Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Man in the middle

CB Aqib Talib has made his share of big plays in the secondary, but on Sunday he did something he had never done in his life: block a punt. With the Panthers punting from the Bucs 48 early in the fourth quarter, Talib, coming on a corner blitz on the left side, was unblocked and got his hands on a Brad Nortman kick. DE Adrian Clayborn recovered the ball at the Carolina 42. That led to a Bucs field goal. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said there was a communication issue on protection. "I just came down, free, we kind of knew how they were trying to block us," Talib said. "(Special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky) schemed it up perfect."

Rookie S Mark Barron made a splash in his first NFL regular-season game, including a highlight reel hit on Panthers veteran WR Steve Smith in the third quarter. Smith had made a 22-yard catch down the right sideline, and Barron, a former Alabama star, leveled him, knocking the Pro Bowl player to the turf. "I just had to let him know I was for real," Barron said, smiling. "I know he was probably thinking I'm a rook, it ain't going to happen like that, and he's going to do this and that. But just let him know I was for real. He didn't say anything, just looked up at me crazy, like he couldn't believe it." Barron's biggest contribution might have been a pass breakup early in the fourth quarter, racing to the right sideline to deflect a pass away from Louis Murphy and forcing a punt. "We all see what we have in Mark," S Ronde Barber said. "The hit on the sidelines to Steve Smith, I think it's reminiscent of days past, some of the guys we had play safety here."

Slowing Newton

Cam Newton's three career starts against the Bucs:

Date Com. Att. Yds. TD Sacks Run Yds. TD

Sunday 23 33 303 1 3 5 4 0

Dec. 24 12 17 171 3 1 6 65 1

Dec. 4 12 21 204 1 2 14 54 3

Fewest rushing yards allowed

Bucs tied record for fewest rushing yards allowed.

Date Yds. Opp. Result

Sunday 10 Panthers 16-10 W

Dec. 4, 1994 10 Redskins 26-21 W

Dec. 26, 1999 12 Packers 29-10 W

Sept. 17, 2000 17 Lions 31-10 W

Dec. 19, 1993 17 Raiders 27-20 L

If there was one constant during the game, it was DT Gerald McCoy's presence in the Carolina backfield. The third-year player who is in something of a make-or-break season applied unyielding pressure to star QB Cam Newton while also dismantling the Carolina running game (10 yards rushing). "It's just relentless effort," McCoy said afterward, still sweating through his dress shirt. "If I'm tired, I'll get a break. But while I'm out there, just play with relentless effort." It was vintage McCoy, the kind of game the Bucs envisioned when they drafted him third overall out of Oklahoma in 2010. His career has been sidetracked by consecutive season-ending injuries, but McCoy showed no signs of slowing against the Panthers. One example came in the second quarter when Newton was flushed from the pocket and ran left. One lineman continued giving chase — 300-pound McCoy, who seemed to gain on the elusive, athletic quarterback. CB Ronde Barber pushed Newton out of bounds for his 28th career sack. "It just motivates you that you that you can play even harder," DE Adrian Clayborn said of the play. "If a guy that weighs that much can chase down Cam Newton, you've got to do it, too." McCoy later netted a sack of his own when he dragged Newton down after bull-rushing through a blocker. He also recorded two tackles for losses and two separate quarterback hits on Newton.

Bucs win the turnover battle

. The Bucs' minus-16 turnover ration in 2011 was the NFL's worst.

Today, they're enjoying a plus-2 mark after not committing a turnover against the Panthers and, equally important, creating some.

The Bucs notched two interceptions and a blocked punt, repeatedly slamming the door on Carolina's attempts to create momentum. Interceptions by safeties Ahmad Black and Ronde Barber derailed two Panthers drives, and CB Aqib Talib's blocked punt was another deflating blow.

"It's the worst feeling to know that you did all you could to get off the field and put your offense on the field, and then they turn it over," Black said of the Panthers. "It made us feel great. We went out there and made plays when we needed it."

Barber intercepted a ball off a tipped pass by Talib. Black's interception came as he was helping over the top on WR Steve Smith, who was defended by CB Eric Wright. Newton was mulling his mistakes after the game.

"I've got to do a better job in making myself accountable with protecting the football," Newton said. "I think without any of those interceptions, we could've found a way to win this football game."

Down the hall in the Bucs locker room, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was celebrating zero Tampa Bay turnovers.

"It's all about the ball," he said. "And our defense did a phenomenal job. It was a situation where we'd have a long (offensive) drive and then try to (talk about the game) and, oh, we're up again. It's a good problem to have."

Ball control by the numbers

37:27 Bucs time of possession Sunday.

1 Game last season in which the Bucs held the ball longer (39:00 against the Colts on Oct. 3).

4 Games last season in which the Bucs held the ball longer than their opponent.

2 Scoring drives of at least seven minutes Sunday.

5 Scoring drives of at least seven minutes all of last season.

Just kickin' it

. Connor Barth picked up where he left off in last year's career-season, racking up three field goals in Sunday's win. Barth set a franchise record of 18 consecutive field goals, surpassing Martin Gramatica (16 straight from Oct. 9 to Dec. 3, 2000) and Michael Husted (16 from Nov. 19, 1995 to Sept. 22, 1996). Barth, who set a club mark for accuracy with 26-of-28 last season, netting him a four-year, $13.2 million contract, connected from 36, 20 and 40 yards Sunday. "It was a good way to start the season," he said. "It just feels like, let's treat it like it's just last season and roll it over."

. The 3.6 yards per carry the Bucs netted wasn't all that noteworthy. But that didn't ruin rookie RB Doug Martin's debut, as far as he was concerned.

"It was definitely one of those kinds of days," he said. "There wasn't a lot of big chunk yardage in the running game.

"It was a matter of being consistent and keep pounding it and pounding it that was the whole process."

Martin gained 95 yards on 24 attempts, most notably his 15-yard run that closed things out at the end, giving the Bucs a first down and the ability to run out the clock.

LeGarrette Blount rushed three times for 8 yards, and D.J. Ware rushed twice for 14.

"We have plenty of depth back there," Martin said.

Bucs head-coaching debut history

Coach Opp. Date Result

Greg Schiano Carolina 9/9/12 W, 16-10

Raheem Morris Dallas 9/13/09 L, 34-21

Jon GrudenL, 26-20 New Orleans 9/8/02 (OT)

Tony Dungy Green Bay 9/1/96 L, 34-3

Sam Wyche Phoenix 9/6/92 W, 23-7

*Richard Williamson Minnesota 12/16/90 W, 26-13

Ray Perkins Atlanta 9/13/87 W, 48-10

Leeman Bennett at Chicago 9/8/85 L, 38-28

John McKay Houston 9/12/76 L, 20-0

*Made debut in week 15 of 1990 season

. The Bucs expected a lot out of WR Vincent Jackson when they signed the former Chargers star to a five-year, $55.5 million deal in the offseason. Jackson, a No. 1 receiver and team captain, did most of his work over the middle in Sunday's game. Jackson, targeted a team-high 10 times by QB Josh Freeman, caught four balls for 47 yards, and a 31-yard grab in the middle of the field was nullified by holding. Jackson had a couple of drops, one that would have been a key third down with six minutes left in the game. He came through in the end, helping seal the 16-10 victory with a 4-yard catch on third and 2 with just more than two minutes to go. "I thought Vince did a great job," Freeman said. "He made some plays, including on some key third downs, especially at the very end."

Third down letdown

. On a day when the Bucs played efficiently in just about all areas, the offense was something less than efficient on third downs. Finishing 5 of 14 on third down resulted in the Bucs scoring fewer TDs than they otherwise would have. That made the game closer than it, perhaps, needed to be. Some of it was a result of safe play-calling by coaches, and other times things just didn't work out. A prime example: On third and goal from the 2, the Bucs had an opportunity to take a 17-0 lead, but DE Greg Hardy didn't cooperate. "I was waiting for that end to do something," said QB Josh Freeman, who completed a pass to FB Erik Lorig, who was stopped short. "He just kind of sat there. I was hoping he'd come right at me and I'd just dump it to Lorig." Freeman kept perspective on the failed third downs. Given how many turnovers he committed in crucial situations last season, he didn't think the outcome was too bad. "When you're down that close, you have to score touchdowns," he said. "It was a learning experience. But we got points out of it. What we didn't do was force anything." The other bit of good news? The defense held Carolina to 20 percent on its 10 third-down attempts.

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