TAMPA — The Bucs let their displeasure with Panthers CB Dante Wesley be known after he viciously hit RB Clifton Smith in Sunday's 28-21 loss to Carolina.
On Monday, Wesley heard it from the NFL.
After launching himself into Smith with an illegal hit that left the unsuspecting second-year return man with a concussion and an injured throat, Wesley was suspended by the league for one game without pay for what was termed a flagrant violation of player safety rules. Based on Wesley's salary, the fine is $38,750.
Ray Anderson, NFL executive vice president of operations, addressed Wesley in a letter, saying, "The prohibited contact in this case went well beyond simply interfering with the receiver. … Your actions are of particular concern in light of the emphasis that our office has placed on developing and enforcing rules designed to protect players from … head and neck injuries."
Wesley hit Smith as he was looking up, preparing to field a punt. Simply hitting Smith before he could catch the ball was an infraction. But by leaving his feet and leading with his forearm — which hit Smith's throat — Wesley went well beyond the rules.
Coach Raheem Morris said it was too early to predict Smith's availability for Sunday's game against the Patriots in London, but Smith temporarily lost consciousness and had trouble speaking after the game because of the blow to his throat.
The hit touched off a melee late in the second quarter, and more fines could be issued. Several Bucs, including CB Aqib Talib, had to be restrained in the aftermath. Morris said Wesley threw a punch at Talib, sparking his animated reaction.
Wesley was penalized for the play and ejected from the game by referee John Parry.
No Freeman yet: First-round pick Josh Freeman might be the starting quarterback at some point this season, but it won't be this week.
"Josh Freeman's got to wait his turn," Morris said. He seemed resistant to even insert Freeman into the game, citing the short week of preparation (Friday will be lost because of the long flight to London).
Asked if QB Josh Johnson took a step back against the Panthers in his third NFL start, Morris defended his second-year quarterback. Johnson was 11-of-17 for 147 yards but was ineffective on third downs and again missed on deep balls.
"It's definitely challenging to get two young guys going, two young guys motivated to play, but Josh (Johnson) knows if he plays well, he can be the quarterback," Morris said. "Freeman has to wait his turn. (Johnson) just has to go out there and play. Josh (Johnson) is the quarterback. We got a short week going. It's New England. Josh can't worry about that. Josh (Johnson) has to focus on playing well while he's in there."
No questions asked: The NFL television blackout policy — that home games must be sold out 72 hours before kickoff to air in the local market — is apparently based on the honor system. If a team tells the league they have met the deadline, the blackout is lifted, no questions asked.
The Bucs told the league Wednesday that the Carolina game was sold out. The Bucs announced a paid attendance of 62,422, but according to the Tampa Sports Authority, which operates the stadium, actual attendance was 42,847.
"It's based on tickets sold," said Dan Masonson, the NFL's corporate communications manager. "(The Bucs) are telling us it's a sellout. Our office speaks to each club every week. If we're hearing the tickets are sold, then the tickets are sold."
Bucs officials have declined to identify who is paying for all of the empty seats.
Times staff writer Rodney Page contributed to this report.