Tampa Bay’s losing streak continues with nine straight defeats and has reached historic proportions – and that is not good news for head coach Raheem Morris, who is squarely on the hot seat, or Bucs fans who wanted a little holiday cheer on Christmas Eve.
Saturday’s 48-16 defeat at Carolina marks the first time since the initial nine games of the 1985 season that the Buccaneers have lost nine straight contests.
Turnovers continue to play a huge role in the Bucs’ decline as three fumbles and an interception led to 24 points by the Panthers. Tampa Bay entered Sunday’s game with a minus-10 in turnover margin, was minus-4 against Carolina and now stands at minus-14 for the season.
The Bucs had eight turnovers in the first six games of the season when the team started off 4-2. But in the last nine games, which have all been losses, Tampa Bay has had an astounding 28 turnovers and has become prone to self-destructive behavior that may ultimately cost Morris his job.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who was the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, set the NFL rookie passing record on Carolina’s first drive, surpassing Peyton Manning’s mark of 3,739 yards. On Newton’s third pass of the game, he reached 3,742 yards to make NFL history. As he was in the last contest against the Buccaneers throwing for a touchdown and rushing for three more, Newton was a one-man gang.
Completing 12-of-17 passes for 171 yards with three touchdown passes and rushed for 65 yards on six carries, including a 49-yard TD run, Newton was unstoppable. The rookie had a quarterback rating of 142.4 and was pulled in the early part of the fourth quarter when the game was out of hand.
When Newton wasn’t doing the damage, such as his 91-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandon LaFell, it was the legs of running back Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams that were trampling Tampa Bay’s run defense. Stewart rushed for 88 yards on seven carries (12.6 avg.) and caught an 11-yard touchdown pass, while Williams added 66 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries (9.4 avg.) and two catches for 18 yards as the Buccaneers porous defense surrendered an embarrassing 270 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 31 carries (8.7 avg.).
Defensive end Michael Bennett provided Tampa Bay’s only defensive superlative, sacking Newton once for his fourth sack of the season, as the Buccaneers missed several tackles and were a step slow in covering receivers.
In shades of Carolina’s 38-19 win over Tampa Bay a month ago, the Panthers moved the ball with ease against the Buccaneers on their opening drive. Newton was 3-of-3 for 20 yards on the drive and rushed for five yards, while Stewart rushed for 22 yards on two carries and Williams rushed for 23 yards on three carries. A 15-yard facemask penalty by new defensive tackle Jovan Haye set up the Panthers inside the red zone at the 8-yard line to set up an 8-yard touchdown run by Williams, who went untouched into the end zone to give Carolina a 7-0 lead.
Disaster struck on Tampa Bay’s first offensive play, LeGarrette Blount fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Carolina at the Bucs’ 8-yard line. Blount was benched for the first half of the game after that turnover. However, Tampa Bay’s defense stiffened on third down with Elbert Mack breaking up a pass for Legudu Naanee. The Panthers had to settle for a 21-yard Olindo Mare field goal and went up 10-0 with 8:27 left.
Tampa Bay responded on its next drive with inspired play from backup running back Kregg Lumpkin, who finished the game with 24 yards on seven carries (3.4 avg.) and four catches for 38 yards. One of the key plays on the drive was a 16-yard catch by Preston Parker on third-and-15 to pick up a first down. Later on the drive on fourth-and-1 at the Carolina 5, Freeman’s quarterback sneak picked up a first down. On the next play, Freeman tossed a beautiful 4-yard pass to Arrelious Benn, who dragged both feet in the end zone for a touchdown.
The refs officially ruled that Benn bobbled the ball, but head coach Raheem Morris threw the red challenge flag and the call was overturned. Tampa Bay’s scoring drive covered 80 yards in 15 plays and consumed 9:20 off the clock, making it the longest drive of the season for the Bucs.
However, the Panthers struck right back with a 91-yard touchdown strike from Newton to LaFell, who beat E.J. Biggers in coverage as Tampa Bay’s blitz did not get home and Newton had plenty of time to throw. With 13:06 left in the first quarter, Carolina went up 17-7.
The Bucs answered on their next possession, which resulted in a 42-yard field goal from Connor Barth to cut into Carolina’s lead, 17-10. Sammie Stroughter had a big, 29-yard catch to pick up a first down, but tight end Kellen Winslow’s offensive pass interference penalty backed up the offense and forced the field goal attempt. With 5:33 left in the second quarter, Carolina’s lead was cut to 17-10.
The Panthers surged right back thanks to the legs of Stewart, who had runs of 32 and 24 yards on Carolina’s next drive. Linebacker Geno Hayes had a chance to pick off Newton to thwart a scoring opportunity, but couldn’t hold on to the ball. Five plays later on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Panthers had to settle for a 19-yard Mare field goal. With 26 seconds left before halftime, the Panthers were up 20-10.
Freeman started off hot, completing 14-of-15 passes for 139 yards and one touchdown in the first half. But on Tampa Bay’s first possession in the second half, Freeman’s pass to Winslow was tipped by linebacker James Anderson and defensive back Jonathan Nelson recorded his first interception to stifle the Bucs’ drive. Williams scored on a 22-yard run a few plays later and Carolina’s lead swelled to 27-10 in the third quarter.
Freeman finished the game completing 28-of-38 passes for 274 yards with one touchdown and one interception while being sacked three times. While he had a good game compared to other performances this season, Freeman was unable to do enough to put more than 16 points on the scoreboard and keep up with Newton and the Panthers.
Carolina added another touchdown after Kellen Winslow’s careless fumble while trying to hurdle a Panthers defender. On fourth-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 11, Newton threw a touchdown pass to Stewart to put Carolina up 34-10 and things just snowballed for the Buccaneers.
Newton then added another touchdown on a 49-yard touchdown run to increase the Panthers’ lead to 41-10. On the ensuing kickoff, Stroughter committed Tampa Bay’s fourth turnover by fumbled after a hard hit and Carolina took over at the Bucs’ 8-yard line. Two plays later, Newton hit tight end Jeremy Shockey with an 8-yard touchdown pass to increase Carolina’s lead to 48-10.
In the fourth quarter, Freeman rushed for a 1-yard touchdown, his fourth of the season, but was sacked on the two-point conversion as Carolina’s lead was reduced to 48-16, which proved to be the final score.
Next Sunday, Tampa Bay’s 2011 season will come to an end with either a 4-12 or 5-11 record depending on the outcome of the season finale` at Atlanta, and the fate of Morris will likely be decided shortly thereafter.