It wasn’t always pretty, but the Buccaneers, after sputtering for most of the game following a fast start, came up with some huge plays when they needed them and pulled out a thrilling overtime victory in Carolina. Now at 6-4 on the season, Tampa has put itself in with a chance at a wild card spot in a crowded NFC playoff picture.
On the other side, the inability to win close games like this is a reason the Panthers are sitting at 2-8 and looking at another lost season. There were some bright spots, though, especially on defense.
Tampa Bay – Three Performances of Note
While Josh Freeman (-1.3) came up big with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter and overtime, it’s difficult to overlook how poorly he played otherwise. He completed just 53.2% of his passes for an average of 5.3 yards per attempt, and his three touchdown passes were marred by two interceptions. The pick-six he threw late in the first quarter was a rookie mistake and one that completely shifted the game’s momentum in Carolina’s favor — on 3rd-and-8, Freeman attempted an ill-advised pass while falling backwar that never had a chance to reach its target, and Captain Munnerlyn jumped the route and took the gift to the end zone. And on his second interception he failed to properly drive the ball, resulting in a badly underthrown deep pass — from a relatively clean pocket, no less. Those were just two of a number of poor throws on the day.
However, while we criticize the Bucs’ QB for his poor accuracy and decision-making, we also give credit where it’s due. Freeman rebounded brilliantly in the final minute of the game, as he led the Tampa Bay offense on an 80-yard game-tying drive, which culminated in an absolute dime of a throw to Vincent Jackson (+2.9) with 12 seconds left on the clock. And speaking of Jackson, the wide receiver had another impressive game with six receptions for 94 yards, gaining 1.84 yards per route run, with catches for the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion.
Though the two combined for a single catch for three yards with a dropped pass, the play of tight ends Luke Stocker and Nate Byham was huge for Tampa Bay. The two left the pass catching to Dallas Clark, while they dominated in the run game, combining to grade +4.6 for their run blocking efforts. Their play helped Doug Martin average 5.8 yards per carry on the day, and largely made up for the dismal performance by FB Erik Lorig (-3.6). In fact, each TE keyed long runs late in the game with big blocks — Stocker’s block on Charles Johnson on the second play of overtime sprung Martin for a 27-yard gain, for example. And perhaps most impressive was that the two made such an impact in limited time on the field — Stocker was on the field for only 55% of Tampa’s plays, while Byham put up his grade of +3.0 in just 10 total snaps.
There were few plays in this game when the Tampa defensive line didn’t disrupt the Panthers’ front. Pressuring Cam Newton on close to 60% of drop-backs, the combination of Michael Bennett, DaQuan Bowers, Gerald McCoy, and Daniel Te’o- Nesheim routinely took advantage of Carolina’s offensive line. They especially caused problems for the Panthers’ interior, though the damage wasn’t limited to the inside with five of the six Panthers who played snaps up front receiving negative grades in pass protection.
Te’o (+4.3) had the most complete game of the aforementioned linemen, with four quarterback disruptions and an additional three stops against the run. The bigger story, though, might be the play of Bowers. In just his fourth game back from an Achilles injury, the second-year defensive end recorded five pressures in just 22 rushes — that’s once every 4.4 snaps rushing the passer. If Bowers can keep this up and remain healthy, what’s been a formidable defense could become downright scary as they hit the home-stretch of the season.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
Hardy Plays Hard
Coming into Sunday’s game, Freeman had been pressured on 30% of his drop-backs. Against the Panthers, however, Freeman faced pressure on just over 43% of his drop-backs, in large part due to the outstanding play of Greg Hardy. Lining up in multiple spots along the defensive line, Hardy terrorized Donald Penn and the Tampa Bay offensive line to the tune of 11 combined QB disruptions, including a sack and three QB hits. His best stretch came midway through the fourth quarter, when he pressured Freeman three times in a span of five plays, as he beat Penn twice to the inside and then got into the backfield on a stunt. Only a penalty for encroachment on 3rd-and-short and a missed tackle kept Hardy’s grade of +4.1 from being even higher.
Newton (+2.3) bounced back from a very poor showing against Denver with a solid, if unspectacular, performance versus the Bucs, throwing for 252 yards and a touchdown. And while his 55.2% completion percentage doesn’t look very impressive, the number doesn’t tell the whole story, as he was under pressure all game and had to deal with a few drops by his receivers — in fact, his adjusted completion percentage was actually 72%. As he always seems to do, Newton also made a number of plays with his legs. The six designed QB runs weren’t extremely successful, but he was able to make plays when the pocket broke down in the passing game, combining for 27 yards the three times he eluded the rush. Also quite impressive was that Newton took only two sacks, despite facing pressure on a ridiculous 58.8% of his drop-backs.
However, like the entire Panthers team, Newton just didn’t do quite enough to put the game away, often showing why he’s been the fifth-least accurate quarterback in the league. For an example of his shoddy accuracy, look no further than the end of the second quarter when a string of Newton overthrows ended any shot at the Panthers extending their lead going into the half.
What Happened to the Running Game?
It’s amazing how much the Panthers have struggled to run the ball, given the team’s success on the ground a year ago. Needless to say, they didn’t get it going against the strong run defense of the Buccaneers. On 33 attempts between Newton, Jonathan Stewart, and DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers gained just 101 yards. After each averaged 5.5 yards per carry a year ago, Stewart and Williams are now averaging just 3.6 and 3.4 yards per attempt on the season. Against Tampa Bay, the Panthers were particularly poor on runs to the edges, where they combined to lose 4 yards on five carries. One reason for the struggles on the outside was the blocking — or lack thereof — by Greg Olsen (-3.7). In Olsen’s defense, he was used as a lead blocker on a number of plays, which is not exactly the tight end’s strong suit. What has also been baffling has been how Carolina has gone away from the two- and three-tight end sets that were so successful last season. On Sunday, the Panthers ran two-tight end sets just 23% the time, a common occurrence this season.
— Coming into the game, no quarterback had thrown for more yards on deep passes than Josh Freeman. But against the Panthers, Freeman was just one of six for 24 yards on such passes.
— Panthers rookie Frank Alexander came away with five QB disruptions while logging his highest snap total of the season.
— After a four game stretch in which he forced 31 missed tackles rushing, Doug Martin has eluded just three tackles on the ground in his past two games.
PFF Game Ball
This one goes to Vincent Jackson, whose clutch catches at the end helped salvage an otherwise poor offensive performance for Tampa.