TAMPA – After not recording a single turnover in last week’s defeat at Denver, Tampa Bay’s defense stepped up and picked off Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme three times to stymie the Panthers and capture a 27-3 victory for the Buccaneers. It was the first time the Bucs had beaten the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium since 2002, and the win put Tampa Bay in a three-way tie for the NFC South lead with Carolina and Atlanta. All three teams have a 4-2 record, but the Bucs have a half-game lead over both the Panthers and the Falcons due to wins over those division rivals.

Delhomme, who finished the game 20-of-39 for 242 yards, threw drive-killing interceptions to starting safeties Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson, as well as one to rookie cornerback Aqib Talib. Had defensive end Gaines Adams, cornerback Ronde Barber and linebacker Derrick Brooks not dropped interceptions that were right in their hands throughout the game, Delhomme’s day could have been much, much worse.

Tampa Bay’s defense was able to hold Carolina to 282 yards of total offense and to just 3-of-12 (25 percent) on third downs. The tailback tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart was held to a combined 40 yards on 20 carries (2.0 avg.) by a stifling Buccaneers defense. Carolina’s longest run of the game was only a 7-yard dash by Williams in the first quarter. The Buccaneers have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season, in addition to a rushing touchdown on defense.

For the sixth straight game in 2008, the Bucs offense surpassed 300 yards of total offense, finishing with 315 against Carolina. Tampa Bay accumulated 142 yards rushing with Warrick Dunn finding 115 yards on 22 carries (5.2 avg.) behind the lead blocking of Earnest Graham, who was forced into playing fullback due to a first quarter knee injury to Byron Storer. Graham threw some crushing blocks for Dunn and finished with 11 yards on five carries. Fittingly, Graham scored the Bucs’ final touchdown of the game from the fullback position.

Quarterback Jeff Garcia was very effective in place of the injured Brian Griese and earned a start next Sunday against Seattle. Garcia finished the game an efficient 15-of-20 (75 percent) for 173 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Garcia did a great job of managing the offense, but after Tampa Bay built a 17-3 lead at halftime, he didn’t have to do much other than turn and hand off the ball to Dunn.

Yet earlier in the game, Garcia was firing away downfield to give the offense some momentum and the ability to move the chains. The Bucs came into the game with five pass plays longer than 20 yards (only the Browns and Ravens had fewer), but were more aggressive in the passing game against Carolina, finishing with four receptions of 20 yards or more. Tight end Alex Smith had a 29-yard catch, receiver Michael Clayton had a 22-yarder and Graham had catches for 24 and 23 yards, again from the fullback position.

“I would just like to tell our fans about Earnest Graham, and what he did today is what this game is all about,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said after the game. “He lead-blocked, he caught the ball and played fullback today. B.J. Askew and Byron Storer are out and Earnest Graham stepped up unselfishly and played as good as we’ve had a fullback play since I’ve been here. I just wanted everybody to know that although Earnest Graham didn’t show up on the stat sheet, what he did today makes coaching worthwhile. I want to thank him for that.

“He is a jack-of-all-trades. He was a guy that played fullback, tailback, he was on the punt team, kickoff team, he was a guy that was a personal protector and all those years all that preparation paid off for him today.”

Aside from injuries to Storer, wide receiver Maurice Stovall (hamstring) and left guard Arron Sears (knee sprain), the only downer for the Bucs was the fact that the team got flagged seven times for 80 yards, including three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after each of Tampa Bay’s interceptions. The most egregious penalty was called on under tackle Jovan Haye, who was flagged 15 yards for doing a celebratory cartwheel near the Tampa Bay sidelines.

When asked how he would grade Haye’s cartwheel, Garcia said, “He didn’t have a lot of bend in the knees, so maybe an 8,” as laughter erupted in the interview room after the game.

Gruden was clearly peeved at the officials over the fact that Haye was penalized for his spontaneous show of emotion.

“The celebrations … I guess they don’t want you to have much fun at all,” Gruden said. “After an interception – you know I don’t disagree or want to get fined any money – but a guy does a back-flip or if a guy does a cartwheel … I don’t know. I have to look into exactly what we did wrong and then I’ll have a comment for you tomorrow, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over that.”

Tampa Bay’s special teams kicked off the scoring on Sunday and not only gave the team an early 7-0 lead, but also delivered a real momentum boost in the first quarter.

After Carolina picked up a first down on its first play of the game, Tampa Bay’s defense stiffened and middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who was battling a knee injury all week, tackled Panthers fullback Brad Hoover for a 5-yard gain on third-and-8 from the Carolina 41 to force a punt. Tampa Bay overloaded the left side of the protection and rookie linebacker Geno Hayes shot through the gap between tight end Dante Rosario and linebacker Na’il Diggs, blocked Jason Baker’s punt, scooped up the ball and raced 22 yards for his first NFL touchdown. That score gave Tampa Bay a 7-0 lead with 12:25 left in the first quarter.

On third-and-9 from the Carolina 21, Delhomme’s pass for Rosario went off the tight end’s hands and into the arms of Jackson, who advanced the ball to the Carolina 9. But at the end of the play, an unnecessary roughness call on Barber backed the Bucs up to the Carolina 26-yard line.

Tampa Bay picked up a first down on a 10-yard defensive holding penalty by nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu. That set up the Bucs on Carolina’s 11-yard line. After a 7-yard pass to tight end Jeremy Stevens gave the Bucs a third-and-goal situation, Garcia hit Smith with a 2-yard touchdown pass. Smith was wide open in the back of the end zone and gave the Bucs a 14-0 lead with 2:40 left in the first quarter.

Carolina would answer on its next possession, using a 48-yard pass from Delhomme to Smith on first down to get the ball down to the Tampa Bay 24. From there, Williams picked up 13 yards on three carries to drive the ball to the Tampa Bay 2. On second-and-goal from the 2, Williams tripped over a Carolina player and lost the ball, which was recovered by Tampa Bay. However, the ruling on the field was that Williams was down by contact and although the Bucs challenged the play, instant replay confirmed the initial ruling.

On third-and-goal from the 2, Ruud broke up a pass in the end zone intended for wide receiver Mushin Muhammad and forced a John Kasay field goal. After marching 70 yards in 10 plays, the Panthers had to settle for a 20-yard field goal. With 12:31 left in the first half, Tampa Bay’s lead was cut to 14-3.

The Bucs matched Carolina’s field goal with one of their own on Tampa Bay’s ensuing possession. With Earnest Graham lead-blocking due to Byron Storer’s first quarter knee injury, Dunn rushed for 31 yards on three carries, including an 18-yarder on the heels of a 22-yard catch by wide receiver Michael Clayton. But once the Bucs got into the red zone, their offense stalled at the 19-yard line after a run by Graham didn’t pick up a yard and Garcia threw two straight incompletions. After marching 52 yards on eight plays, Bryant’s 37-yard field goal increased the Bucs’ lead to 17-3 with 8:58 left in the second quarter.

The Panthers were driving for a score just before halftime, but on second-and-8 from the Tampa Bay 34, Delhomme threw a deep pass to the end zone to Muhammad, but the pass was defended by Talib. Talib knocked the ball away and into the arms of Phillips, who returned it 58 yards past midfield. But a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct celebration penalty on Haye for his cartwheel cost the Bucs a lot of important yardage and the Bucs’ drive started at their own 36.

With 1:10 left in the first half, Tampa Bay advanced the ball to the Carolina 33, thanks in part to a 24-yard catch by Graham and a 7-yard reception by Clayton. But on third-and-3 from the Carolina 33, Bryant’s 51-yard field goal with 14 seconds left just missed to the right. It was Bryant’s first miss of the 2008 season after starting the year 11-of-11 on field goal attempts.

After Tampa Bay’s first drive of the second half stalled, Josh Bidwell booted a punt that was downed by safety Sabby Piscitelli at the Carolina 1. The officials originally ruled that Piscitelli had touched the ball after stepping inside the end zone, but that play was overturned by instant replay after Gruden successfully challenged the play. By doing that, the defense stiffened inside Carolina’s red zone and forced a three-and-out.

After Carolina’s punt from its own end zone, Tampa Bay got great field position at the Carolina 39 yard-line, but couldn’t pick up a first down and was forced to attempt another field goal. Bryant’s 49-yarder with 6:03 left increased the Bucs’ lead to 20-3.

The Bucs padded their lead in the fourth quarter behind legs of Dunn and Graham. Dunn rushed for 21 yards on six carries, while Graham converted a third-and-2 situation from the Carolina 37 with a 23-yard catch down to the 14-yard line. After two Dunn runs set up a third-and-1 from the 6, Garcia scrambled for five yards down to the 1 to pick up the first down. On the next play, Graham scored on a 1-yard touchdown run from the fullback position to cap off a 56-yard drive on 10 plays that consumed 5:47 off the clock. With 14:11 left in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay had a commanding 27-3.

After a 35-yard catch by Muhammad on first down set up the Panthers at the Tampa Bay 38, Delhomme was picked off for a third time – with Talib doing the honors on this occasion after Jackson nailed Steve Smith, forcing the deflected pass that the rookie corralled. The Panthers wouldn’t threaten again.

Tampa Bay’s entire secondary gets the PewterReport.com Player of the Game honors after the Bucs’ 27-3 victory over the Panthers. The Bucs secondary accounted for six of the team’s season-high 10 passes defensed. Rookie cornerback Aqib Talib led the way with two of them.

Yes, Steve Smith had six catches for 112 yards and Mushin Muhammad had four catches for 68 yards, but the important thing for the Bucs is that neither player reached the end zone and that Tampa Bay came up with three interceptions. Picking off passes is more important than breaking them up, and Talib, free safety Tanard Jackson and strong safety Jermaine Phillips recorded interceptions. One of Talib’s pass deflections was picked off by Phillips, while Jackson’s deflection allowed Talib to get his INT.

Strong safety Sabby Piscitelli contributed to a big outing by the defensive backfield and downed a Josh Bidwell punt at the Carolina 1-yard line. Cornerback Ronde Barber dropped an interception, but was tied for the team lead in tackles with five to cap off a great day for the secondary.

Tampa Bay jumped out to an early 7-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to a blocked punt by rookie linebacker Geno Hayes. Hayes knifed in between tight end Donte Rosario and linebacker Na’il Diggs to block Jason Baker’s punt, scoop up the ball and race 22 yards for his first career touchdown.

Hayes’ blocked punt was the Bucs’ first block since 2003 and the first one Tampa Bay has returned for a touchdown since December 2, 2001 when cornerback Ronde Barber blocked a punt by Cincinnati’s Nick Harris. The ball was returned 11 yards for a score by reserve Todd Yoder.

Considering the Panthers never scored a touchdown against Tampa Bay and lost 27-3, Hayes’ touchdown was really all the Bucs needed to come away with a victory.

Both starting safeties Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson recorded their first interceptions of the year. … Rookie cornerback Aqib Talib snared his second career interception on Sunday. … Running back Earnest Graham scored his third rushing touchdown of the year, which leads the Buccaneers. …  Halfback Warrick Dunn posted the 30th 100-yard rushing game of his career on Sunday. It was the first time this year that the Panthers allowed a 100-yard rusher. Dunn now has 10,567 career rushing yards and moved into 20th place all-time in NFL history. He needs just 76 yards to pass Ricky Watters (10,643) for 19th place. … Tampa Bay is now 4-1 when leading at the half in 2008 and has not trailed in any game this year. Under Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay owns a 41-7 mark when leading at halftime. … Cornerback Ronde Barber and linebacker Derrick Brooks were tied for the team lead with five tackles (four solo). … Quarterback Jeff Garcia was not sacked and Tampa Bay’s offensive line has not allowed a six in three out of six games this year. … Kicker Matt Bryant suffered his first missed field goal of the year (51 yards), but is a perfect 12-of-12 from less than 50. Bryant connected on a season-long 49-yarder against Carolina and is 12-of-13 (92.3 percent) on the year. … Punter Josh Bidwell averaged 44.6 yards with a net of 38.8 yards. He downed three punts inside the 20-yard line, including two inside the 6.

The announced Tampa Bay starting lineup for Sunday’s game was as follows:

WR Antonio Bryant
LT Donald Penn
LG Arron Sears
C Jeff Faine
RG Davin Joseph
RT Jeremy Trueblood
TE Alex Smith
WR Michael Clayton
FB Byron Storer
RB Earnest Graham
QB Jeff Garcia

LE Kevin Carter
NT Chris Hovan
UT Jovan Haye
RE Gaines Adams
SLB Cato June
MLB Barrett Ruud
WLB Derrick Brooks
LCB Phillip Buchanon
RCB Ronde Barber
FS Tanard Jackson
SS Jermaine Phillips

Here is a list of Tampa Bay’s inactives for the Bucs game:

WR Joey Galloway
FB B.J. Askew
DT Greg Peterson
OT James Lee
OT Anthony Davis
LB Matt McCoy
QB Brian Griese
QB Josh Johnson (emergency quarterback)

Wide receiver Maurice Stovall suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter and did not return. Fullback Byron Storer suffered a knee sprain covering a first quarter kickoff and did not return. That really put the Bucs in a bind because he was the only fullback on the game day active roster because B.J. Askew was also inactive due to a hamstring injury. Earnest Graham replaced Storer as the team’s fullback. Left guard Arron Sears left the game in the second quarter after suffering a sprained knee in the first quarter. Sears was replaced by rookie Jeremy Zuttah.

The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Panthers game at Raymond James Stadium was 64,211, but the actual attendance looked about 6,000 shy of that with empty seats in the upper deck and in the club level. The temperature at kickoff was 84 degrees with 86 percent humidity under partly cloudy skies.

The Buccaneers (4-2) remain at home to host the Seattle Seahawks (1-3) on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Kickoff is set for 8:15 p.m. ET and the contest will be a nationally televised game on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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