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QUARTERBACKS
Bucs QB Chris Simms got off to a rough start in Sunday’s game, and his day certainly didn’t end any better. Simms’ first pass of Sunday’s game was intercepted by Chris Gamble after the cornerback read Simms’ eyes and jumped his pass to the flat that was intended for wide receiver Joey Galloway. It took the Panthers just one play – a deep pass to WR Keyshawn Johnson – to make the Bucs pay for that turnover with a 35-yard touchdown strike, which put the Panthers up 7-0 just 59 seconds into the game. Simms finished the first quarter just 1-of-6 for 9 yards. In fact, the Bucs had just six yards of total offense in the first quarter and the offense didn’t get their first first down of the game until there were 12 minutes remaining in the second quarter. However, the Bucs offense showed some signs of life in the second quarter when a flee-flicker from running back Cadillac Williams to Simms was completed to tight end Alex Smith for a 22-yard gain to the Panthers’ 37-yard line. Simms capped off that 10-play, 82-yard drive by play-action passing to a wide open Galloway in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, which made it 17-7 in favor of the Panthers.  Simms missed Galloway running open down the sideline late in the second quarter, which forced the Bucs to punt, but he got the Bucs in the end zone on a fourth-and-2 play-action rollout for a touchdown, which gave the Bucs a 21-20 lead in the third quarter. Late in the third quarter, play was stopped after Simms took a knee on the field in obvious discomfort. He was taken to the locker room for further evaluation, but returned just a few minutes into the fourth quarter. Not only did he return, Simms engineered an eight-play, 61-yard scoring drive by tossing a 16-yard strike to WR Ike Hilliard on a third-and-3 play and a 27-yard pass to Smith to Carolina’s 11-yard line. However, the Bucs did not put the ball into the end zone and had to settle for a field goal, which made the score 24-23 in favor of the Bucs. Simms, who used more five- and seven-step drops to get passes off cleanly at the line of scrimmage, finished the game completing 13-of-24 passes for 139 yards and one touchdown and one interception. While his first quarter interception proved to be a critical mistake in this game, Simms might have won over his teammates by playing through injury Sunday. After Tampa Bay’s game, Simms was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital to have emergency surgery to have his spleen removed. He also received a blood transfusion. Simms certainly gets an “A” for effort, but his overall game performance wasn’t as strong.

GRADE: B-

RUNNING BACKS
The first significant play made by Tampa Bay running back Cadillac Williams came in the second quarter on a passing play when Williams, Simms and Smith collaborated on a well-executed flee-flicker. Williams seemed to find a groove in the third quarter. He broke off a 10-yard run to Carolina’s 4-yard line, and on the next play he worked his way into the end zone for a touchdown. That made the score 20-14 in favor of the Panthers. Despite his success on that particular scoring drive, Williams and Tampa Bay’s ground game remained grounded. Williams carried the ball 19 times for 48 yards (2.5 avg.) on Sunday.

Fullback Mike Alstott ripped off a 10-yard run to Carolina’s 8-yard line on a third-and-1 play in the second quarter. However, Alstott was stuffed on a third-and-1 play near the goal line later in the game. But the Bucs ended up scoring a touchdown on fourth down. Alstott finished the game with three carries for 12 yards.

Michael Pittman carried the ball just one time for 3 yards, but he caught two passes for 26 yards.

Tampa Bay rushed 25 times for 64 yards (2.6 avg.) and two touchdowns.

GRADE: C

WIDE RECEIVERS
Tampa Bay receivers Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard combined for just three catches for 38 yards, but all three receptions were huge. Galloway’s grab came in the second quarter off of play action. Simms hit him in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. Clayton hauled in a 14-yard pass on a slant pattern on a third-and-4 play in the third quarter to put the Bucs on the Panthers’ 11-yard line. Hilliard came up big in the fourth quarter when he hauled in a 16-yard pass from Simms on a third-and-3 play. That reception put the Bucs on the Panthers’ 38-yard line and led to the field goal that put the Bucs up 24-23. Tampa Bay’s offense produced just 209 yards on 51 plays and converted 4-of-12 third downs Sunday.

GRADE: B-

TIGHT ENDS
One of the reasons why Tampa Bay’s wide receivers were limited to just three catches in Sunday’s game was because of TE Alex Smith, who was Simms’ favorite target. Smith was on the receiving end of a pass thrown by Simms off of a flee-flicker for a big gain in the second quarter. That play put the Bucs on the Panthers’ 27-yard line. Smith came up big again in the third quarter on third-and-4 when he hauled in a 14-yard pass from Simms for a first down. That play put the Bucs on the Panthers’ 31-yard line. In the fourth quarter, Simms threw a great pass to Smith, who did a great job of fighting for the ball and coming down with it for a 27-yard gain on the Panthers’ 11-yard line. That catch eventually led to a field goal, which put the Bucs up 24-23. Smith caught a team-leading four passes for 72 yards vs. the Panthers.

Bucs TE Doug Jolley caught one pass for a 7-yard gain in the third quarter. That play gave the Bucs a first down on a third-and-1 play.

GRADE: B+

OFFENSIVE LINE
For the second straight week, Tampa Bay’s offensive line fared well in pass protection, allowing Simms to get sacked just one time on Sunday. However, Simms took several shots from Carolina defenders, and although it is not yet known when he suffered the injury, Simms later was hospitalized and had his spleen removed in emergency surgery. Tampa Bay’s offensive line didn’t do a good job of opening holes for Williams in the run game, and right guard Sean Mahan committed a terrible false start penalty in the second quarter that put the team in a third-and-11 situation and eventually forced the Bucs to punt from their own end zone. The Panthers were able to start the ensuing drive at the Bucs’ 41-yard line and later kicked a 50-yard field goal to go up 20-7.

GRADE: C

DEFENSIVE LINE
Just one week after it allowed Atlanta to rush for 306 yards, Tampa Bay’s defensive line did a decent job against Carolina’s ground attack. Panthers DeShaun Foster rushed 20 times for 82 yards (4.1 avg.), but the team rushed 28 times for 101 yards (3.6 avg.). Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice sparked the Bucs and pumped some much-needed life into the team in the third quarter when he sacked Panthers QB Jake Delhomme on a third-and-7 play and forced him to fumble. Bucs defensive end Dewayne White recovered the loose ball. In the third quarter, Rice came up big again when he forced Foster to fumble. Defensive tackle Chris Hovan recovered the ball to give the Bucs offense possession. White also recovered a fumble later in the fourth quarter after linebacker Shelton Quarles blitzed and sacked Delhomme. Rice recorded one sack and two forced fumbles on Sunday. Bucs under tackle Anthony McFarland left the game in the second quarter with bruised ribs. While he returned to the game, McFarland notched just one tackle. Defensive end Greg Spires sacked Delhomme on a third-and-10 play in the third quarter. Tampa Bay’s defense notched three sacks and forced three fumbles on Sunday.

GRADE: B

 LINEBACKERS
Injuries forced the Bucs to reshuffle their starting lineup on defense. Shelton Quarles, Tampa Bay’s starting middle linebacker, started in place of Ryan Nece (knee) on the strong side. The Bucs filled the void left by Quarles by starting Barrett Ruud. Quarles, who notched eight tackles, sacked Delhomme and forced him to fumble, which allowed White to recover the ball on the Bucs’ 38-yard line. Quarles also notched a pass defensed. Ruud also recorded eight tackles and did a nice job protecting the middle of Tampa Bay’s defense. Weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks had a few missed tackles in the first quarter, but the nine-time Pro Bowler rebounded strong by becoming a disruptive force in the second half. Brooks recorded 11 tackles and one pass defensed. The Panthers converted just 2-of-12 (17 percent) of their third down attempts Sunday.

GRADE: B

SECONDARY
Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly missed his second consecutive game due to turf toe. Juran Bolden started in his place. Bolden had a tough time containing Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson in the first quarter. He finished the game with four tackles. Bucs CB Ronde Barber had a difficult time as well. Barber was involved in several big plays executed by Carolina’s offense. He missed a tackle on Johnson’s 2-yard touchdown off a reverse in the second quarter. He also allowed Johnson to pick up a first down on a third-and-10 play in the second quarter. Barber and safety Jermaine Phillips allowed Smith to haul in a 41-yard pass from Delhomme in the third quarter. Barber missed a tackle on WR Keary Colbert’s 16-yard gain in the fourth quarter. He was called for pass interference on fullback Brad Hoover and allowed Johnson to pick up a key first down on Carolina’s final drive, which ended with a 46-yard field goal. Barber recorded a team-high 12 tackles on Sunday. Phillips, who recorded seven tackles, had his fair share of mishaps. He allowed Johnson to haul in a 35-yard touchdown from Delhomme after Simms’ interception in the first quarter. He also got plowed over by Foster on a 16-yard run in the first quarter. Free safety Will Allen recorded six tackles, but the biggest impact he had came in the second quarter when he was called for a taunting penalty after a pass breakup on third-and-10. But Allen helped to make up for that mistake in the fourth quarter on a fourth-and-8 play when he got his hand on a pass to force an incompletion. Bucs nickel CB Torrie Cox had a chance to intercept Delhomme with under one minute remaining in the fourth quarter, but he dropped the pick, which would have easily been returned for a touchdown had he kept his feet and held onto the ball. The Panthers eventually drove down the field for the game-winning field goal. Smith caught seven passes for 112 yards. Johnson finished the game with seven catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns.

GRADE: D

SPECIAL TEAMS:
Bucs kick returner Michael Pittman averaged 20.6 yards per return. Punt returner Mark Jones averaged one yard per return on one carry. Ronde Barber fielded the first punt of the game and returned it 8 yards.

Torrie Cox was called for an illegal block in the back on Jones’ punt return late in the second quarter. That penalty put the Bucs on their own 8-yard line.

Punter Josh Bidwell averaged 45.5 yards per attempt and had a long of 52.

Kicker Matt Bryant drilled a 28-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter. He also recorded a tackle on DeAngelo Williams in the third quarter.

GRADE: B-

COACHING
For the third straight week, Tampa Bay fell into a hole it couldn’t climb out of. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden attempted to interject some confidence into Simms by calling for a simple pass into the flat for Galloway on the first pass play of the game, but it’s become a predictable play – one that Gamble jumped and intercepted. That led to a touchdown for the Panthers. Gruden showed some creativity by calling a flee-flicker pass play and showed some guts by going for it on fourth-and-2 in the third quarter, and that decision paid off after Simms crossed the goal line for a touchdown on a bootleg. On a third-and-5 play inside Carolina’s 20-yard line, Gruden called for a questionable run for Williams, who was stuffed. The Bucs settled for a 28-yard field goal, and after the Panthers kicked the game-winning field goal, that decision has to be second-guessed, even after the severity of Simms’ injury was revealed.

Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s had great timing on his blitz call for Quarles, who forced a fumble. He needs to spend the bye week working on tackling technique – the Bucs missed way too many tackles on Sunday, especially in the secondary. Worst of all, the defense allowed a eight-play, 48-yard drive that resulted in the game-winning field goal for the Panthers.

GRADE: C

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