TAMPA – The Buccaneers’ worst fears were realized in Sunday’s game against the visiting Carolina Panthers that resulted in a 26-24 defeat to drop Tampa Bay to 0-3.

No, it wasn’t another quarter without Tampa Bay scoring a touchdown. The Bucs ended their 2006 touchdown drought after nine quarters and actually scored three of them against Carolina.

No, it wasn’t allowing outspoken ex-Bucs wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to score two touchdowns and produce 101 total yards of offense on seven catches and add a run for a 4-yard score on a reverse.

No, it wasn’t surrendering 112 yards on seven catches to Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith in his return to action from a strained hamstring.

No, it wasn’t allowing Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, who was never known as a scrambler, to pick up a critical first down on fourth-and-7 with a 12-yard run to put the Panthers in position for John Kasey to kick his fourth field goal from beyond 45 yards to win the game with less than a minute remaining.

And no, it wasn’t yet another interception by Chris Simms, who has thrown seven this year, although Simms’ first pass was picked off and led to a Carolina touchdown on their first offensive snap of the game – a 31-yard TD pass to Johnson.

It was the fact that as the Bucs offense started showing signs of life with Simms at the helm, the fourth-year quarterback suffered a ruptured spleen against Carolina and had an emergency splenectomy just hours after the game at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa. This injury is expected to put Simms out of action for two months and could sideline him for the season.

It is believed that Simms injured his spleen after taking a hit on his 2-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. With 24 seconds left in the third quarter, Simms kneeled down on the field and then took himself out of the game for what appeared to be dehyrdration. He walked to the locker room with Bucs trainers and team physician, Dr. Joe Diaco, but later returned to play the rest of the game in the fourth quarter. He would later be transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital after the game.

Tampa Bay’s offense had finally started to click in the remaining three quarters of Sunday’s game and put 24 points on the board behind Simms, who looked more confident as the game went on and finished the game 13-of-24 for 139 yards with one TD and one INT.

But as of late Sunday night, it appears obvious that backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski will make his first NFL start at New Orleans on October 8 after the team’s bye week, which seems to be coming at a good time considering the rookie will get an extra week to prepare for the 2-0 Saints and the Buccaneers are 0-3. Currently, the Bucs’ only other option is third-stringer Tim Rattay.

“It’s good,” said Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber of the upcoming bye week. “We need to get our minds right.”

After the game, neither Bucs head coach Jon Gruden nor Simms’ teammates knew the severity of the quarterback’s injuries.

“He got hit early and he hurt his ribs,” Gruden said immediately after the game. “We don’t know the extent of that but he played hard today. He played tough and he showed a lot of grit. He really did. It is a credit to him. He made some big plays when we needed him. We tried a lot of things today – flee flickers and going for it on fourth down, and he responded to a lot of different scenarios. He is hurting right now, there is no question. He left the game. I don’t know that it was because of his ribs, dehydration or both. He is a very sore and tired man right now, and I am proud of how he hung in there against a very good defense.”

Despite the defeat, the Buccaneers were buoyed by the fact that their offense proved it was capable of scoring touchdowns and its defense was capable of creating turnovers.

“It was just having to step up our play and be dominant,” said Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, who had a key sack and forced fumble early in the third quarter that sparked a touchdown drive to pull the score to 17-14. “We didn’t win, so it didn’t matter. It’s uplifting [to see the offense score touchdowns]. We got a moral victory out of it. We found out we have something going on there.”

“On defense we tried to get some turnovers,” said Bucs defensive end Dewayne White who had one pass defensed and two fumble recoveries. “When we got that sack-fumble that Simeon caused, momentum starting swinging our way. Once that happened. We were getting play after play, everybody’s confidence level went up.”

But despite retaking the lead, 24-23, with 5:01 remaining in the game, Tampa Bay couldn’t hang on for the win. The Bucs offense got the ball back with 2:33 remaining, but after two runs by Cadillac Williams, who finished the game with 48 yards on 19 carries, netted just five yards, Gruden called for a deep pass play to Joey Galloway, which was off the mark.

Tampa Bay had to punt to Carolina with 1:54 remaining and its defense couldn’t stop the Panthers from scoring the winning points. A questionable pass interference penalty by cornerback Ronde Barber on fullback Brad Hoover produced 14 yards on first-and-10 from the Carolina 23. Two plays later, Delhomme found Johnson for an 18-yard gain to the Tampa Bay 45. But the biggest play of the game came on fourth-and-7 at the Bucs’ 42 when Delhomme scrambled for 12 yards to pick up the first down with 20 seconds remaining.

“It was fourth and seven,” Gruden said. “They came out in an empty formation and ran two-man coverage, and I think Jake – I don’t think it was a huddle call – I think he made a real instinctive play. He saw that the middle of the field was vulnerable and made a play that you would expect an NFL veteran quarterback of his caliber to make at times like that. He got through, I think we had a stunt on, and he made a nice, nifty move. You don’t expect that from him but it was the play of the game, certainly.”

Kasay, who was perfect on the day with field goals from 51, 50 and 49 yards, nailed a 46-yarder with two seconds left to give Carolina its first win of the season and drop Tampa Bay to 0-3.

The Bucs’ first possession was a nightmare with Simms throwing an interception on his first pass attempt. Simms was attempting to hit Galloway on a quick out to the right flat when cornerback Chris Gamble jumped the route and picked off the pass at the Bucs’ 31-yard line.

Things went from bad to worse on the next play as Delhomme found Johnson, who was booed all day by the crowd at Raymond James Stadium, in a one-on-one situation with safety Jermaine Phillips down the left sidelines. Phillips missed an easy tackle on Johnson, allowing the 6-foot-4 receiver to waltz in for an easy score. With 14:01 left in the first quarter, Carolina led 7-0.

With Tampa Bay’s offense sputtering, Carolina was able to increase its lead to 10-0 behind the leg of John Kasay, who drilled a 51-yard field goal with 1:31 remaining in the first quarter. The eight-play, 21-yard drive took 4:40 and featured an 11-yard run by DeShaun Foster.

At the end of the first quarter, the Bucs offense had yet to score seven points in nine straight quarters. Shoot, they could even muster seven yards – much less seven points –against Carolina. In fact, the Panthers outgained the Bucs 104 yards to six after the first 15 minutes of play.

The Bucs didn’t fare any better in the second quarter on either side of the ball as Tampa Bay fell behind 17-0 after a 4-yard touchdown run by Johnson. The Panthers carved up a porous Bucs defense, marching 59 yards on five plays. Johnson had a 13-yard gain to get Carolina in Tampa Bay territory, followed by a 33-yard pass play by Smith down to the Tampa Bay 7.

Tampa Bay picked up its first first down of the day at the 11:50 mark in the second quarter, but that would be a sign of things to come as the Bucs would pick up several more on its first touchdown drive of the season. Tampa Bay broke out all the stops on the drive, including a 22-yard pass play to tight end Alex Smith, who led Tampa Bay with four catches for 72 yards, off a flea flicker; and 12 yards rushing from Mike Alstott, who is a seldom-used ballcarrier.

On first-and-goal at the Carolina 8, Simms executed a perfect play-action pass to Galloway, who ran across the field from right to left, to catch a touchdown pass over cornerback Ken Lucas and safety Mike Minter in the back left corner of the end zone.

After forcing a three-and-out on Carolina’s next possession, Tampa Bay safety Will Allen drew a taunting penalty by talking trash to Smith after Delhomme’s incomplete pass on third down at the 5:52 mark. Trailing 17-7, what on Earth did Allen have to talk trash about? That penalty kept the drive alive for the Panthers, who picked up an additional first down before having to punt.

That infraction would prove costly as Tampa Bay was then pinned inside its own 10-yard line after Carolina’s punt, and was forced to punt out of the shadow of its own goal line. With the Panthers getting the ball on the Bucs’ 41-yard line to start their next possession, they only had to march eight yards to increase Carolina’s lead to 20-7 with 50 seconds left in the first half.

In the second half, Tampa Bay’s defense came alive when Rice sacked Delhomme and forced a fumble that was recovered by White at the Bucs’ 15. Williams ripped off an 11-yard run before bulling in for a 4-yard touchdown with 12:46 left in the third quarter to pull Tampa Bay to 20-14.

The Tampa Bay defense helped ignite another drive for its offense by forcing another turnover on Carolina’s next possession. Again it was Rice forcing a fumble, this time on Foster. Nose tackle Chris Hovan recovered for Tampa Bay on its own 51. The Bucs converted two third downs on the drive when Simms hit Smith and receiver Michael Clayton for a pair of 14-yard gains. On second-and-9 from the Carolina 10, Simms hit tight end Doug Jolley for a 7-yard gain to bring up third-and-1.

After a carry by Alstott netted no gain, Gruden decided to go for it on fourth-and-1. Simms ran a play-action fake and then bootlegged to his left, picking up a great block by fullback Jerald Sowell as he was being drilled by linebacker Adam Seward, but not before scoring on a 2-yard run that gave Tampa Bay a 21-20 lead with 5:56 left. The Bucs’ 51-yard drive covered 10 plays in 9:04.

However, Carolina would answer on its next possession and retake the lead. On fourth-and-16 from the Tampa Bay 32, Kasay converted a 49-yard field goal to put Carolina back in front 23-21 with 36 seconds left in the third quarter. The 10-play, 58-yard drive was highlighted by a 41-yard pass play to Smith that put the Panthers in field goal range. A sack by defensive end Greg Spires on third down ended Carolina’s drive and prompted Kasay’s kick.

Tampa Bay’s final points would come off Carolina’s third fumble. On third-and-7 at the 29, linebacker Shelton Quarles blitzed and sacked Delhomme, forcing a fumble that was recovered by White at the Tampa Bay 38.

That sparked an eight-play, 61-yard drive that consumed 5:03 and resulted in a 28-yard field goal from Bryant to give Tampa Bay a 24-23 lead with 5:01 left in the fourth quarter. Key plays included a 16-yard pass to Hilliard on third-and-3 and a 27-yard pass to Smith down to the Carolina 11-yard line.

Carolina would embark on its final scoring drive two possessions later and claim victory, 26-24.

“This was a tough loss for us,” Gruden said. “I would like to congratulate Carolina and Keyshawn Johnson. They made some big plays today in the football game. I am proud of our team, down 17-0 against a very good team. Our back was against the wall and I thought we responded.”

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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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