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  1. Bucs

Bucs-Panthers: A beleaguered secondary held its own

TAMPA — If there was any consolation to take from the Bucs' 17-3 loss to Carolina on Sunday, it was in the defense taking a major step forward, despite missing two starters at cornerback.

The 17 points allowed are the Bucs' lowest since a season-opening win against Chicago, and the progress came despite cornerbacks Brent Grimes (shoulder) and Robert McClain (concussion) watching from the sidelines.

"We're tired of getting embarrassed," said cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who moved back outside after playing well at nickel last week. "We played better, especially me and 29 (Smith). Selfishly, we have to play better and we did. We worked hard all week to accomplish that goal, but at the end of the day, we've got to win."

Carolina's Cam Newton threw for 154 yards, which is the third-lowest for a Bucs opponent in 23 games under Dirk Koetter. Seattle threw for 118 and San Francisco 113 in losses to the Bucs last season.

"I learned from the first time I played," said Smith, who had struggled filling in for Grimes in a loss at Minnesota last month. "I think I did better, and I'm going to keep building on it. Me and Vern talk all the time about how we're going to redeem ourselves."

Safety Chris Conte had nine tackles and his first interception of the season, and Hargreaves and Smith each had six tackles and two passes defensed. Carolina didn't have a pass play longer than 25 yards, though that came on a touchdown from Newton to Kelvin Benjamin in the fourth quarter, separating a close game.

"They played well," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "It's a next-man-up mentality, and even though we were missing guys, Coach (Mike) Smith puts us in great position to make plays. We just have to go make them. We played well today, just not well enough."

The Bucs could get Grimes and McClain back next week as they travel to face the Saints, but Hargreaves and Smith held their own in a losing effort Sunday.

"I thought Ryan Smith, who I know has been hungry to get his second opportunity outside, and Vernon going back from nickel to outside, I thought those two guys did a nice job," Koetter said.

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

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