Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith was visibly nauseous on the sidelines during Monday Night’s game against Tampa Bay.
On the opposite sideline, Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden was sick to his stomach in his own way.
Dropped passes. Fumbles. Interceptions.
Gruden gnarled and scowled as his team squandered a 7-point lead with a steady flow of miscues that culminated with a blown coverage by the secondary on a game clinching 36-yard touchdown reception by Smith late in the fourth quarter as the Panthers defeated the Bucs 24-10 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
It was no secret which player was the Bucs’ historical nemesis on each side of the ball — Smith on offense and defensive end Julius Peppers on defense. And each lived up to their reputation. Working against an overmatched Torrie Cox most of the night, Smith turned in his fourth consecutive 100-yard game against Tampa Bay, hauling in eight passes for 149 yards and the Panthers’ final touchdown.
Peppers, licking his chops at the sight of two rookies opposing him, took the league lead in sacks (11), dropping Bucs quarterback Bruce Gradkowski three times. He also recovered a Gradkowski fumble, which the Panthers turned into a touchdown on the ensuing possession, when quarterback Jake Delhomme found former Buc Keyshawn Johnson streaking across the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown. That gave Carolina a 10-7 lead with 8:33 to go in the third quarter.
It was a third quarter the Bucs would like to have back. On offense, they had two three-and-out series wrapped around fumbles by Gradkowski and running back Cadillac Williams. The defense surrendered 17 points, thanks to touchdown drives on two short fields.
On the second fumble, Cadillac Williams wasn’t rear ended or even side-swiped, he simply stalled and coughed up the ball without really being touched. Carolina’s Mike Minter recovered at the Tampa Bay 16-yard line, and four plays later fullback Brad Hoover stumbled in for a 5-yard touchdown, extending the Panthers lead to 10 points, 17-7.
Hoover carried the ball just five times for a total of 14 yards in the game, but seemed to be productive each time he did touch it. Actually, neither team threatened with much of a running game. Carolina edged the Bucs 78 to 69 in rushing yards with Cadillac continuing his sophomore slump, carrying the ball 15 times for 44 yards.
There was an attempt on Gruden’s part to use fullback Mike Alstott, who rushed twice for three yards and caught two passes for 16 yards.
However, this Monday night belonged to wide receivers. Smith would occasionally return to the field between throwing up on the sidelines to burn the Bucs secondary. His long catch of 43 yards on the Panhers’ first possession of the second half led to a field goal. Teammate Keyshawn Johnson caught six balls for 37 yards and a score.
On the Bucs’ end, Joey Galloway was once again Gradkowski’s favorite target. He made five catches for 87 yards. However, his most notable play was a non-catch on a deep ball in which he ran open behind the safety only to be overthrown for what would’ve surely been a touchdown.
The two did hook up on consecutive plays early in the fourth quarter, on passes of 26 and 19 yards, which in turn set up a 28-yard field goal by Matt Bryant, putting the Bucs within striking distance at 17-10.
But a Bucs defense, with three new starters from last week, which had played well enough to keep them in the game to that point, broke down at the most inopportune time. Quarterback Jake Delhomme and the Panther offense, notorious for letting fourth quarter leads slip away this season, gelled on their longest drive of the night, an 8-play, 72-yard drive that ended in Smith’s touchdown.
Swept away in the loss were a few bright spots, primarily in the first half. A half in which the Bucs outplayed Carolina, moving the ball, gathering up eight first downs while winning the time of possession battle.
Much like he has all season, Gradkowski ran hot and cold. He distributed the ball to five different receivers in the first half, each with at least two catches. At times he looked sharp, like when he connected on three consecutive passes after Dewayne White scooped up a Keyshawn Johnson fumble giving the Bucs possession at the Carolina 48-yard line.
First, it was Galloway for 27 yards on first down, then two plays later he found him again for a gain of seven. It was his third pass of the drive, a 6-yard touchdown reception by Ike Hilliard, which gave the Bucs the lead.
Prior to that catch, the team had gone eight games with just seven first quarter points. It was also the first first quarter touchdown the Panthers defense had relinquished all season.
Just before the half, cornerback Ronde Barber intercepted his 31st career pass, tying him with Donnie Abraham for the franchise record. Tampa Bay was within field goal range when Gradkowski gave it back with an interception to Panthers defensive back Shaun Williams on third-and-1 play.
Gradkowski had passes intercepted at the Carolina 1- and 6-yard line on consecutive drives to end the second quarter. Before that, he had thrown 202 passes with just one pick, an NFL record to start a career.
Although Barber made an interception, several tipped passes that could’ve been interceptions were not, a problem that the team will continue to address.
The Bucs remain winless in the NFC South division at 0-5, and are 2-7 overall heading into their home game vs. the Washington Redskins on Sunday. Carolina has new life at 5-4, 3-1 in the division.