TAMPA – After two momentum-changing touchdowns from Sammie Stroughter on a 97-yard kickoff return and a 26-yard interception return from free safety Tanard Jackson, the Bucs evened the score with the visiting Panthers at 21-21 with 8:33 left in the game. After watching quarterback Jake Delhomme throw two second half interceptions, which gave him 15 in his last six games, to get Tampa Bay back in the game, Carolina wisely turned to its ground game on its final possession of the game.

In shades of last year’s 38-23 loss at Carolina on Monday Night Football in Week 14, the Bucs were pounded into submission once again by the Panthers’ potent ground game. The tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart ran the ball a combined 15 times for 76 yards on Carolina’s final drive, consuming 8:04 off the clock with Williams scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard plunge with 29 seconds for a 28-21 victory to keep Tampa Bay winless at 0-6.

Williams rushed for 152 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries on Sunday, while Stewart picked up 110 yards and a score. Last year, at Carolina on December 8, Williams rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, while Stewart rushed for 115 yards and two scores on 15 carries as Carolina amassed 299 yards rushing as a team.

Tampa Bay had no answer for Carolina’s running game, especially on the final drive of the game as the Panthers imposed their will on the Bucs defense.

“They were able to run the ball at eight-man fronts, which was a credit to the Carolina Panthers offensive line,” said Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. “They did have the turnovers, which we thought they would have, and we were able to capitalize on some of those things and made some plays. We came out early on the first drive of the game and were able to score, but our young offense was not ready to move the ball and punch it in. Whether we ended it with a penalty or we ended it with a turnover, we’re a young team that can’t overcome those types of mistakes right now. We have to learn how to do that or not make them.

“They were able to run it right at us with eight-man fronts, blitzes – whatever you were able to do. We either need to get better up front or we’ve got to get better people. We have to find a way to stop the run when it counts, and that was one of the times it counted.”

The return of center Jeff Faine from an injured triceps allowed the running game to get going a little bit better than it had over the past month as Tampa Bay rushed for 124 yards, including 77 yards and a first-quarter touchdown on 16 carries from Cadillac Williams that gave the Bucs an early 7-0 lead. Faine was stunned that with all of the things that went into Tampa Bay’s favor, including a blocked field goal by guard Davin Joseph, were not enough to get the Bucs’ first win of the season.

“I was confident, especially after that first drive today,” Faine said. “I want to know what the percentage is that you block a field goal, run back a kickoff for a touchdown and pick off one for a touchdown – I want to know what the percentage is that you lose the game. To have all those cards stacked in our favor and us still not be able [to win], you have to give a lot of credit to Carolina to have the mindset to stay in it. You’ve just got to keep preparing for our first win and hopefully we can get it done in London.”

It doesn’t get any easier for the Bucs as they host the 4-2 New England Patriots in Wembley Stadium next week prior to the team’s bye week. The question is will rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick, see his NFL debut against the Patriots? Josh Johnson is 0-3 as a starter after replacing Byron Leftwich in Week 4 and took a step back in his development against Carolina.

Although he rushed for 45 yards on eight carries, Johnson struggled to find open receivers and completed 11-of-17 passes for 147 yards and threw a costly interception to start the third quarter. Morris would not commit to Johnson being the starter next week, but gave no indications that he was considering giving Freeman his first taste of NFL action, either.

Tampa Bay has struggled mightily in the third quarter this year on offense, and has still not scored any offensive points coming out after halftime through six games.

“It’s tough when you come out today and your first play [in the third quarter] is an interception,” Faine said. “We have to find a way to have a little composure and start off the second half the way we started off the game today with a pretty good little bang. It’s part of something we have to work on. It’s part of being a young team, and it’s part of having inexperience at a lot of positions. We’re growing on the job right now and it’s something we’re going to have to deal with.”

The Bucs were unable to rally at the start of the third quarter after Tampa Bay kick returner Clifton Smith was knocked out the game just before halftime by a to cheap shot from Carolina defensive back Dante Wesley, who threw a forearm and a shoulder at Smith’s throat as he was trying to field a punt. That play got Wesley ejected and started a melee between the division rivals with cornerbacks Torrie Cox and Aqib Talib and linebacker Adam Hayward mixing it up with the Panthers while Smith was unable to return in the second half.

The Bucs eventually fought back in this game, but it was too little, too late. The team didn’t show any quit – even on the final drive. The Bucs were just out-muscled and out-played on defense by a more talented Carolina offensive.

“We’re just finding ways to lose games,” said Bucs running back Earnest Graham.

After holding the Panthers to a three-and-out on their first series, the Bucs got great field position at their own 41-yard line and were able to capitalize on it. It took the Bucs just five plays to travel 59 yards and take an early lead. On third-and-11 from the Tampa Bay 40, Johnson hit Stroughter with a 29-yard pass down to the Carolina 31. Williams picked up another first down with an 11-yard run before hitting pay dirt with a 20-yard touchdown on a cutback run to the left. With 10:57 left in the first quarter, Tampa Bay led 7-0.

The Bucs offense was able to embark on a promising drive with Williams picking up 12 yards on the ground on six carries and with two key third down conversions. Antonio Bryant hauled in a 29-yard catch on third-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 15, and Stroughter had a 10-yard reception down to the Carolina 48. The drive stalled at the Carolina 26 when Johnson overthrew an open Stroughter on third down. But on Shane Andrus’ first career field goal attempt into the wind, which was 43 yards, the snap was low and the kick was short and wide to the right.

The Panthers were able to seize the momentum from that miss and drive 67 yards in seven plays to tie the game. Williams carried the load for Carolina, rushing for 34 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown, on four carries. Stewart also chipped in 17 yards on two carries. With 11:48 left in the second quarter, the score was tied 7-7.

On Tampa Bay’s next drive, Derrick Ward fumbled the pitch from Johnson and the ball was recovered by Carolina at the Bucs’ 23-yard line. But just when it seemed like that would be disastrous for Tampa Bay, Jackson forced a fumble when he stripped Stewart of the ball at the 2-yard line after a 14-yard run. The ball was recovered by defensive tackle Ryan Sims at the Tampa Bay 3. But after three plays, the Bucs were unable to get a first down and had to punt.

The Panthers’ next drive fizzled as John Kasay’s 52-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Joseph, and the ball was recovered by linebacker Quincy Black at the Tampa Bay 35. The Bucs drove down to the Panthers’ 24, but a holding penalty on Faine and a sack by defensive end Julius Peppers drove Tampa Bay out of field goal range and set up a punt.

Linebacker Thomas Davis picked off Johnson’s first pass of the second half at the Tampa Bay 36 and returned it 24 yards to the Buccaneers’ 12. On fourth-and-1, Williams picked up two yards to give the Panthers a first-and-goal at the Tampa Bay 1. On the next play, Delhomme found tight end Jeff King, who beat linebacker Geno Hayes, for a 1-yard scoring toss. With 12:07 left in the second half, the Panthers led 14-7.

The Panthers’ ground game keyed a 60-yard touchdown drive in six plays. Williams picked up 17 yards in two plays, while Stewart racked up 28 yards in consecutive plays, including a 26-yard touchdown run. With 2:33 left in the third quarter, Carolina’s lead swelled to 21-7.

Just when all seemed hopeless for the Bucs, Stroughter provided Tampa Bay’s first third quarter points of the season on the ensuing kickoff. Wide receiver Maurice Stovall threw a great block on safety Charles Godfrey and Stroughter made cornerback Richard Marshall and Kasay miss en route to a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. With 2:17 left in the third quarter, Carolina’s lead was cut to 21-14.

The Buccaneers regained the momentum on Carolina’s next possession when Stylez G. White sacked Delhomme to set up second-and-20 from the Panthers’ 46. On the next play, Black tipped a pass intended for Smith across the middle and that allowed middle linebacker Barrett Ruud to intercept the ball and return it to the Tampa Bay 35.

The Bucs got a 20-yard run from Williams to kick-start the drive in the fourth quarter, but a holding penalty on left tackle Donald Penn set up Tampa Bay with a second-and-18 at the 47. An 11-yard catch by Stroughter created a third-and-7 situation at the Carolina 42, and it looked like Johnson’s scramble picked up a first down until the Panthers challenged the play. Instant replay showed Johnson stepped out of bounds a yard short of the first down marker and the Bucs went for it on fourth down. However, a false start penalty on John Gilmore cost the Bucs five more yards and forced Tampa Bay to punt.

Tampa Bay’s defense would answer the call again, picking off Delhomme for a second straight possession. This time, it was Jackson stepping in from of Mushin Muhammad and racing 26 yards down the left sidelines for a touchdown. Geno Hayes applied tremendous pressure up the middle and got into Delhomme’s face.
With 8:33 left in the fourth quarter, the score was tied 21-21, but the Bucs couldn’t stop the Panthers from gashing their defense and scoring the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute left in regulation.

Rookie Sammie Stroughter stepped up big for Tampa Bay as a wide receiver and kick return man on Sunday, having his most productive day in the NFL with 207 all-purpose yards, including his first touchdown. With the Bucs trailing the Panthers 21-7 2:17 left in the third quarter, Stroughter took off on a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to get the Bucs back in the game. That kick return touchdown was tied with Clifton Smith’s 97-yard touchdown at Kansas City on November 2, 2008 for the longest return in team history.

Stroughter, who was Tampa Bay’s third receiver on Sunday, was the Bucs’ leading pass-catcher against Carolina, hauling in three passes for a total of 65 yards, which included yardage he picked up on Kellen Winslow’s lateral to end the game. Stroughter’s 29-yard grab in the first quarter assisted the Bucs in scoring a touchdown on their opening possession.

The score was tied 21-21 with 8:33 left in regulation before Carolina embarked on a devastating, 16-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that consumed 8:04 of the remaining time. The Panthers picked up six first downs on that possession, which featured 15 runs and Steve Smith’s 4-yard reception as the only pass play (and Smith’s only catch of the game) on that drive. Carolina was 3-of-3 on third down conversions on that series and finished the game 8-of-14 (57 percent) converting third downs on the day.

On Cadillac Williams’ first quarter touchdown, he tied Ricky Bell for the sixth-most rushing touchdowns in team history. Williams now has 16 career rushing touchdowns. … Right guard Davin Joseph blocked his first career field goal. That was the first block by the Buccaneers since guard Jeb Terry blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt by Cleveland’s Phil Dawson in the team’s 22-7 win over the Browns on December 24, 2006. … In the third quarter, middle linebacker Barrett Ruud recorded his first pick of the season and his fifth career interception. … The last time the Bucs scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams in a single game came last year at Detroit on November 23, 2008. … With Sammie Stroughter’s 97-yard kick return for a touchdown, the Bucs have now returned a kickoff return for a touchdown in each of the last three seasons after going over 31 years without a kick return score. … Safety Sabby Piscitelli led the Bucs in tackles with 10. … Defensive end Stylez G. White got his first start in place of Gaines Adams, who was traded to Chicago on Friday, and had eight tackles, two tackles for loss and his first sack of the season. … Tampa Bay fumbled the ball five times, but only lost one of those fumbles against Carolina. … Kicker Shane Andrus missed his first NFL field goal attempt from 43 yards.

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

WR Michael Clayton
LT Donald Penn
LG Jeremy Zuttah
C Sean Mahan
RG Davin Joseph
RT Jeremy Trueblood
TE Kellen Winslow
WR Antonio Bryant
TE Jerramy Stevens
RB Cadillac Williams
QB Josh Johnson

LE Jimmy Wilkerson
DT Ryan Sims
DT Chris Hovan
RE Stylez G. White
WLB Geno Hayes
MLB Barrett Ruud
SLB Quincy Black
LCB Aqib Talib
RCB Ronde Barber
FS Tanard Jackson
SS Sabby Piscitelli

Here is a list of Tampa Bay players that were declared inactive for Sunday’s game:

QB Byron Leftwich (emergency QB)
FB B.J. Askew
DE Kyle Moore
DE Dre Moore
OT Demar Dotson
CB Derrick Roberson
WR Yamon Figurs
C Jonathan Compas

Bucs return man Clifton Smith was knocked out of the game just before halftime when he was the victim of a cheap shot by defensive back Dante Wesley while trying to field a punt. Defensive end Stylez G. White had to leave the game due to a minor injury inside the last minute of the game.

The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Panthers home game at Raymond James Stadium was 62,422 although there appeared to be at least 10,000 empty seats. The kickoff temperature was 64 degrees under sunny skies with 54 percent humidity.

The Buccaneers (0-6) travel to London, England to square off against the New England Patriots (4-2) at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, October 24. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m. ET and will be televised on Fox.

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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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