Defense slows Newton
Panthers QB Cam Newton, for all his struggles this season, remains a threat at any moment. The Bucs defense, however, made him work for each of his 292 yards (252 passing, 40 rushing), hitting him and pressuring him with an intensified pass rush that caused inaccurate throws and gave the offense a chance for the comeback.
"We just got after it," said DT Gerald McCoy, part of a defense that allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards for the seventh time this season. "We knew that with Cam, when he's under pressure, he struggles. He's an escape artist. And that team goes as he goes. If he gets confidence, it lifts the whole team up. He started to get that, but it's all right. We got the win."
DE Michael Bennett, who registered a sack and two tackles-for-loss, said the defensive effort was promising. Newton was just 5-of-17 passing in the first half before he made a handful of big plays during the third quarter.
"It's a step forward," Bennett said. "It's coming. We're moving. We should have gotten Cam Newton down a few more times, and he escaped. But we'll be good if we just keep grinding."
Jackson finishes strong
Vincent Jackson had a pedestrian two catches for 27 yards through three quarters.
Then the fourth quarter came around.
Jackson's two catches for 41 yards during the final possession of regulation helped power the Bucs to a 27-21 overtime victory on a day when the deep passing game that had been so consistent of late wasn't effective.
Jackson caught a 17-yard pass on third and 4 with 32 seconds remaining. He topped himself two plays later with a 24-yard touchdown catch then caught the two-point conversion to send the game to overtime.
Jackson deferred credit for the touchdown to QB Josh Freeman.
"We call that a dime," Jackson said. "He dropped a dime right there. That's a window that only a few quarterbacks in this league can hit, and he did."
On the touchdown, Jackson lined up in the slot, and the Bucs correctly predicted the way the Panthers would defend the play.
"We knew the safety was going to be split," said Jackson, who finished with six catches for 94 yards. "We knew the linebacker was going to run underneath me, and it was going to be a high ball up over his head."
Freeman put the ball over LB Luke Kuechly's head, and Jackson went high to snatch it for the Bucs' longest pass play of the day.
Jackson, gleefully looking around at his teammates celebrating in the locker room, said the win was the result of a season-long effort: "With all the work we put in, these are the ones that really just show you if you believe and buy in, you'll get the results that you want."
Freeman finally throws a pick
Twenty quarters of football had passed since the Bucs' Josh Freeman threw an interception. Perhaps some began to wonder when — if? — his next would come.
The answer came Sunday, when Freeman threw a pair of picks, including one returned 74 yards for a touchdown by CB Captain Munnerlyn during the first quarter that cut the Bucs' lead to 10-7. It was his first interception in 161 passes dating to Oct. 14 — five games ago.
Freeman, under pressure from DT Dwan Edwards, threw off his back foot while looking to get the ball to TE Dallas Clark.
"It was a deal where I felt like I could get (the ball) outside, and I couldn't," Freeman said. "The (defender) ran up on me."
That was obvious to his coach.
"Probably if Josh could take that back, he would," coach Greg Schiano said. "That's an ill-advised throw. You have to measure your risk."
But no one will prolong the conversation about Freeman's mistakes because he more than made up for them later.
An up-and-down day
Ten games into his rookie season, RB Doug Martin hit one milestone and joined elite company. Martin became the 11th player in Bucs history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He gained 138, including 48 during the winning drive in overtime.
A big deal, right? Kind of.
"It's cool," Martin said with a shrug. "It doesn't (stink). It's a good accomplishment, but the (win) is the most important one you want."
Martin had a hand in the win despite committing a fumble near the goal line. With 10:40 left in regulation and the Bucs trailing 14-10, Martin leaped over the pile before getting hit by LB Thomas Davis and losing the ball. Officials ruled the ball was loose before it crossed the goal line and awarded Carolina the ball. (LB Luke Kuechly recovered for the touchback.)
"I felt like I did cross the plane before it came loose, but it's the ref's call," Martin said.
The play, which was followed by an 80-yard Carolina touchdown drive, left Martin's head hanging. That's when running backs coach Earnest Byner offered some advice.
"I was down when (the officials) said the original call was confirmed, but I had to just shake it off," Martin said. "Coach gave me some advice because he had been in that situation before. He told me to calm down and go out there and play."
The advice helped Martin post his seventh consecutive game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage, a team record. And he joined Eric Dickerson (1983) and Edgerrin James (1999) as the only rookies with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage over a six-game span.
Little known, but a big play
The Bucs probably wouldn't have won Sunday without the under-the-radar effort of LB Jacob Cutrera. He jarred the ball loose from PR Captain Munnerlyn during the first quarter, and LB Dekoda Watson recovered the fumble to set up a touchdown.
Given the struggles of the offense for much of the game, the short field — the Bucs took possession at the Panthers 29 — was a break it needed.
"It's something that's sometimes overlooked, but special teams played great," said Cutrera, who went undrafted out of LSU in 2010 then was signed by the Bucs off the Jaguars' practice squad on Oct. 11, 2011.
"If we're able to come out there and give the ball back to our offense on a day they're struggling, that's a plus for us."
In two straight games, special teams plays loomed large. Against the Chargers last week, the Bucs returned Watson's blocked punt for a touchdown.
"We take (special teams) very seriously," Cutrera said.
"We take it as seriously as offense and defense. For some of our guys, that's what we do. That's our job."
Line struggles to protect Freeman
Based on the many times QB Josh Freeman had to pick himself up off the cold, hard turf Sunday, it was apparent the Bucs offensive line did not have a memorable performance.
The Panthers' front — among the best the Bucs have seen this season, they said — applied consistent pressure, the line unable to hold it off long enough for deep pass routes to develop.
But when the game was on the line and Freeman needed it most, the offensive line came roaring to life, giving him the protection he needed to engineer the ninth fourth-quarter comeback of his career.
"We knew we were going to get a shot to win it," LT Donald Penn said. "And when we got a shot in overtime, we knew we were going to go down there and win it.
"My hat is off to Josh. Josh took a beating out there. We didn't help him that much. But he hung in there and trusted us and believed in us and kept slinging it with people in his face and everything. The numbers might not show, but his toughness showed."
Freeman was sacked just once but was under consistent duress, a factor in the interception CB Captain Munnerlyn returned 74 yards for touchdown. But the line kept the defense off Freeman on the final drive of regulation, during which he was 4-of-7 for 65 yards.
And in overtime, they created running lanes for Doug Martin, who had 48 yards on five carries during the winning 80-yard drive.
Among the players bouncing back was RG Jamon Meredith, who played in spite of a sprained left ankle sustained last week.
"When that thing happened at practice, a lot of bad things went through my mind," Meredith said. "I thought it was over with for me. But it's like the Lord had His hands around my whole leg, and it was amazing. Even the trainers were saying they've never seen anybody come back that fast."
Coach Greg Schiano echoed that: "When you watch the video clip of what happened in practice, this guy, it's a miracle he's playing. He's a special guy to do that."
• TE Dallas Clark set season highs with seven catches and 58 yards, including his third touchdown of the season.
• The Bucs recorded 10 tackles-for-loss. Rookie LB Lavonte David had one to give him a team-high 13 this season.
• Third-string TE Nate Byham, a 2010 sixth-round pick by the 49ers out of Pitt whom the Bucs signed Oct. 2, scored his first career touchdown, a 3-yard catch in the first quarter.
• The Bucs improved to 15-16-1 in overtime in franchise history, but Sunday marked the first time they won an overtime game with a touchdown.