TAMPA - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers retooled their offensive line and got star running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams in the 2005 draft with the hopes that they could generate a better running game this season in key divisional contests, such as Sunday's NFC South clash with the rival Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.
But the Panthers proved that despite the Bucs' changes, the results remained the same in Carolina's crushing, 34-14 win - its fifth straight victory over Tampa Bay. Once again, the Bucs failed to generate a running game and were held to just 44 yards and a 2.4-yard average on the ground by a stiff Panthers defense that has not allowed Tampa Bay to rush for 100 yards or more in seven straight games. Williams, who was healthy enough to make his second start despite a foot injury that Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said "will never be 100 percent" this season, had just 29 yards rushing on 11 carries (2.6 avg.).
With no threat of a running game, Tampa Bay became one-dimensional and played into Carolina's defensive game plan. Not only did the Bucs offensive line not open enough holes for Williams, it failed to do an adequate job of protecting young quarterback Chris Simms, who showed more poise and awareness in his second consecutive start this season, despite relentless pressure from the Panthers, who registered five sacks.
"They got to us with the three-man rush, a four-man rush, with their games," Gruden said. "This is a very good front in Carolina. It's well-documented. They are very good and they got to us today. We did not do a good enough job. Our inability to get anything going running the football, I think two weeks in a row our longest run has been six or seven yards, so that combined made it a tough day today.
"Obviously, we are not blocking well enough. We're not calling the right plays. We are trying three tight ends, two tight ends. We are trying draws and traps. We're just not getting it done right now running the football and clearly that is a big reason why we are behind in the down-and-distance, and when you get way behind in the down-and-distance it is tough sledding for any quarterback, let alone a young one."
Although Simms was sacked a fistful of times, fumbled once and threw two interceptions, including one that was returned 61 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Chris Gamble at the start of the third quarter that essentially ended the game, he did complete 25-of-42 passes for 259 yards and threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Joey Galloway at the start of the second quarter to pull Tampa Bay within 10-7 after the Panthers jumped out to an early lead.
"I thought he did a better job," Gruden said of Simms. "I thought he started quite well. He went 10 out of his first 13 throws and had a couple of pretty good drives, stopped one with a fumble and one with successive penalties. He had our team in the half. We had a good drive to start the third quarter until the interception and I thought he did some good things. He showed growth today. It is not going to be an easy process, but there is going to be some things he did learn from. He took a lot of hits today; a lot of hits today and that is not good."
Carolina scored 17 points off of four turnovers, while Tampa Bay failed to generate a turnover for the second straight week.
"Turnovers certainly did (hurt)," Gruden said. "I think the fumble early in the game set up Carolina for a score. The interception to start the second half, we had a good drive going. Those are big plays in the game. Once again, we don't get a turnover ourselves. I think two weeks in a row we have been unable to get a turnover. That combined is a huge factor in winning and losing."
As a result of the loss, the 5-3 Bucs are now in second place in the NFC South behind 6-2 Carolina, which has now won five straight games, and Atlanta, who also won on Sunday. Tampa Bay is also mired in a stretch of losing three of its last four games. The schedule doesn't get any easier, either, with Washington coming to Tampa Bay next Sunday, followed by a trip to Atlanta and games against Chicago and road contests at Carolina and New England looming in December, among other games.
The Bucs may be without starting left tackle Anthony Davis, who sprained his right knee just before halftime when Julius Peppers fell on the back of his leg as he sacked Simms.
"We don't know yet," Gruden said, when asked about the severity of Davis' injury. "He will get evaluated tonight. We are concerned, obviously, and we can just update you when we get the hard facts on this."
Carolina scored on its opening drive after marching 10 yards on 59 plays. Quarterback Jake Delhomme started the game completing 3-of-4 passes for 45 yards, but the drive stalled on third-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 12 when DeShaun Foster was stopped for a 1-yard loss. On fourth-and-3, John Kasay's 30-yard field goal gave the Panthers a 3-point lead with 9:45 left in the first quarter.
Simms started off the game completing both of his first two passes on Tampa Bay's initial drive. On third-and-9 at the Tampa Bay 38, he hit Michael Clayton for a 10-yard gain to pick up a first down. On the next play, Simms found Joey Galloway for a 3-yard strike. Carolina nose tackle Brentson Buckner gave the Bucs a first down on third-and-5 with an offsides penalty, but disaster struck two plays later when Williams fumbled.
Williams was using poor technique and carrying the ball out to his right side when he ran into right tackle Kenyatta Walker. The collision forced the ball loose and Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker recovered. Simms tackled Rucker at the Tampa Bay 32 to prevent a Panthers touchdown, but that turnover keyed another Carolina scoring drive.
After two plays lost one yard, Delhomme found Steve Smith for an 18-yard gain down to the Bucs' 16 on third-and-11. On the next play, a personal foul facemask penalty by linebacker Derrick Brooks tacked on yardage at the end of a Foster run to set up first-and-goal at the Tampa Bay 4. On the ensuing snap, Stephen Davis ran through Brooks, strong safety Jermaine Phillips and cornerback Brian Kelly for a 4-yard touchdown to give Carolina a 10-0 lead with 3:05 remaining in the first quarter.
On third-and-10 on Tampa Bay's next offensive series, Simms found fullback Mike Alstott in the left flat for a short gain, but a second and third effort by the "A-Train" allowed him to turn the pass play into an 11-yarder, which picked up a first down. Runs of six and seven yards by Williams picked up another first down. A 4-yard catch by Williams set up the Bucs with a second-and-6 at the 50 to end the first quarter.
On the first play of the second quarter, Simms took a seven-step drop and launched a bomb to Galloway, who caught the beautiful, 50-yard touchdown pass in stride in the middle of the end zone after beating Panthers safety Mike Minter for the score. That touchdown was Galloway's sixth on the season, and the 60th of his career, and capped off a seven-play, 79-yard drive. With 14:51 left in the second quarter, Tampa Bay trailed Carolina 10-7.
Simms' touchdown pass energized Tampa Bay's defense on the Panthers' next possession. Dewayne White came from the left end position to sack Delhomme for a 6-yard loss on first-and-10 on the Carolina 27. Chris Hovan swatted away a screen pass to set up third-and-16. White batted down another Delhomme pass on the next play, which set up a Panthers punt.
White was the Bucs' best defensive lineman today, and clearly outplayed defensive end Simeon Rice, who did not show up in the stats column upon returning to the starting lineup after being deactivated in last week's loss at San Francisco for missing a team meeting. Under tackle Anthony "Booger" McFarland has been a disappointment all season and was also a non-factor on Sunday with just two tackles.
"Disappointing" was the word that Walker, the Bucs' veteran right tackle, kept uttering after the game when trying to explain how he was flagged for three false start penalties on Tampa Bay's next offensive series. The Bucs advanced to the Carolina 43 early in the second quarter, but 15 yards of Walker's penalty yardage set up an unmanageable third-and-22 on the Bucs' 45 that forced Tampa Bay to punt on fourth down. Walker has had several heated battles with Peppers throughout the years, and it was clear that Peppers was in his head and caused those mental mistakes.
"Obviously, we have to be able to change the snap count against a team that rushes the passer like this," Gruden said. "Using a different snap count sometimes is the only way, it is the only way you can do that. I am very disappointed obviously in that series. It's a 10-7 game; we do have good field position, but what can I say, it happened and my response obviously was probably what most Buccaneers fans response was, it wasn't good."
The Panthers made the Buccaneers pay for squandering a scoring opportunity on their next possession. On first-and-10 from the Panthers 10, Davis ripped off a 17-yard gain. Three plays later, on third-and-10 from the Carolina 27, Delhomme found Buc killer Ricky Proehl, who got behind linebacker Shelton Quarles, down the middle of the field for a 62-yard gain. Cornerback Juran Bolden made a touchdown-saving tackle at the Bucs 11-yard line. Gruden called that play the momentum-changing play of the game.
On first-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 11, Bucs safety Will Allen was flagged for pass interference, which set up first-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 1. Davis ran left for a 1-yard touchdown to cap off the five-play, 90-yard drive that put Carolina up 17-7 with 5:59 left in the second quarter and Tampa Bay would not seriously threaten the rest of the game.
The Bucs started off the second half with a promising drive, but on first-and-10 at the Carolina 38, Simms threw a quick out to Clayton, but Gamble jumped the route, picked off the pass and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown to put Carolina up 24-7 with 12:26 left in the third quarter.
The Panthers defense continued to assert itself in the third quarter when Rucker beat Steussie to sack Simms and force a fumble deep in Tampa Bay territory. Buckner recovered for the Panthers at the Bucs 19. After Delhomme zipped a quick strike to Smith, who eluded Ronde Barber to move the chains on first down, a late hit out of bounds by Phillips gave Carolina a first-and-goal from the Bucs 1. But Tampa Bay's defense delivered an inspired goal line stand and held Carolina to a 20-yard field goal by Kasay that increased the Panthers' lead to 27-7 with 4:07 remaining.
Smith, who finished the game with five catches for 106 yards, would get the better of Barber again at the beginning of the fourth quarter when he hauled in a perfect pass from Delhomme down the left sidelines for a 35-yard touchdown with 14:07 remaining in regulation. That score punctuated a six-play, 77-yard drive by Carolina, which led 34-7.
The Buccaneers did add a meaningless touchdown with 7:45 left in the fourth quarter when Alstott dove in the end zone from 1 yard out to produce the 34-14 final score. Simms marched the team 68 yards on nine plays, completing passes of 11 and 12 to Ike Hilliard and hooking up with Michael Pittman for gains of 2 and 26 yards.
Simms' second interception to Gamble came in the end zone in garbage time with just 22 seconds left in the game. uccaneers merchandise in the world.