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DEFENSIVE LINE Tampa Bay's defense showed some improvement against Carolina's ground attack, which produced 299 yards in these teams' last meeting. However, the Panthers still found some success on the ground Sunday, especially on the last drive of the game.
The Panthers had 113 yards rushing in the first half alone. Their ground attack was led by running back DeAngelo Williams, who carried the ball 12 times for 71 yards and a touchdown. Williams' score came on a 20-yard run in the first quarter.
Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart had success as well, carrying the ball six times for 36 yards, including a long of 14. However, Stewart's longest run of the game wound up being his worst. Early in the second quarter, Carolina started a drive at its own 23-yard line due to a Bucs RB Derrick Ward fumble. Stewart broke off the long run up the middle, but safety Tanard Jackson caused him to fumble before he got into the end zone, which allowed Bucs defensive tackle Ryan Sims to recover the ball at the 3-yard line.
Stylez G. White started at right end in place of Gaines Adams, who was traded to Chicago on Friday night. Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme had a comfortable pocket to throw out of in the first half. Late in the third quarter, White rushed from the right side and got to Delhomme, bringing him down for a 10-yard loss and the first sack of the game for the Bucs. On the next play, Delhomme threw an interception. White led Tampa Bay's defensive linemen with eight tackles, many of which came on cutback runs. He had two tackles for a loss and the team's only sack of the game.
Bucs DE Jimmy Wilkerson, who had three sacks vs. the Eagles last week, did not record a quarterback takedown, and notched four tackles and one quarterback hurry. Backup DE Tim Crowder saw significant playing time when Wilkerson lined up inside in the team's ‘Go' package. He recorded five tackles.
But any success Tampa Bay's defense had was quickly erased on Carolina's final drive of the game. The Panthers ripped off big yardage via the ground game, and a lot of it came right up the gut at Bucs defensive tackles Ryan Sims, Chris Hovan and rookie Roy Miller. The Panthers successfully engineered a 16-play, 80-yard drive that was capped off by Williams' 1-yard TD run. Not only did that score put Carolina up 28-21, the Panthers gained 76 of their 80 yards via the running game, and the drive chewed 8:04 off the clock.
Despite Carolina rushing the ball nearly 50 times Sunday, Hovan was held without a tackle. Sims led the defensive tackle group with six tackles. Miller notched two tackles.
Carolina finished the game with 322 yards of offense, and 267 of those yards and three TDs came on 48 carries (5.6 avg.) via the running game. Williams led the way with 152 yards on 30 carries (5.1 avg.) and two scores. Stewart had 110 yards on 17 carries (6.5 avg.) and one TD.
LINEBACKERS The Panthers attempted to get tight end Dante Rosario involved in the passing game early, but the Bucs, particularly their linebackers, did a good job of covering him.
Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud had an impressive outing in pass defense. He broke up two passes for Rosario in the first half alone. His first breakup came on third-and-2, which forced a punt. The second came late in the second quarter on a deep ball across the middle. Late in the third quarter on second-and-21, Ruud came up huge when he intercepted Delhomme across the middle of the field on a pass deflected by fellow linebacker Quincy Black. The Bucs got the ball on their own 35-yard line. Ruud finished the game with nine tackles, one interception and three passes defensed.
Weakside linebacker Geno Hayes missed the tackle on Williams' 20-yard down the left sideline in the first half. That score capped off a seven-play, 67-yard drive. However, late in the second quarter, Hayes had a nice pass breakup on a ball thrown to Rosario, which fell incomplete. Early in the third quarter, Delhomme fired a pass into the back of the end zone for Panthers tight end Jeff King, who hauled it in for the score. That score capped off a five-play, 12-yard drive, which put the Panthers up 14-7. The drive started after Bucs QB Josh Johnson threw an interception to start the second half. Hayes came up huge midway through the fourth quarter on a third-and-8 play when he had a great blitz up the middle to get in Delhomme's face, which forced the quarterback to throw an errant pass to safety Tanard Jackson, who intercepted the ball and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown, which tied the game at 21. However, Hayes and Black were caught out of position on several plays on Carolina's final drive of the game, where the Panthers rushed for 76 yards. Hayes finished the game with five tackles and one QB hurry.
Black appeared to blown his assignment on a pass from Delhomme thrown to wide receiver Mushin Muhammad, who gained 16 yards on the play in the second quarter. The Panthers eventually scored a touchdown on that drive. Black gave up another first down on Delhomme's pass to Rosario near right sideline late in the third quarter. Black came up huge late in the third quarter by tipping Delhomme's pass across the middle, which allowed Ruud to intercept it. Like Hayes, Black struggled against the run, especially on the final drive of the game. He finished the contest with two tackles and one pass defensed.
The Panthers did a good job of putting themselves in third-and-short situations, especially in the second half. That allowed Carolina to convert 8-of-14 (57 percent) of its third downs vs. Tampa Bay.
SECONDARY This unit did an excellent job of covering Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith and limiting quarterback Jake Delhomme's production via the passing game Sunday.
The Bucs' defensive backs were also active against the run, which wasn't necessarily a good thing. Cornerback Ronde Barber helped make an impact early in the first quarter when he broke into the offensive backfield and tackled Williams for a 4-yard loss. The Panthers eventually had to punt. But Barber missed a key tackle on Williams' 11-yard run on third-and-7 early in the fourth quarter, which gave the Panthers a first down. Barber finished the game with eight tackles, one of which went for a loss.
Tampa Bay free safety Tanard Jackson came up with two huge plays for the defense, the first of which came early in the second quarter on Stewart's 14-yard run. Jackson did a great job of stripping the ball out of Stewart's hands, which caused the fumble and allowed Sims to recover the ball at the 3-yard line. But late in the third quarter on third-and-1, Jackson missed a key tackle on Stewart's 26-yard touchdown run, which capped off a six-play, 60-yard drive, which put the Panthers up 21-7. Jackson came up big again midway through the fourth quarter on third-and-8 when he intercepted an errant pass from Delhomme intended for WR Mushin Muhammad, and returned it 26 yards for a score, which tied the game at 21-21. Jackson notched five tackles, one forced fumble and one interception return for a touchdown.
Bucs strong safety Sabby Piscitelli was forced to play near the line of scrimmage and make tackles in the defensive backfield too often due to Carolina's potent ground game. Tampa Bay had trouble stopping Carolina's ground game, even with eight men in the box. Piscitelli was guilty of a few missed tackles, but led the Bucs in tackles with 10 on Sunday.
The Bucs held Smith without a catch in the first half, and limited him to one catch for 4 yards in the game. Cornerback Aqib Talib had a lot to do with that. But midway through the second quarter, Talib was called for illegal contact on Smith. That penalty along with a 5-yard scramble by Delhomme gave the Panthers a first down. Still, Talib, who had two tackles, and Barber did an excellent job of holding Smith and Muhammad to four catches for 31 yards.
SPECIAL TEAMS Bucs return specialist Clifton Smith had a rough outing vs. the Panthers. He did a poor job of fielding punts, one of which he allowed to be downed at Tampa Bay's own 9-yard line. Smith's last return came late in the second quarter when Panthers cornerback Dante Wesley laid him out well before a punt came anywhere near the Pro Bowl return specialist. That cheap shot sparked a ferocious on the field between both teams. Wesley was ejected and the Panthers were penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. However, the Bucs suffered the most since Smith was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Smith averaged 6.0 yards per punt return and 25 yards per kickoff return.
Tampa Bay kicker Shane Andrus' first field goal attempt in the NFL came against Carolina on Sunday. But Andrus' 43-yard attempt was way off the mark after long snapper Andrew Economos' snap was bad, which didn't allow holder Dirk Johnson to set the ball up for Andrus in the first quarter. His kickoffs were fairly deep.
Bucs guard Davin Joseph delivered in the second quarter when he blocked Panthers K John Kasey's 52-yard field goal attempt, which allowed Tampa Bay to get the ball at Carolina's 35-yard line.
Early in the third quarter, wide receiver Maurice Stovall gave up the rush lane on a great punt by Dirk Johnson that was pinned inside the 5-yard line. Panthers return man Captain Munnerlyn returned the ball 34 yards to the 40-yard line. That was Munnerlyn's only return of the game. Panthers return man Kenneth Moore averaged 19.7 yards per kickoff return on three attempts. Stovall, Hayward and Smith each had a special teams tackle.
Late in the third quarter with the Bucs trailing the Panthers 21-7, rookie wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who replaced Smith, broke off a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, to make the score 21-14. Stroughter received a great block from WR Maurice Stovall, and made cornerback Richard Marshall and Kasay miss on his way into the end zone. Stroughter finished the game with three kickoff returns for 142 yards (47.3 avg.) and one score.
Johnson pinned the Panthers on their own 4-yard line early in the fourth quarter on a 37-yard punt. He finished the game averaging 40.8 yards per punt on four attempts.
COACHING It's difficult to pin Tampa Bay's 28-21 loss on the Bucs' coaching staff. The Bucs were simply outplayed, especially on the Panthers' final drive of the game. The coaching staff went as far as calling for eight men to play in the box to help slow down the Panthers' ground game, but even that didn't work due to poor execution by the players. As a result, the Panthers had 267 yards rushing and three TDs via the running game. Carolina picked up 16 of its 22 first downs through the running game. The Bucs didn't get a good enough pass rush from its defensive ends, but what was sorely lacking was the push needed from the defensive tackles up front.
The Bucs managed to rush for 124 yards on 25 carries (5.0 avg.) and one touchdown against the Panthers' run defense, which ranked 30th heading into Sunday's game. Tampa Bay produced just 245 yards and one touchdown on offense vs. Carolina. Second-year quarterback Josh Johnson did a poor job of seeing the field on passing downs, but his offensive line hindered this unit's efforts with a few costly penalties. Tampa Bay was penalized five times for 40 yards vs. Carolina.