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Buccaneers-Panthers AfterMath: In a plot twist, Tampa Bay escapes grisly outcome. Here’s how.

The true difference-maker Thursday: The relentless blitzes of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles exposed quarterback Cam Newton.
In five of his past six games against the Bucs, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has failed to register a passer rating greater than 70. He completed less than half of his passes Thursday night in Carolina's 20-14 loss. [MIKE MCCARN | Associated Press]
Published Sep. 13
Updated Sep. 14

When watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you can never feel safe. Danger, it seems, is only a play or penalty away.

That was certainly the case Thursday as the clock lurched toward midnight and the Panthers crept toward the end zone. Be honest. You wondered what fresh terror Friday the 13th would bring.

The fear is understandable, especially if you lived through the Bucs’ many blown fourth-quarter leads in recent years, like the ones against the Saints and Browns last season.

And the ones against the Panthers, Packers and Bills in 2017.

And the ones against the Cowboys and Raiders in 2016.

If the Bucs were a character in a horror movie, they would be the babysitter who, instead of running out the front door, runs up the stairs and waits for the bogeyman to find her in the closet.

MORE BUCS: Observations from Tampa Bay’s 20-14 over Carolina

What happened

The Bucs seized control late in the third quarter when Peyton Barber knifed through the Panthers defense for a 16-yard touchdown run. It was Tampa Bay’s longest touchdown run since Barber’s 44-yard score against the 49ers in October 2016.

The Bucs' win probability briefly dipped below 50 percent twice during the fourth quarter. [THOMAS BASSINGER | Times]

After forcing a Cam Newton fumble, the Bucs were in position at the end of the third quarter to extend their lead to 20-12, but Matt Gay’s 42-yard field goal drifted wide right. That was bad, but Tampa Bay’s next drive was worse: It resulted in points … for Carolina. A safety cut the Bucs’ lead to 17-14 with about 13 minutes left in regulation. Tampa Bay’s win probability, which had peaked at about 75 percent before the field goal miss, plummeted. The game became a virtual coin flip.

MORE BUCS: John Romano dissects the game five thoughts at a time

What changed

The Bucs defense was relentless. Coordinator Todd Bowles blitzed the snot out of Newton. He sent at least one extra defender after the Panthers quarterback on more than 60 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s truly staggering. Defenses blitzed Newton on 28.4 percent of his dropbacks last season, down from 28.7 percent in 2017, which was down from 40.0 percent in 2016. He hadn’t seen blitzes to that degree since Week 12 of the 2017 season. His opponent that week? Bowles’ New York Jets. The Jets held a fourth-quarter lead in that game, but Newton and the Panthers rallied to win 35-27.

There was no such rally against the Bucs. Newton was ineffective against the blitz, completing 16 of 31 passes and averaging 6.5 yards per attempt. It didn’t help that his receivers dropped a couple of his fastballs.

But Bowles’ aggressiveness seemed to rattle Newton even when he didn’t call a blitz. The threat was so constant that he could never settle into a rhythm and looked more like Yosemite Sam than a former MVP. When not blitzed, he completed only 8 of 19 passes and averaged 6.4 yards per attempt. Most important, the Bucs kept him out of the end zone. He has now gone four straight games without completing a touchdown pass, the longest streak of his career.

One example of Bowles’ effectiveness: When Carolina was driving for the potential winning touchdown, it faced second and 10 from the Tampa Bay 11. Before the snap, it appeared as if the Bucs would rush five defenders. The Panthers countered by keeping Christian McCaffrey, arguably their best receiver, in the backfield for extra pass protection, at least initially.

Linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58), seen here applying pressure from the left edge, harassed Cam Newton throughout the game. [NFL Game Pass]

Tampa Bay ultimately rushed only four defenders, but linebacker Shaquil Barrett got in Newton’s face anyway. He rushed his throw and skipped a pass to DJ Moore, who was open in the end zone. Without Barrett’s pressure, the game is over. Vernon Hargreaves’ touchdown-saving tackle of McCaffrey on fourth and inches ceases to exist.

MORE BUCS: Hargreaves’ tackle accentuates defense’s superior effort

What it means

Could it be? Do the Bucs finally have a defense? Maybe. Just maybe.

Before Thursday night, Tampa Bay had not held an opponent to 14 or fewer points and 5 yards per play since halfway through the 2017 season. In fact, the Bucs have done it only three times in the past three seasons (twice in 2017 and once in 2016).

Before, Tampa Bay would have folded after the missed field goal, the safety and coach Bruce Arians’ double-timeout gaffe. These Bucs, in desperate need of a win after a dispiriting loss at home to a beatable 49ers team in Week 1, flipped the script and held on.

It’s far too early, however, to declare that Tampa Bay has arrived. The Newton the Bucs faced is clearly broken. Whether it’s his health or his offensive line, he is not the quarterback we’re used to seeing. Bigger tests and better quarterbacks loom, like the Rams and Jared Goff in Week 4 and the Saints and Drew Brees in Week 5.

In the meantime, the Bucs deserve credit for avoiding an early-season tailspin. Given what we’ve witnessed over the past decade, that’s a big step forward.

• • •

Storylines

• Hargreaves’ touchdown-saving tackle completely altered the narrative of his performance against the Panthers. He was dreadful in pass coverage, allowing completions on 10 of 11 targets for 133 yards and six first downs, according to Pro Football Focus. In addition to surrendering a 44-yard gain to Curtis Samuel, he allowed Moore to catch all eight of his passes.

• Barrett recorded eight pressures (three sacks, one hit and four hurries), according to Pro Football Focus. As a rotational player for the Broncos, he recorded 13 pressures all of last season.

• Ronald Jones, the running back the Bucs spent all offseason hyping, saw a significant decline in usage. In Week 1, he played 22 offensive snaps (31.4 percent); on Thursday, he played eight snaps (12.3 percent). Barber carried the load against the Panthers, playing 42 snaps (64.6 percent). In Week 1, he played 25 snaps (35.7 percent). Arians has said he will go with the hot hand at running back. Was that the case Thursday? Or is Barber separating himself?

• Tampa Bay’s offensive play selection was balanced during the first half, but was that a good thing? On nine passes on early downs, Winston averaged 14.1 yards. Four of his passes resulted in first downs (including a touchdown). On 10 runs, Barber and Jones averaged 2.5 yards. Only one of their runs resulted in a first down.

• Where was O.J. Howard? The tight end played 60 offensive snaps (92.3 percent) but didn’t see a single target. He has gone without a target just one other time in his career: Nov. 12, 2017 against the Jets.

• • •

What I got right

That Winston would have a bounce-back game. Other than an errant throw that linebacker Luke Kuechly nearly picked off, Winston had a clean game. He completed 16 of 25 passes for 208 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. His 103.4 passer rating was more than double his rating against the 49ers in Week 1.

What I got wrong

The score. I predicted that the Bucs would cover the spread (the Panthers were favored by 6.5 points) but lose straight up.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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