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QUARTERBACKS Bucs rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski had mixed results on Monday night. He had three passes dropped by receivers in the first half. But he also didn’t help himself, especially on deep passes. On Tampa Bay’s first offensive drive of the game, Gradkowski misfired on a 45-yard bomb to a wide open Joey Galloway, who would have easily scored had the throw been on the mark. But the rookie signal caller had his fair share of good throws, too, especially on slant patterns. On the third series of the game, Gradkowski managed to connect with Galloway on a deep pass for a 27-yard gain down to Carolina’s 21-yard line. Gradkowski capped off that drive by hitting WR Ike Hilliard across the middle of the field for a 6-yard touchdown, which put Bucs up 7-0 in the first quarter. Gradkowski was 3-of-3 for 48 yards on that drive, which was set up by cornerback Ronde Barber’s forced fumble on Panthers WR Keyshawn Johnson, which was recovered by defensive end Dewayne White. Late in the second quarter, Gradkowski did a great job of selling a screen pass for fullback Mike Alstott, who gained 18 yards on the play. Later on that drive, the rookie hit Hilliard on a slant for a 12-yard gain on a third-and-12 play for a first down. But Gradkowski struggled on Tampa Bay’s final two possessions of the first half, which both started with favorable field position . First, his deep pass thrown down the left sideline intended for Galloway was underthrown and intercepted by Panthers CB Chris Gamble on the 1-yard line. After a Barber interception of Panthers QB Jake Delhomme, Gradkowski decided to test Carolina’s defense deep again, but was again intercepted, this time by Panthers safety Shaun Williams on the 3-yard line. Gradkowski completed 11-of-20 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown and two interceptions in the first half.
The turnovers continued for Gradkowski in the second half. On Tampa Bay’s first offensive drive of the third quarter, Gradkowski attempted to scramble for a first down but fumbled the ball when Chris Draft hit him and knocked the ball loose. As a result, the Panthers recovered the ball on the Bucs’ 44-yard line. Tampa Bay’s offense fell flat in the third quarter, producing just 30 yards and getting outscored 17-0 by the Panthers. However, the Bucs offense got rolling at the beginning of the fourth quarter when Gradkowski hooked up with Galloway for two straight pass plays. The Bucs capped that eight-play, 59-yard drive with a field goal, which made the score 17-10. But the Panthers managed to score another touchdown, which put them up 24-10, which allowed their defensive line to tee off on Gradkowski, who was sacked three times by defensive end Julius Peppers and completed 17-of-32 passes for 173 yards and tossed one touchdown and two interceptions. Although he delivered several nice passé and had too many dropped by his receivers, Gradkowski’s missed throw to Galloway on the first drive of the game and his three turnovers proved to be quite costly on Monday night.
Tampa Bay converted just 3-of-13 (23 percent) of its third down attempts vs. Carolina on Monday night.
RUNNING BACKS Tampa Bay’s running game struggled again, managing just 69 yards on 22 carries against a Carolina defense that was surrendering an average of 120 yards rushing per game.
Fullback Mike Alstott, who didn’t have a single touch last Sunday vs. New Orleans, rushed the ball two times for 3 yards in the first half on Monday. One of those runs picked up a first down on a third-and-1 play. However, Alstott’s biggest play came late in the second quarter when he hauled in a screen pass from Gradkowski for an 18-yard gain. Bucs FB Jerald Sowell was active on Monday night and saw action as a lead blocker in the second half. At the beginning of the fourth quarter with the Bucs driving deep into Panthers territory, Alstott dropped a pass thrown by Gradkowski out into the flat. The Bucs eventually had to settle for a field goal.
Bucs RB Cadillac Williams broke off a hard 11-yard run on Tampa Bay’s fourth offensive series of the game, but he rushed for just 20 yards on eight carries in the first half. To make matters worse, Williams fumbled the ball without even being touched late in the third quarter, which allowed the Panthers to recover the ball on the Bucs’ 16-yard line. That turnover led to a Panthers touchdown. On the next drive, Williams dropped a pass from Gradkowski in the flat. Williams rushed the ball 15 times for just 44 yards (2.9 avg.) vs. the Panthers.
WIDE RECEIVERS Bucs WR Michael Clayton dropped Gradkowski’s first pass of the game on a slant route. It would have gone for a first down. However, Clayton came up big two plays later on third down by catching a pass on another slant route for a 16-yard gain. Clayton caught two passes for 22 yards in the first half. But late in the fourth quarter, Clayton dropped a shovel pass from Gradkowski, and it could have arguably been a fumble. Clayton caught just as many passes as he had drops during Monday night’s game. He finished the contest with two catches for 22 yards.
After having Gradkowksi miss him deep on the first series of the game, Galloway got open on the first play of the third series and hauled in a 27-yard pass to the Panthers’ 21-yard line. Two plays later, Galloway hauled in a pass for a 7-yard gain and picked up a first down on the left sideline. On Tampa Bay’s fourth series of the game on a third down play, Galloway dropped a pass from Gradkowski on a slant. Galloway finished the first half with two catches for 34 yards. He got open again down the left sideline on his way to the end zone late in the second quarter, but Gradkowski’s pass was underthrown and intercepted. After Tampa Bay’s offense fell flat in the third quarter, Galloway came up huge at the beginning of the fourth quarter by hauling in two straight passes from Gradkowski for first downs, which helped the Bucs move deep into Panthers territory. The Bucs wound up getting a field goal out of that drive, which made the score 17-10. Galloway finished the game with five receptions for 87 yards (17.4 avg.).
Bucs WR Ike Hilliard came up huge in the first half. He was Gradkowski’s favorite target, hauling in three passes for 27 yards. His biggest grab came when Gradkowski hit him across the middle for 6-yard touchdown in the first half. However, Hilliard caught just one pass in the second half and finished the game with four grabs for 30 yards and one score. He was one of the few Bucs receivers that didn’t drop a pass on Monday night.
Tampa Bay produced just 222 yards of offense vs. Carolina.
TIGHT ENDS Tampa Bay left tight ends Alex Smith and Anthony Becht in to help block on the perimeter early and often Monday night. Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers still managed to sack Gradkowski three times, including twice in the first half. Smith dropped a pass from Gradkowski on the first series of the game. The pass would have gone for a first down. Smith later hauled in a 8-yard pass. He finished the first half with two catches for 11 yards. Smith caught three passes for 18 yards overall on Monday night. Tampa Bay’s tight ends weren’t effective in the passing game or the running game.
OFFENSIVE LINE The Bucs had a change in the starting lineup on Monday night. Dan Buenning started at left guard in place of Sean Mahan. Buenning, however, struggled in the trenches, especially in the running game, where he and the rest of the offensive line failed to open up holes for Williams, Alstott and Co. The Panthers often times stacked the box and dared Gradkowski to beat them with his arm, but the rookie signal caller missed some opportunities in the passing game tonight. Although Peppers recorded three sacks against Tampa Bay’s rookies, guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood, did a decent job in pass protection in the first half. Gradkowski became noticeably more and more uncomfortable as the second half went on and the Panthers began to run away with the game. This led to more pressure from the Panthers’ defensive line and caused the Gradkowski and the Bucs offense to struggle. Trueblood was later called for a tripping penalty.