TAMPA — As they stood in the huddle near midfield late in Sunday's game trying to protect a one-score lead, the Bucs still seemed to be one coffin nail short.
Rookie LeGarrette Blount had hammered Carolina for 91 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. But it hadn't been enough.
Enter Cadillac Williams, whose primary role had been reduced to third-down back.
Williams took a handoff on a draw play and outraced the Panthers defenders for a 45-yard touchdown, the longest since his rookie-of-the-year season of 2005, to seal the Bucs' 31-16 win before an announced crowd of 44,264 at Raymond James Stadium.
"Caddy called his shot," tight end John Gilmore said. "He said, 'We won't have to throw the ball. I'm going for six.' I couldn't help but laugh as I followed him down the field. It was Babe Ruth stuff."
Together, Blount and Williams accounted for 153 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
"It's a great 1-2 punch," center Jeff Faine said. "I'm loving Blount and his running style. But I would still like to see a little more Cadillac. You could see how explosive he is on that last run. If he gets a little hole, he's gone.
"Blount is the pound-it-out, grueling 4- and 5-yard run guy that he turns into 10-yard gains. So I think those guys really complement each other."
There were a lot of things to savor from the Bucs' completion of their first series sweep of the Panthers since 2002, the inaugural season of the NFC South.
Josh Freeman threw touchdowns of 8 yards to Arrelious Benn and 20 yards to Kellen Winslow. The defense started fast with rookie tackle Gerald McCoy forcing a fumble on the game's first series to set up a touchdown.
In all, seven rookies started for the Bucs, excluding Blount, who came in on the second play and whose leaping, twisting 17-yard touchdown run in the second quarter might have been the highlight of the game.
But it was the running back combination of Blount and Williams that enabled the Bucs to finish off Carolina and improve to 6-3, tied for second in the South Division with the defending Super Bowl champion Saints. The win comes one week after a goal-line stand by Atlanta knocked the Bucs out of first.
Williams finished with five carries for 62 yards and caught two passes for 23, including a screen pass he turned into a 16-yard gain on third and 15 four plays before his touchdown.
"He had the big play (last season) to put us over the hump against the Rams," Blount said of Williams' 1-yard touchdown catch with 10 seconds left on Oct. 24. "He had a big run to seal the deal in this game. He's still the same kind of running back he was as a rookie.
"He surprised me. I always told him I'm faster than he is. At 240-plus pounds, I tell him I feel like I'm faster than every running back in the backfield. Now I'm kind of questioning it right now. I saw him run away from those (defensive backs). It wasn't like they were gaining ground. He looked pretty explosive. It doesn't look like he had any knee surgeries to me."
After the game, Williams was the first Buc to sprint off the field and into the locker room. He was showered, dressed and gone before reporters were allowed to enter (after a 10-minute cooling-off period).
But there were plenty of players willing to talk about the Bucs' revitalized rushing attack.
In fact, on its second scoring series, Tampa Bay had six consecutive rushing plays for 87 yards capped by Blount's touchdown in which he went airborne over safety Charles Godfrey.
"I think it's good to have two guys," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "There's always room for a feature back, but that guy has to have someone who can complement him. I don't know what the formula is. I don't care, but the position is being very productive."
The Bucs' success running the ball is beginning to create big gains on play-action passes. The Panthers linebackers and safeties committed hard to stopping the run, allowing tight ends Winslow and Gilmore to combine for nine receptions, 117 yards and a touchdown. Winslow led the Bucs with six catches for 65 yards and a score.
"They both complement each other very, very well," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said of Blount and Williams. "And we got into some play-action, some things we were able to do with Blount, which helps us.
"Certainly on third down, Cadillac is a great guy to have in there. Not only is he good on protections, but if you hand the ball on some of those third downs, he does a very good job running the ball as well. His is a mind-set now that I'll do whatever I have to do to help the team win and if it's more on third down, then I'll do that."
Two weeks ago, the Bucs blew a 31-14 lead at Arizona and needed to rally to win 38-35. On Sunday, the 1-8 Panthers hung throughout and could have made it closer except for a goal-line stand by the Bucs to end the game.
"I didn't love the way we finished," Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "We did have a goal-line stand, and it was a great job by us. At the same time, we shouldn't have had to do it. I still think that was a game we should've put away earlier. It was similar to Arizona. At least we didn't get down.
"The good thing for us is Cadillac broke the run on third and long or (Carolina's late) drive is a lot more important."