TAMPA — The Bucs built an early three-touchdown lead, then pulled away late to beat the Carolina Panthers 31-17 in their home opener Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Tom Brady connected with Mike Evans seven times for 104 yards and a 23-yard touchdown. Brady completed 23 of 35 passes for 217 yards, including a 36-yard flea flicker to Justin Watson.
Jordan Whitehead intercepted a pass and stopped a fake punt attempt, Carlton Davis had an interception and Jason Pierre-Paul and Lavonte Davis recovered fumbles to lead the Bucs defense.
Behind 21-0 at halftime, the Panthers closed the gap to 21-14 thanks to a pair of Christian McCaffrey touchdown runs. But the Bucs defense tightened up, and Leonard Fournette’s 46-yard touchdown run — his second of the game — put the game away in the closing minutes.
Fournette for the score
With running back Christian McCaffrey sidelined with an ankle injury, the Panthers drive from their 25-yard line to the Bucs 5 with two minutes remaining in the game.
Carolina does all of its damage through the air, with Teddy Bridgewater completing 8 of 9 passes on the drive.
But an intentional grounding penalty brings a halt to the drive, and the Panthers settle for a 23-yard Joey Slye field goal, still trailing 24-17 with 1:57 remaining.
Rob Gronkowski secures Slye’s onside kick attempt, and Leonard Fournette gives the Bucs a 31-17 lead with a 46-yard touchdown up the middle 11 seconds later.
Bucs defense responds
The Panthers drove into Bucs territory with a chance to tie the game after Teddy Bridgewater connected with Robby Anderson on a 39-yard pass play to the Tampa Bay 49 early in the fourth quarter.
But when it was needed most, the Bucs defense responded.
William Gholston sacked Bridgewater for a seven-yard loss to the Panthers 44, then Carlton Davis intercepted a pass intended for C.J. Moore at the Tampa Bay 38, returning it two yards to the 40, with just over 10 minutes remaining, preserving the Bucs' 21-14 lead.
Tampa Bay drove to deep into Carolina territory and had an apparent touchdown when Tom Brady found LeSean McCoy open in the right corner of the end zone, but McCoy dropped the pass.
The Bucs had to settle for Ryan Succop’s 33-yard field goal and a 24-14 lead with 6:13 to play.
Carolina coming back
The Panthers mounted their most impressive drive of the game starting in the final few minutes of the third quarter and continuing into the start of the fourth.
Starting at its 7-yard line, Carolina drove 86 yards to the Tampa Bay 7, where it faced fourth and 2.
After a timeout, Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater pitched the ball to running back Christian McCaffrey, who scored around left end to trim the Bucs' lead to 21-14 with 13:25 to play.
The big play was a 30-yard completion from Bridgewater to D.J. Moore on a back-side throw down the left sideline, moving the ball to the Bucs 34.
A successful Carolina challenge on an 11-yard pass to Robby Anderson to the Panthers 32 helped to extend the drive.
The Bucs offense was back on the move and seemingly set to add a fourth touchdown to their scoring column late in the third quarter when a couple of mistakes short-circuited the drive.
Left tackle Donovan Smith was penalized for holding on a running play, pushing the ball back to the Carolina 46, and then a wide-open Cyril Grayson misplayed Tom Brady’s pass down the left sideline, the ball hitting Grayson in the helmet and bouncing harmlessly out of bounds.
After a pass for Leonard Fournette fell incomplete, the Bucs were forced to punt.
Carolina turns pick into points
The third quarter wasn’t a minute old before both teams turned the ball over.
One play after Bucs linebacker Lavonte David forced a Robby Anderson fumble at the Carolina 27, Tom Brady overthrew tight end Rob Gronkowski and Donte Jackson intercepted the ball at the Panthers 9, returning it 44 yards to the Tampa Bay 47.
The Panthers made the most of the opportunity, covering the final 47 yards in eight plays and scoring on Christian McCaffrey’s one-yard run with 8:36 remaining in the quarter, closing their gap to 21-7.
Bucs storm to three-touchdown halftime lead
The Bucs overwhelmed the Panthers in the first half of their home opener Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, storming to a 21-0 lead after the first two quarters.
Tom Brady connected with Mike Evans five times for 91 yards and a 23-yard touchdown. Brady completed 17 of 23 passes for 198 yards, including a 36-yard flea flicker to Justin Watson.
Jordan Whitehead intercepted a pass and stopped a fake punt attempt, and Jason Pierre-Paul recovered a fumble forced when Antoine Winfield Jr. sacked Teddy Bridgewater.
Three halftime takeaways
1. The Bucs defense came to play: After the Bucs defense constantly played on a short field in last week’s loss in New Orleans, both coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said the Tampa Bay defense needed to get more takeaways to control the field-position battle.
And in the first quarter, the Bucs forced two takeaways and the ensuing drives led to touchdowns and a 14-0 lead.
The Panthers were just outside the red zone at the Tampa Bay 22 when Jordan Whitehead intercepted Teddy Bridgewater on a slow-developing screen-play pass to Christian McCaffrey.
Then, rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. forced a sack-fumble that was recovered by Jason Pierre-Paul at the Carolina 28. The Bucs scored on the next play.
Whitehead also snuffed out a fake punt on fourth and 2 for a turnover on downs. The Bucs scored on that drive, giving them a 21-0 lead at halftime.
McCaffrey has been held to 27 yards rushing and 29 yards receiving in the first half.
2. Mike Evans has returned: It’s clear that Mike Evans feels better physically, and there are good odds that he and Brady spent some time in the film room this week after connecting just once in the Saints game.
At the half, Evans had five catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. Brady connected with Evans for a 50-yard gain — on a coverage similar to the play that resulted in Brady’s first interception last week — on the Bucs' first touchdown drive and threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Evans on the second touchdown drive.
Evans has been targeted eight times in the first half. Brady threw the ball his way just six times (including two pass interference calls) all of last week in New Orleans.
Brady also hit Evans for two third-down conversion passes.
3. Brady is still Brady: With the Bucs up by two touchdowns and headed toward another score, an exchange between Brady and running back Ronald Jones was fumbled and recovered by the Panthers.
Brady wasn’t too happy with the play. TV cameras showed him on the bench shouting an expletive.
And according to Fox sideline reporter Lindsay Czarniak, without fans at Raymond James Stadium, Brady’s yell was so loud that it caught the attention of the entire sideline, players and coaches turning to him in surprise.
Bucs ferret out fake punt
The Bucs shut down the Panthers' best scoring opportunity of the first half when they stopped a fake punt at the Tampa Bay 37 with just over six minutes remaining in the second quarter.
Facing fourth and 2 at the Bucs 36 and trailing by two touchdowns, Carolina snapped directly to Jeremy Chinn, who ran up the middle. But Jordan Whitehead sniffed out the fake and tackled Chinn a yard short of the first-down marker.
The Bucs made the Panthers pay for the mistake, driving 65 yards in seven plays to go ahead 21-0 on Leonard Fournette’s one-yard run with 3:02 to play in the quarter.
The big play was a 36-yard completion from Tom Brady to Justin Watson on a flea flicker, moving the ball from the Tampa Bay 47 to the Carolina 17.
Fumble halts Bucs progress
Leading 14-0, Bucs appeared to be driving for a third score early in the second quarter when running back Ronald Jones fumbled and the Panthers' Woodrow Hamilton recovered at the Carolina 41.
The Bucs had driven from their 15-yard line to the Panthers 38 prior to the fumble, the result of a bad exchange between Jones and quarterback Tom Brady.
The Bucs converted three third downs on the drive, Brady passing to LeSean McCoy for seven yards and Mike Evans for four and six to keep the chains moving.
Correcting the mistakes
The big play on the Bucs' first scoring drive of Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers was similar to the play that resulted in Tom Brady’s first interception last week.
This time, it resulted in a 50-yard gain to Mike Evans, the biggest play on the Bucs' 10-play, 78-yard scoring drive.
On second-and-8 from the Tampa Bay 29, Evans was lined up in the slot against two-high-safety coverage, and instead of cutting off his route Evans found space over the middle at midfield and then went another 28 yards to the Carolina 21-yard line.
The Bucs scored four plays later on Ronald Jones' seven-yard touchdown run.
Evans also caught a 23-yard touchdown pass, giving him two catches for 73 yards as the Bucs have gone up 14-0 early.
Brady, Evans make an early connection
Aside from drawing a couple of pass-interference penalties, Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans was largely a spectator during the opening-week loss in New Orleans.
Not so Sunday.
Evans made his presence felt immediately, pulling in a 50-yard pass from Tom Brady over the middle on Tampa Bay’s second drive to set up the Bucs at the Panthers 21.
Four plays later, Ronald Jones carried seven yards around right end for the touchdown, putting the Bucs ahead 7-0 with 5:42 left in the first quarter.
Then, after Jason Pierre-Paul recovered a Teddy Bridgewater fumble at the Carolina 23 following a sack by Antoine Winfield Jr., Brady found Evans on a stutter-and-go down the left sideline for a touchdown that extended the Bucs' lead to 14-0.
Jordan Whitehead to the rescue
The Carolina Panthers were making mincemeat of the Bucs' defense on their opening possession, driving to the Tampa Bay 22 before Jordan Whitehead intercepted an errant pass from Teddy Bridgewater.
Christian McCaffrey had runs of 9 and 10 yards, and Bridgewater connected with DJ Moore on a 19-yard pass over the middle as the Panthers drove from their 29 to the Bucs 22 before turning the ball over.
Bucs go three-and-out on opening drive
The Bucs' first offensive drive of Sunday’s game was short — three-and-out short.
Bruce Arians said he wanted to get Mike Evans more involved in the offense after he had just six balls thrown his way (he caught one for a late two-yard touchdown and drew two pass interferences netting 77 penalty yards).
And on third-and-4, Brady went to Evans over the middle, but the ball went off Evans' hands for an incompletion.
Brady connected with Scotty Miller on a sideline route for a six-yard gain on first down, and a running play off right tackle by Ronald Jones netted no gain on second down.
Tom Brady in uncharted territory
Not only had Tom Brady never started the season 0-2 as a starting quarterback, he took the previous three teams that lost their opener to the Super Bowl.
Two of them won.
Is that a good omen for the Bucs? Or does it mean that Brady was just a slice of the Patriots' mystique?
Back in 2003, Brady’s Patriots dropped their opener with an ugly 31-0 loss at Buffalo. After that game, New England won 16 of 17 games, finishing with a 32-29 win over the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl.
In 2014, the Patriots suffered a 33-20 Week 1 loss in Miami and started the season 2-2 but then won 13 of their next 15, capping the run with a 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
And in 2017, New England lost a 41-33 opener to the Chiefs at home, then won 13 of 14 before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, 41-33.
The Bucs have at least one fan at the game, and it’s no you’d ever expect.
Hall of Famer Brett Favre looked right at home, walking down the stadium steps in search of his seat while snacking from a bag of chips. The Packers quarterback was wearing — of all things — a white T-shirt with a throwback Bucs logo, Tom Brady’s likeness replacing that of Bucco Bruce.
Favre is in Tampa as part of his job as an NFL Films correspondent for their production of NFL: The Grind, which airs on Epix. He is working on a story about Bucs linebacker Devin White.
The appearance was planned before Favre’s comments earlier this week questioning Bucs head coach Bruce Arians for criticizing Brady’s performance following the opening-week loss to the Saints.
“I think the last person you want to call out after the first game of the year is Tom Brady,” Favre told SiriusXM NFL Radio. “Now maybe they had a mutual truce going into the game, going into the season: ‘Hey, I’m going to be hard on you. I want the guys to know we’re going to treat you the same even though technically I’m not, so are you okay with it?’ If they have that truce, great. If not, I think you are barking up the wrong tree. Dissension could easily enter quickly.”
Tom Brady walks the field early
When the Bucs held a scrimmage at Raymond James Stadium last month, Tom Brady talked about the importance of having a feel for a stadium before a game.
“I love the idea of practicing in the stadium,” Brady said then. "You get the proportions, you envision plays that you make in practice happening in the game. For example, you throw a touchdown in the corner of the end zone (in practice), (then) you’re on the first (or) second drive of the game and you’re going toward that end zone and coach calls that play.
“I really think there’s a value of going in there, feeling it out, seeing where the sun hits. (For a) 1 o’clock game, which side do we want to be on if we’re kicking off (or) if we’re receiving the ball, which routes you can throw into the sun. All those things are really important any time you are getting accustomed to a stadium. When it becomes your own stadium, you have more knowledge about your stadium than any other team, which hopefully you can use to your advantage.”
Well, more than two hours before kickoff (1 p.m., Fox) of his first home game as a Buc, Brady was alone on the field at Raymond James Stadium getting a sense of his new home stadium. He’s practiced here twice this preseason, but it clearly was important to him to get an early look and take in the home stadium vibes, according to this tweet from ESPN’s Jeff Darlington.
NFL Network also showed video of Brady walking around the field around the same time, earbuds in his ears, meticulously inspecting the Bucs sideline — the benches, the coolers, everything.
In roster news, the Bucs inactives for today are: DL Khalil Davis, OLB Cam Gill, WR Chris Godwin, QB Ryan Griffin, WR Tyler Johnson, CB Parnell Motley, G Aaron Stinnie.
The three players the team elevated/promoted from the practice squad — WR Cyril Grayson, TE Tanner Hudson and CB Mazzi Wilkins (USF).
Game day definitely feels different
Driving to Raymond James Stadium three hours before kickoff today, you wouldn’t notice a Bucs home game was about to be played.
Usually the stadium lots are starting to fill, and the most die-hard of tailgaters are already well into their grilling. Throughout the neighborhood, people have signs hawking their parking spaces.
There’s none of that today, with no fans allowed at the stadium for the Bucs' home opener against Carolina.
And for those of us allowed inside for today’s game, it’s a much different look.
Before you enter, you must fill out a health assessment saying you haven’t been exposed to COVID-19. At the gate, you get your temperature checked. For those of us in the 2M media tier, we wear a contact tracing device during the game.
And inside the press box, those of us in the second and third rows will watch the game through a plastic partition for social distancing. It feels like being behind the boards at a hockey game, only not.
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A little light reading
Here’s some of our content leading up to today’s game:
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