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DEFENSIVE LINE The game between the Bucs and Panthers was going to be won or lost in the trenches, and even though Tampa Bay did not record a single sack, it simply dominated on the defensive side of the ball en route to a 27-3 win over the Carolina.
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme appeared to be uncomfortable throwing out of the pocket throughout most of the game. Perhaps his comfort level in the pocket, or lack thereof, had something to do with the fact that the Panthers were without two starting offensive lineman – center Ryan Kalil and right tackle Jeff Otah – due to injuries.
Tampa Bay's defensive line focused first on stopping Carolina's ground attack, and it succeeded, holding the Panthers to just 40 yards on 20 carries (2.0 avg.).
Defensive tackle Jovan Haye led this group in tackles with four. He also had one pass defensed. But Haye had a costly penalty near the end of the first half after safety Jermaine Phillips intercepted Delhomme in the end zone and returned the ball to 49-yard line. Haye drew an unsportsmanlike penalty for doing a cartwheel on the field to celebrate Phillips' interception. That 15-yard infraction put the Bucs offense on the 36-yard line, and kicker Matt Bryant went on to miss a 50-yard field goal to end the half.
Bucs DE Kevin Carter also had four tackles and one quarterback hurry. Right DE Gaines Adams did not record a tackle, but he did come up with a pass defensed in the first quarter. Adams actually should have intercepted the pass as it bounced right off of his chest on a second-and-8 play on Carolina's first drive of the game. The Bucs would have gotten the ball deep in Panthers territory, but Carolina still had to punt two plays later.
Nose tackle Chris Hovan and Haye had great pursuit against the ground attack. Hovan notched two tackles and DE Greg White recorded one.
LINEBACKERS Tampa Bay's linebackers played an integral role in helping to contain Carolina running backs DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart.
Bucs weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks notched a team-leading five tackles vs. the Panthers. He was active early and showed impressive athleticism by missing a tackle on Stewart and managing to eventually make the takedown on his second effort on the play, which resulted in a 1-yard gain in the first quarter. Brooks had a costly penalty for illegal contact on an incomplete pass thrown by Delhomme late in the second quarter. The infraction came on the same play where the Panthers were called for holding while Delhomme was in the end zone, which would have resulted in a safety had it not been for Brooks' penalty. But Brooks wasn't the only culprit on the play as safety Jermaine Phillips was also flagged for taunting after the pass fell incomplete. Midway through the fourth quarter, Brooks did a great job of diagnosing a pass play and closing in on the ball, which was thrown to Stewart in the flat. Brooks had his hands on it and should have intercepted it, but instead the ball hit the ground for an incompletion.
Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud toughed it out Sunday after missing most of the practice week with a knee injury. He started on Sunday and registered four tackles. Ruud came up huge on a third-and-goal play from the 2-yard line early in the second quarter when he nearly intercepted Delhomme in the back of the end zone. The ball went off of his hands and fell incomplete. The Panthers had to settle for a 20-yard field goal, which capped off a 10-play, 70-yard drive. The Bucs led 14-3 after that score.
Strongside linebacker Cato June also chipped in with five tackles. He was solid, especially in pass coverage. Second-year LB Quincy Black and rookie LB Geno Hayes notched two tackles each in the fourth quarter when the Bucs began to rest their starters. Bucs LB Adam Hayward recorded one tackle.
SECONDARY Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme completed 20-of-39 (51.2 percent) passes for 242 yards and tossed no touchdowns and three interceptions. The Bucs secondary had a lot to do with Delhomme's lack of success via the passing game.
Bucs free safety Tanard Jackson set the tone for the defense on the third drive of the game when he intercepted a pass from Delhomme that was intended for tight end Dante Rossario's hands and into Jackson's for the pick. Jackson returned the ball to the Panthers' 11-yard line, but an unnecessary roughness call on cornerback Ronde Barber moved the ball back to the 26-yard line. That turnover still led to an offensive touchdown. On Carolina's next offensive drive, Jackson appeared to be late coming over to cover wide receiver Steve Smith in a Cover 2 shell, which allowed the speedster to haul in a 48-yard pass from Delhomme down to Tampa Bay's 24-yard line. But Jackson and the Bucs defense held the Panthers to a 20-yard field goal. Smith caught six passes for 112 yards (18.7 avg.) on Sunday. Jackson finished the game with two tackles and one interception.
Jackson's partner in crime, strong safety Jermaine Phillips, joined the interception party late in the second quarter when Bucs rookie cornerback Aqib Talib broke up a pass intended for WR Mushin Muhammad in the back of the end zone, which allowed Phillips to pick it off and return the ball to the 49-yard line. An unsportsmanlike penalty on DT Jovan Haye brought the ball back to the 36-yard line, but the interception still stood. Phillips was called for a taunting penalty in the first half on a play that could have resulted in a safety since the Panthers were called for holding in their own end zone. Instead, the penalties, including an illegal contact on linebacker Derrick Brooks, offset. Phillips was excellent against the run and notched three tackles.
Bucs S Sabby Piscitelli returned to action after being sidelined last week with a dislocated elbow. He came up big in the fourth quarter when Muhammad hauled in a pass on a slant pattern vs. zone coverage and gained 35 yards to the Bucs' 38-yard line. Piscitelli was the only player that had a chance to stop Muhammad and did so with a diving tackle. That proved to be huge since two plays later Talib intercepted Delhomme. The Bucs got the ball at the 24-yard line due to a personal foul penalty called on Tampa Bay's sideline for interference during Talib's interception return. Talib received some help on the pick from Jackson, who drilled Smith to cause the ball to go up into the air and into Talib's hands. Piscitelli recorded three tackles and Talib had two tackles and two passes defensed.
Bucs CB Ronde Barber notched five tackles and one pass defensed vs. the Panthers while helping to contain Smith and Muhammad. He had a great chance to come up with his first interception of the season late in the fourth quarter when Delhomme threw an errant pass across the middle of the field, but Barber couldn't haul it in for the pick. Bucs CB Phillip Buchanon did not record a tackle vs. the Panthers.
Carolina had just 282 yards of offense and converted just 3-of-12 (25 percent) of its third downs vs. Tampa Bay's defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS Bucs rookie linebacker Geno Hayes got his team off to a quick start on Sunday when he exploded into the backfield to block Jason Baker's punt after Carolina's first offensive drive of the game stalled. Not only did he block the punt, Hayes also scooped up the ball and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown to put the Bucs up 7-0 early in the first quarter.
Kicker Matt Bryant was 2-of-3 on field goal tries today. He capped off a 52-yard, eight-play drive in the second quarter with a 37-yarder. With just 14 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Bryant's 50-yard field goal attempt missed to the right. That was his first miss of the year. However, Bryant rebounded from that missed kick by drilling a 49-yarder midway through the third quarter to cap off a 8-yard, four-play drive, giving the Bucs a 20-3 lead.
Punter Josh Bidwell averaged 44.6 yards per attempt. He pinned three of his five attempts inside Carolina's 20-yard line. Late in the second quarter, Bidwell pinned the Panthers on their 6-yard line with a beautiful corner kick that was downed by running back Michael Bennett. Safety Sabby Piscitelli downed a ball at the Panthers' 2-yard line in the third quarter after another great punt by Bidwell. Piscitelli appeared to have a foot in the end zone when he downed the ball, but the play was reviewed and overturned, which forced the Panthers to start that drive at their own 2-yard line.
Bucs rookie return specialist Dexter Jackson did not get off to a good start Sunday. He did not go back deep enough to field a punt in the first quarter, which allowed it to sail over his head. Jackson fielded the ball over his shoulder and then attempted to make something of the play, but to no avail. The end result was an 11-yard loss. The Bucs offense started that drive at their own 13-yard line as a result. However, Jackson did rip off a 17-yard punt return midway through the second quarter to give the Bucs offense the ball at the 35-yard line.
Wide receiver Maurice Stovall (hamstring) and fullback Byron Storer (knee), two key special teams contributors, were injured during Sunday's game and did not return.
Panthers return specialist Mark Jones averaged 9.0 and 21.3 yards per punt and kickoff return, respectively.
COACHING Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin had his troops prepared for a physical contest. The Bucs defense, for the most part, was assignment sound and extremely quick in pursuit and gang tackling. Kiffin's defense did a great job of confusing Delhomme with different blitzes and coverages. The end result saw Delhomme throw three interceptions and four more errant passes that could have been picked off. Although no injury occurred in the secondary, Kiffin decided to play backup safety Will Allen at nickel cornerback and move Ronde Barber to safety on a fourth-and-7 play that was the last one of the game for the Panthers offense. It resulted in an incompletion.
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden's offense produced 315 yards and two offensive touchdowns, but the TD drives were just 26 and 56 yards, respectively. However, quarterback Jeff Garcia played turnover-free football and the offense converted 6-of-13 (46 percent) of its third down tries. Tampa Bay also rushed for 142 yards on 37 carries (3.8 avg.). The Bucs' ability to keep the chains moving helped them dominate the time of possession, 34:42 to 25:18.
Bucs special teams coordinator Richard Bisaccia had to be happy with linebacker Geno Hayes' blocked punt for a touchdown and the play of punter Josh Bidwell.
Tampa Bay was penalized seven times for 80 yards vs. Carolina. Personal foul infractions absolutely killed the Bucs and prevented them from decorating the scoreboard even more. The Bucs were called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after each of Tampa Bay's three interceptions. The Bucs also had a costly taunting penalty on a play that could have resulted in a safety for the defense had the Panthers' holding penalty been the only infraction on the play.