At long last, some early success
All you need to know about the manner in which the Bucs have started games this season is that they did not have an opening-drive touchdown before Sunday. The best they managed was a field goal on their first possession against the Steelers in September — a drive that started at the Pittsburgh 31 after an interception by CB Aqib Talib. Otherwise, the Bucs have been painfully slow in starting games this season — until putting together a 47-yard touchdown drive Sunday for an early 7-0 lead, setting the tone for the rest of the day. "When you can score on the opening drive of either half," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said, "to me, it's a real psychological blow to the opposition." Tampa Bay took possession at the Carolina 47 when DT Gerald McCoy stripped the ball from Carolina's Mike Goodson and SS Sean Jones recovered. It took the Bucs four plays to score, capping the drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass from QB Josh Freeman to WR Arrelious Benn, Benn's second in as many games. That gave the Bucs an early lead and, more important, enabled them to approach the game differently. Because the Bucs have faced so many early deficits, even in wins, it has made play-calling and sticking to game plans difficult. "For the coaches to be able to run the plays that they want makes a big difference," said James Lee, who started at right tackle. "It's not, 'Throw the ball, throw the ball, hurry up and throw the ball.' We can relax and go through what our plan was coming into the game."
A defensive changeup
Raheem Morris, the team's de facto defensive play-caller, said last week that he would have to resort to some creative methods of getting pressure on passers given the Bucs' nonexistent pass rush. The plan worked, as the Bucs got a pair of sacks — just their second game with multiple sacks. But it wasn't standard fare for the Bucs. The sacks came from MLB Barrett Ruud and CB Ronde Barber, who were used on blitzes. "We had a few new wrinkles," Ruud said. "The thing is, they weren't exotic or anything. They were little tweaks within our defense. That's what's nice is that we can put stuff like that in on the fly and guys can pick it up and understand it pretty quick." There were other occasions in which the Bucs sent Panthers QB Jimmy Clausen scrambling, forcing him to throw the ball away on two consecutive plays in the second quarter. DE Stylez White was credited with a quarterback hit. It wasn't a masterpiece, but it was effective. "We had a couple of blitzes," Morris said. "Some of them caused pressure, some of them caused throwaways, but we were able to get off on third downs. I'd like to get off on some more." Perhaps Ruud can be a factor in that regard after getting his first sack since 2008. "I'm not a sack guy, but I love being able to go through and get the quarterback," he said after a 10-tackle performance. "It's not always fun when you run into a guard — I mean, what am I going to do — but when you get a one-on-one with a running back, we should win. That's what I enjoyed about (Sunday)." McCoy makes a splash
While Bucs DT Gerald McCoy has made his presence felt in the first half of his rookie season, the third overall pick hasn't necessarily put up impressive numbers. Most notably, he has yet to record a sack. But McCoy had his most impressive game against Carolina, finishing with five tackles, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble on the Panthers' opening drive that led to a Bucs touchdown. Just more than two minutes into the game, McCoy stopped Panthers RB Mike Goodson, who fumbled. Bucs SS Sean Jones recovered it at the Panthers 47, and the Bucs offense took advantage, driving for an early touchdown on QB Josh Freeman's 8-yard scoring pass to WR Arrelious Benn. "He's been getting better over the last three weeks and will hopefully continue to do that," coach Raheem Morris said of McCoy. "And he'll jump on the stat board and do all those things that we like to see to give us the pretty results." McCoy said coaches have been stressing the importance of turning up the intensity for the second half of the season and getting off to a good start early, which is what his forced fumble allowed the Bucs to do. "We came out and did that. We started off fast," McCoy said. "We got the quick turnover that turned into a touchdown. It was great."
Not so special teams
The Bucs have some special teams units that are among the league's best, but against the Panthers, they were arguably the Bucs' poorest performers. From an ill-advised decision by recently prolific kickoff returner Micheal Spurlock to a muffed punt that led to a Panthers touchdown to a shanked Bucs punt and a long Panthers punt return that both set up field goals, the Bucs have rarely been so futile in an area that has been so productive. "It wasn't a good day for our special teams," coach Raheem Morris said. "We have to bounce back from this performance, but again, other areas of our football team lifted us up, and that's how it's got to be. Last week, (special teams) almost won us a football game. This week, we were able to get the help from other areas." Among the special teams gaffes: In the second quarter, a Bucs punt bounced off CB Elbert Mack while he was engaged with Panthers S Marcus Hudson. The ball was recovered by Panthers TE Dante Rosario at the Tampa Bay 46, and Carolina scored its only touchdown six plays later (closing the Bucs lead to 14-10). Spurlock had one of his poorer games, bobbling one kick return, then bringing two out of the end zone when it might have been wiser to settle for touchbacks. And on the bobbled kickoff, blocker Maurice Stovall seemed to be signaling for Spurlock to take a knee — presumably under the impression they were in the end zone. They weren't. "It was definitely out of character for us," Mack said. "We're going to get back into the lab and work on the mistakes and see what we can work on. … But the offense had our backs (Sunday), and the defense played tremendous."
Offense draws eight penalties
Of the Bucs' 10 penalties, eight were assessed to the offense, most the result of undisciplined play, making the job of the unit harder. RT James Lee (false start, illegal formation) and LG Ted Larsen (two holding calls) were responsible for half of them, but there were illegal shifts (RB Cadillac Williams, WR Arrelious Benn) and even a violation for 12 men in the huddle on the first play of the second half. The flags didn't ultimately hurt the Bucs, but they could down the road. "It's some concentration stuff, and it's stuff that'll hurt us in bigger games," Larsen said. "It's stuff we're going to have to work on and get better at."
Johnson runs the wildcat
With Bucs RB LeGarrette Blount leading an improved rushing attack out of the backfield, offensive coordinator Greg Olson unveiled a few wrinkles in the offense. In addition to the more effective play-action passing game, Olson rolled out a formation to start the second quarter with QB Josh Johnson lined up in the shotgun. Johnson ran to his right and picked up 14 yards — part of a six-play, 87-yard touchdown drive in which the Bucs did not attempt a pass. "To have Josh Johnson come off the bench and run a play for you, to do some trick things with him, that's exciting to watch," coach Raheem Morris said. Johnson, in his third season, has thrown for 88 yards and rushed for 32 in four games this year. But Olson said he expects to build on the different look he provided against the Panthers. "That was encouraging to throw that play in there," Olson said. "We've been working on that, and we'll expand from that."
New faces in new places
The lineup the Bucs trotted out was a work in progress practically until kickoff. A key change involved strongside LB Quincy Black, who was held out because of an ankle injury, promoting rookie seventh-round pick LB Dekoda Watson, left, to the starting lineup in the first extensive action of his career. Watson split snaps with veteran LB Adam Hayward, giving each adequate rest (because both have wide-reaching special teams duties). For Watson, it was a precious opportunity. "Once you're out there, you have to make sure you contribute to the team," he said. "If they have that much confidence in you, you have to go out there and perform and don't slow anything down when you get out there." At right offensive tackle, coach Raheem Morris opted to continue starting James Lee, who filled in for Jeremy Trueblood in the previous two games because of a knee injury. After saying Friday that Trueblood would return to the starting lineup, Morris changed his mind. "I was thinking about it," Morris said. "I decided to give (Trueblood) another week. We put James Lee out there and let him go." That was music to Lee's ears, giving him another chance to impress coaches or simply build a catalogue of film. "I've just been sitting back waiting on my opportunity," he said. "When it came, I just had to put it on tape. That's my biggest thing: Letting them know that I'm accountable for myself and not just sitting back doing nothing." C Jeff Faine returned after a monthlong battle with a quad injury. But rookie LG Ted Larsen remained in the starting lineup, leaving Jeremy Zuttah on the bench as a backup interior lineman.
Blount goes airborne again
He did it again. Bucs RB LeGarrette Blount, faced with going through or around a defender, went over him. Blount leaped over Panthers S Charles Godfrey, who was standing between Blount and the goal line in the second quarter. Blount bowled over him in midair, flipping into the end zone on a play a bit reminiscent of a Blount run at Arizona two weeks ago. "I could've run through him," Blount said. "But he's so low to the ground. What's the chances of me getting as low as he is?" As for the maneuver? "I wouldn't call it flying. When you're 240-plus pounds, it's like taking a little bounce. Unfortunately, I didn't land on my feet this time. But I did land in the end zone. I'll take that. It evens out." Blount finished with 91 yards on 19 carries , but he did botch a handoff exchange with QB Josh Freeman was bot Quick hits
Bucs QB Josh Freeman finished with a career-high 134.2 passer rating, completing 18 of 24 passes for 241 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Bucs RB Cadillac Williams' 45-yard touchdown run tied him with Warrick Dunn for fifth on the team's all-time rushing touchdown list with 19. Mike Alstott holds the record with 58.
By starting seven rookies (Arrelious Benn, Cody Grimm, Ted Larsen, Erik Lorig, Gerald McCoy, Dekoda Watson and Mike Williams), the Bucs became the first team since the 2002 Cowboys to do so and win. Five other rookies played for the Bucs against the Panthers (LeGarrette Blount, Derek Hardman, Robert Malone, Preston Parker and Al Woods), four of which were undrafted.
Tampa Bay's 31 points were the most scored against Carolina in the series history.
The Bucs' 21 first-half points were the most in a single half this season. And they had their most offensive yards (421) and most rushing yards (186).