out through them.''