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Is the Bucs defense for real? After two games, the answer is yes

Vernon Hargreaves’ game-saving tackle against Christian McCaffrey accentuates unit’s superior effort.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One yard stood between the Bucs and a victory over Carolina Thursday night. But for a defense that was among the worst in the NFL a year ago and a team that rarely wins on the road, one yard might as well have been one inch.

Clinging to a six-point lead, the Bucs figured either Panthers quarterback Cam Newton or running back Christian McCaffrey would get the football and run it three feet for a first down or score the winning touchdown on fourth-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 2-yard line.

To make matters worse, Bucs coach Bruce Arians and his staff had called two timeouts in a row, drawing a delay of game penalty to move the football a half yard closer to the first down marker and the goal line.

“Obviously, that double timeout was stupid and it was a situation where I had called a timeout and (defensive coordinator) Todd Bowles didn’t realize it,’’ Arians said. “Coach calls timeout on fourth down, we always do that, and it almost cost us the game.’’

In other years, Newton would’ve taken the snap, adjusted his cape and flown like Super Cam over the goal line like he did against the Bucs in a win at Bank of America Stadium in 2017.

But instead, the Panthers tried to fake the Philly Special, a play used by the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.

Newton walked up to the end of the line of scrimmage and receiver Curtis Samuel came in motion when McCaffrey took a direct snap. But instead of reversing it with a handoff to Samuel, McCaffrey kept the football and raced toward the yard marker.

Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves didn’t take the bait. He stayed home and wrestled McCaffrey out of bounds short of the first down, preserving a 20-14 win.

“It’s the Philly Special,’’ Hargreaves said. “We’ve seen it in the Super Bowl. If you’ve watched any football, you’ve seen it three or four times. Once I saw Cam walk up to the line of scrimmage and act like he was talking, I had a pretty good idea what was going on. My man went in motion and he came right to me.

“Man, listen. That’s a Pro Bowl running back running at me. I had to get him down. That was my only thought process.’’

Across the opposite sideline, beleaguered Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston celebrated.

Having thrown three interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns, in a 31-17 loss to San Francisco Sunday, Winston had lost 14 consecutive road starts, dating back to Dec. 4, 2016 in San Diego.

“Unbelievable,’’ Winston said. “Good thing that’s in the past and we got one here. It feels good.’’

Prior to the game, Arians had simple advice for Winston, who was roundly criticized for his play.

“He said, ‘Be fearless and let it fly,’’’ Winston said. “It means a lot man. He understands. He knows it’s a new game and we’ve got to focus and go out and win.’’

Winston played turnover-free football, which is news. He went 16 of 25 passing for 208 yards. His favorite target was Chris Godwin, who caught eight passes for 121 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

Peyton Barber also aided the offense with 82 yards and a TD, but the unit’s performance failed to be explosive, or decisive

Rookie Matt Gay missed a field goal and the Bucs settled for another Gay kick instead of scoring a touchdown and putting the game away with a 10-point advantage. That left Carolina needing only a touchdown and an extra point with 2:26 remaining to win the game.

But under Bowles, the Bucs defense has transformed from the sorry unit that allowed 29 points per game last season.

Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett took over the game with three sacks in the third quarter, including on back-to-back plays. And the defense stopped the Panthers three times on fourth-and-1 Thursday.

If there is a quarterback under more fire in the NFC South than Winston, it’s Newton, who hasn’t been effective throwing with his surgically-repaired shoulder and has stopped running due to a foot injury.

Hargreaves was not surprised Newton didn’t carry the football on the final play.

“He can’t take them hits like that,’’ Hargreaves said. “It’s going to eat his body up. We expect him more throwing as he’s getting older in his career. Now if this was year one, yes, I’d be surprised. But you know, where he’s at in his career, he’s got to take care of himself so he can take care of himself and play all 16 and lead his team to the playoffs. But no, not really too surprised he’s not running and things of that nature.’’

Newton didn’t question the play call from offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

“We had our opportunities,’’ Newton said. “It didn’t come down to me not running the football.’’

What it really came down to was a resilient Bucs team picking up the pieces of a disappointing loss and in four days putting faith in their new coaches that the plan would work.

McCaffrey had been so dominant against the Bucs, this didn’t seem possible. He had more than 150 total yards in each of the two games he played against Tampa Bay last season, and had 209 total yards in the loss to the Rams Sunday.

To make matters worse, the Bucs lost rookie linebacker Devin White to a knee injury in the first quarter Thursday night.

But the Bucs shut McCaffrey down, holding him to 37 yards on 16 carries and two catches for 16 yards.

Hargreaves, who had a pick six Sunday, looks reborn under Bowles press cover system. While the Panthers appeared to target him during the game, he made enough plays to help the Bucs get the win.

“It’s just getting me closer to guys,’’ said Hargreaves, who had 12 tackles. “I have freedom to do almost anything I want as far as press coverage or off coverage. You know, coach Bowles, he gives me the keys and says to do your thing.’’

There’s no way to quantify how big Thursday’s win was for Arians. He got a bear hug from general manager Jason Licht.

“Let’s stack them up,’’ Arians exhorted his team in the locker room.

Then Licht handed Arians a game ball for his first win as the Bucs coach.

The players in the locker room erupted in a cheer that could’ve been heard from here to San Diego.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud


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