The Bucs have often found themselves in situations where field position worked against them. But against the Panthers, the Bucs had solid field position that allowed them to convert after two turnovers and, in other cases, left them with a short field. And credit P Josh Bidwell with a key performance, with three of his kicks pinning the Panthers inside their 10. "Something we didn't have last week (at Denver) was great special teams play," G Davin Joseph said. "They really played well. And the defense did well, too, and kept them pinned back deep. We had great field position all day. You really can't ask for anything more. We haven't had a lot of it, but the thing is that we took advantage of it this time. That's something we've stressed: doing something with the short field. If you don't, it's just another series." One punt put the ball at the Carolina 1 and two others at the 6 and 10. That forced the Panthers to play conservatively and punt from deep in their territory. And turnovers contributed, too. S Tanard Jackson's interception in the first quarter set up the offense with first and 10 at the Panthers 26. The Bucs converted moments later with a touchdown reception by TE Alex Smith, and the rout was on.
Quite the offensive duo
It was hard to tell whose contributions to the Bucs' victory were lauded more. Perhaps it was Earnest Graham's selfless, team-oriented decision to volunteer as a fullback when injuries left the Bucs without one. Or maybe it was Warrick Dunn seamlessly stepping into the role of featured running back and rushing 22 times into the teeth of the Carolina defense, finishing with 115 yards — the first 100-yard performance against the Panthers this season. He caught three passes for 18 yards, too. After FB Byron Storer injured his knee in the first quarter, the Bucs were left without a fullback. Starter B.J. Askew has been out for three weeks with a hamstring tear and was inactive. "We ran some single-back plays and had some success," coach Jon Gruden said. "Then we regrouped on the sideline and got (TE) Alex Smith ready to play fullback, which is a contingency plan every week. Earnest Graham came out of nowhere and said, 'I'll do that.' He did a great job for us." After moving to fullback, Graham caught a 23-yard swing pass for a first down at the Panthers 14. Four plays later, he scored the Bucs' final touchdown on a 1-yard run. After the game, Gruden still gushed with praise for Graham. "I just want everybody to know that Earnest Graham, what he did makes coaching worthwhile. I want to thank him for that." As for Dunn? He wasn't half bad, either. "Warrick Dunn was clearly worthy of a game ball today," Gruden said. Regarding Dunn's ability to be the workhorse Sunday, Graham said, "He's done it for a long time. Nobody really questioned whether he could do that or not."
While the Panthers were committing costly turnovers in bunches, the Bucs played their soundest game, avoiding a turnover for the first time in 2008. Tampa Bay has had two games with multiple turnovers and had committed at least one in its first five games, but all that ended Sunday. "It's said all over the league what turnovers can do to you," WR Michael Clayton said. "And we didn't have them today. That's huge." The Bucs had thrown an interception in each game but one entering Sunday. The matchup Sept. 14 against Atlanta was the only other one without a pick. The Bucs are 18-0 under coach Jon Gruden when not committing a turnover.
Sunday's victory leaves the Bucs in a three-way tie for first in the NFC South, though a lot remains to be decided. A loss would have left the Bucs two games back, but the win helps them keep pace while instilling confidence.
"To know we can get a win like this at home is really important because you need to get all the home wins that you can get early in the year and hopefully carry that momentum through," G Davin Joseph said.
The South looks a lot like the division that until 2007 had sent a team to the NFC Championship Game for four straight seasons. The Falcons moved to 4-2 with a win over the Bears, and the Saints are not to be dismissed at 3-3. "You have an Atlanta team that people really didn't give a chance," Joseph said, "a New Orleans team that has all the talent in the world, a Carolina team with a great defense, and then you have the Bucs — we were division champions last year. So, we have some tough teams that are really looking for something big out of this season."
When starting LG Arron Sears went down in the second quarter with a knee injury, rookie backup Jeremy Zuttah, left, sprang into action. He wasn't exactly green after playing the first four games at right guard while Davin Joseph was sidelined with a broken right foot. Although Zuttah was a starter in each of those games, this situation was different, coming with just a moment's notice.
"It's a little different because you prepare all week just in case something happens, but you never really expect anything to happen," he said. "When it does, it's kind of a surprise."
But Zuttah played well, helping the Bucs stand up against an aggressive Carolina front that had the advantage of knowing that, given their sizable lead, the Bucs were going to run for much of the afternoon to use up the clock.
"I feel like I held up well," he said. "I've been playing over there on the right side, so I just have to flip everything around in my mind. … It is tricky. You have certain rules and things that you just have to remember based on what side you're on. Once you get into the flow of things, things start to get easier."
As for Sears, there was no immediate word on his condition, and he was not on the sideline after being injured.
The Bucs' recent history against the Panthers was mostly forgettable. In its previous 10 games against Tampa Bay, Carolina was 8-2, having won five straight at Raymond James Stadium. And QB Jake Delhomme entered 7-1 in his career against the Bucs. Those numbers were all relegated to footnotes at least for a day.
• Bucs RB Earnest Graham recorded the longest reception of his career in the second quarter with a 24-yard catch. He later had a 23-yard reception to set up his 1-yard touchdown.
• Under coach Jon Gruden, the Bucs are 41-7 when holding a halftime lead, including a 4-1 mark this season. The Bucs haven't trailed at the half in 2008, largely because of their success in the second quarter. Tampa Bay has outscored opponents 39-15 in the second.
• With three interceptions Sunday, the Bucs are tied with Green Bay for the NFL lead at 11. Eight Tampa Bay players have picks.
• Bucs K Matt Bryant (3) is perfect on field goals inside 50 yards. He is 12-for-13 overall, missing on a 51-yard attempt Sunday.