m Sabby Piscitelli had a hand in a big play Sunday — by keeping his hand away from the football when it mattered most.
It happened early in the third quarter with the Bucs leading 17-3 but with plenty of time for Carolina to get back on track. On fourth down, Tampa Bay punter Josh Bidwell boomed a 60-yarder that was rolling toward the Panthers' end zone for a touchback. But Piscitelli dived to down the ball near the 2-yard line, making just enough contact to slow the ball's progress, then slide past it into the end zone.
The official, however, ruled that Piscitelli had actually touched the ball a second time while his feet were in the end zone — by rule, a touchback — just before teammate Michael Bennett downed it at the Carolina 1.
The Panthers prepared to take over at their 20, but Piscitelli was adamant that he had avoided making contact with the rolling ball after his initial touch. Bucs coach Jon Gruden challenged the play, and upon further review, the referee reversed the call and marked the ball on Carolina's 1.
The Panthers wound up punting from their 5, and four plays later Tampa Bay increased its lead to 20-3 on Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal.
"The thing was, I touched it and then I slid," the second-year safety said. "I was trying to slide past it and not touch it again at the same time. They thought I did. But I told the ref, 'I didn't touch it a second time.' I was yelling. And Coach Gruden made a great decision to challenge the call."
Bennett saw it all unfolding before him. "I got a good release and saw Sabby out of the corner of my eye. It was kind of like the Rays' game where that guy (Fernando Perez) slid into home plate to win the game. Luckily, Sabby was able to just tap it back out to me. And it was just a beautiful play by him to avoid the ball after that."
So how close was Piscitelli to inadvertently touching the ball again? "Wow," he said. "An inch maybe." Nice catch
m Little by little, WR Michael Clayton is making the kind of impact plays that marked his first year in the league in 2004 — and fewer of the costly drops that marred his past three seasons. Clayton came through with a key reception early in the second quarter. The Bucs were leading 14-3 when QB Jeff Garcia, on first down from his 42, spotted Clayton coming open on a deep-cross route down the middle, curling toward the left side. They connected for a 22-yard completion to the Carolina 36, helping set up a 37-yard field goal by Matt Bryant for a 17-3 lead with 9:03 left in the half. "Antonio Bryant was running a deep post on that play, and I deep-crossed underneath him," Clayton said. "Jeff made his reads and saw me, and he delivered a great ball." Clayton only had one other reception for 7 yards, but he was pleased to make a catch that helped the cause. "You have to take advantage of the situation and the opportunity," he said. "I've been through a lot here, ups and downs, and it's definitely up. The team is playing good. And it feels good as a player to be out there and produce, and to help the team win."
, Carolina was still trying to regain its footing after rookie Geno Hayes' blocked-and-recovered punt for an early Tampa Bay touchdown. Down 7-0 with just more than five minutes left in the first quarter, Panthers QB Jake Delhomme tried to get his offense rolling, avoiding pressure from DE Gaines Adams and firing a short pass over the middle to TE Dante Rosario. But Rosario couldn't find the handle. He deflected it right into the hands of a diving Bucs S Tanard Jackson. Jackson got up untouched and dashed 25 yards to the Panthers' 11, setting the stage for Jeff Garcia's 2-yard scoring pass to TE Alex Smith — and a 14-0 lead with 2:48 left in the opening quarter.
"It was off a tipped ball in the middle of the field. I was just at the right place at the right time," said Jackson, a second-year player from Syracuse.
"That was big because it was early in the game," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "We'd blocked the punt, and then we got that big turnover. It's a huge play."
Not that everything went picture-perfect for Jackson. Carolina's big-play receiver, Steve Smith, caught six passes for 112 yards. The big one was a 48-yard bomb as Smith sprinted past Jackson and made the grab as he fell to the ground to set up Carolina's only points, a 20-yard John Kasay field goal.
"Oh yeah, he did his numbers," Jackson said. "He did what Steve Smith is capable of doing. He got us on the big play, but luckily we were able to hold them to a field goal, and that's a credit to our defense."