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Bucs Turning Point, Week 15: Week 1 all over again

Panthers safety Roman Harper forces a fumble during the fourth quarter of Carolina's 19-17 win over Tampa Bay. Officials originally ruled that Josh McCown's pass attempt was an incompletion, but changed the call after a Panthers challenge forced further review. The Panthers went on to kick a game-sealing field goal. [Associated Press]
Panthers safety Roman Harper forces a fumble during the fourth quarter of Carolina's 19-17 win over Tampa Bay. Officials originally ruled that Josh McCown's pass attempt was an incompletion, but changed the call after a Panthers challenge forced further review. The Panthers went on to kick a game-sealing field goal. [Associated Press]
Published Dec. 15, 2014

At this point in the season, when losses have reached double digits, wins don't mean much. You've adjusted your expectations. You'll settle for signs of improvement, reasons to look forward to 2015.

If the Buccaneers' 19-17 uninspiring loss Sunday to the Carolina Panthers showed us anything, it showed us that there's not a whole lot to be excited about yet. In fact, we watched them trudge through a game that looked like a repeat of the season opener.

Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson picked up where he left off after Week 1 and expertly attacked the defense with quick passes, completing 25 of his 40 attempts for 277 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Greg Olsen ran free all afternoon and caught 10 passes (tying a career high) for 110 yards. And Buccaneers turnovers once again led to Panthers points.

The most costly turnover came on the Buccaneers' first possession of the second half as they looked to build on a 10-9 lead. Before the drive even started, a false start pushed them back five yards to their own 15-yard line. Two incompletions set up a 3rd-and-15 on which Panthers' defensive end Charles Johnson blew past right tackle/bop bag Oniel Cousins to sack Josh McCown and knock the ball loose.

In an instant, more than the football was there for the taking; the entire game was on the line. When the Panthers recovered it at the 4-yard line, the Buccaneers' chances of winning fell from 50 percent to 32 percent, according to advancedfootballanalytics.com.

The Panthers then seized the lead on a touchdown that looked like their first of the season. Let's revisit the Week 1 score:

The Panthers come to the line in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two receivers) and in the shotgun formation. Each tight end is lined up on the outside of the offensive line. Anderson fakes the handoff to the running back, while Olsen, the tight end lined up on the left, runs straight to the end zone and looks for the pass.

When the linebackers get sucked up by the run fake, they leave the middle of the end zone open.

On the touchdown Sunday, the Panthers are once again in the shotgun, but instead of a second tight end, they use Jerricho Cotchery as a third wide receiver and have him line up in the slot. Olsen sets on the right side of the offensive line. The Buccaneers have one safety — Dashon Goldson — sitting back, so Anderson knows each of his three receivers are in man coverage. If he can get Goldson to bite on the run fake, or just freeze him, he'll have the room he needs to make the throw.

Anderson gets what he wants, as the run fake draws in the linebackers and pulls Goldson a couple of steps to the right. Cotchery, running straight to the end zone like Olsen in the play above, disarms cornerback Leonard Johnson with a slight stutter step and gains the advantage inside. Goldson tries to recover, but he's a step or two away from being able to get a hand on the ball, and the Panthers go up 16-10.

"Cotch did a good job slipping inside," Anderson said after the game. The fake held the safety, and "I really just threw it to the back of the end zone knowing that it was going to be him or nobody."

• • •

The fumble and ensuing Panthers touchdown swung the game, but they weren't death blows.

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After losing 11 yards on 12 plays to start the second half, the Buccaneers offense finally reached Panthers territory late in the third quarter thanks to Charles Sims' runs of 18 and 10 yards and Vincent Jackson's 16-yard catch. The promising drive came to a halt, however, when officials ruled a McCown incompletion at the start of the fourth quarter was actually a fumble.

Despite all that, the Buccaneers nearly came up with a game-changing interception. On the Panthers' next possession, Anderson tried to force a throw to Olsen through zone coverage. The pass deflected off linebacker Danny Lansanah's hands and then off Olsen's hands before linebacker Orie Lemon hauled it in.

Before you could finish saying "I don't believe it," there it was. That &#?!%@! yellow flag. You've seen it a hundred times (more than that, actually) this season.

And while Lemon was celebrating what he thought was the first interception of his four-year career, the announcement came: "Personal foul. Defense. Roughing the passer. No. 57. Forcible blow to the quarterback's head. That's a 15-yard penalty. Carolina's ball. Automatic first down."

Defensive end Larry English drew the flag because he hit the side of Anderson's helmet with his hand just after he released the ball. The contact appeared incidental, but Anderson said that when he was letting go of the ball, "the dude grabbed my facemask."

"That roughing penalty that took an interception away from us really hurt," head coach Lovie Smith said. "Big swing in the game."

Indeed. The Panthers then tacked on a field goal to make it a two-score game halfway through the fourth quarter. And with that, the Buccaneers' win probability, which stood at 28 percent before the McCown second fumble, dropped to 11 percent.

Notes: The Bucs have failed to score on their first possession of the second half in eight straight games and haven't registered a single first down on their first possession of the second half in their past four games.

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

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