Perfect through two
The Bucs are 2-0 for only the seventh time. The record of the teams they beat and how the Bucs fared that season:
Year Opponents Bucs
2010 Browns (0-2), at Panthers (0-2) ???
2005 at Vikings (9-7), Bills (5-11) 11-5 (wild-card loss)
2000 at Patriots (5-11), Bears (5-11) 10-6 (wild-card loss)
1997 49ers (13-3), at Lions (9-7) 10-6 (division loss)
1992 Cardinals (4-12), Packers (9-7) 5-11 (missed playoffs)
1980 at Bengals (6-10), Rams (11-5) 5-10-1 (missed playoffs)
1979 Lions (2-14), at Colts (5-11) 10-6 (conference title loss)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jonathan Stewart sprawled face down on the turf Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, 6 feet shy of the end zone. The Panthers running back had just been stopped by Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes, who knifed through a gap, reached out with one hand and tripped up Stewart to complete a fourth-quarter goal-line stand.
That's when Stewart pounded the ground twice with both fists in frustration, like a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum after being denied his favorite toy.
If there's one image to take away from Sunday's 20-7 win, it was how Tampa Bay's defense left the stunned Panthers kicking and screaming.
"I hope everybody is surprised," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "I like sneaking up on people."
In the second half, the Bucs held Carolina scoreless, allowed only 38 yards rushing and forced three turnovers, including interceptions by cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib.
Meanwhile, the Bucs watched Josh Freeman mature before their eyes. A year ago on the same field, their precocious then-rookie quarterback led the offense to 469 yards, the fifth most in club history, but doomed the outcome with five interceptions.
But Sunday, Freeman passed for 178 yards and two touchdowns with no picks and rushed for 43 yards.
The victory improved the Bucs to 2-0 for the first time since 2005 and — wait for it — left them alone in first place in the NFC South, a half-game ahead of the Saints, who visit the 49ers tonight.
And now "two in a row" doesn't only describe the Bucs' lousy attendance at Raymond James Stadium.
"We've got a bunch of guys who don't care what people think about them," Barber said. "We're young. We know we're young. We know nobody has any expectations for us. But Raheem has done a great job of preaching what this team is, who this team is and what our identity is going to be. And every Sunday, we're just going to go out and show it."
In fact, the Bucs might have pitched a shutout had it not been for Morris getting too aggressive with an all-out blitz on fourth and 4 in the second quarter, which resulted in Matt Moore's 37-yard touchdown strike to Steve Smith.
The Bucs knocked the wobbly Moore out of the game in the fourth quarter (replaced by rookie Jimmy Clausen) after completing just 6 of 16 passes, being sacked four times, missing two open receivers for potential touchdowns, throwing an interception and generally playing like he still felt the effects of a concussion sustained last week against the Giants.
Morris, also the Bucs' defensive coordinator, was at his chest-bumping best. In the previous four games against Carolina, Stewart and DeAngelo Williams had combined for 831 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. With the help of an adjustment at halftime — going to their base defensive alignment — the Bucs held the Panthers to 119 yards on 33 carries (3.6-yard average).
"We all had fun," Morris said. "Sometimes, I get carried away and I do my little chest bumps on my guys. But again, I'm 34 years old. I'm not going to act like I'm anybody else. I'm not (Patriots coach Bill) Belichick. I'm not (Jets coach) Rex Ryan. I'm Raheem Morris, and that's what I'm going to go out every week and be.
"I like hearing the negative talk on all the national shows," added Morris, whose team already has matched the two-win total predicted by Sports Illustrated NFL writer Peter King. "It's awesome."
The Bucs ended a three-game losing streak against the Panthers with great individual efforts by some players plucked off of the league's scrap heap. Tim Crowder, signed during last season, had two sacks and forced a fourth-quarter fumble recovered by fellow defensive end Kyle Moore. Defensive end Stylez White, an Arena League refugee, had a sack and five tackles.
"That's a big hurdle for us," Barber said. "Carolina has really had our number over the years. This is a little bit different team, a much younger team. But it's the same coaching staff, the same philosophy on offense.
"This is a big win for us. We knew it was going to be a physical game, and it ended up being that way. But at the end of the day, I think we were a little more physical than them and had a little bit more resilience when they had big plays."
What could be scary to the rest of the NFC South is the Bucs, who next face the Steelers (without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger), believed they could have won by a bigger margin.
"We have belief," center Jeff Faine said. "We looked at our schedule, and we felt pretty good about the first three games heading into the bye. It's almost a little bit of a bad taste in our mouths after this game because we felt we left a lot of plays out there."
While the pundits keep lowering the bar for the Bucs and noting they have the second-youngest team in the NFL, Morris is undeterred:
"These guys are getting wise beyond their years."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]