Through the first week of the NFL season, the Carolina Panthers looked better than the the Buccaneers on paper, particularly in 3rd down efficiency. Going into Sunday's game against the Bucs, the Panthers were 7/13 (53%) compared to the Buccaneers 5-13 (38%) in converting on 3rd down. Add to that a week one debacle for the Bucs and the loss of receiver Chris Godwin and the Carolina Panthers appeared to have a sizable window of opportunity for a win despite facing a much better defense engineered by Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
After a slow first series and a teddy Bridewater interception to stop a fruitful Carolina Panthers drive, Tom Brady got it going mid-way through the first quarter. Brady notched a 50-yard connection to Mike Evans. Later in the drive, a late hit by rookie Derek Brown gave the Bucs the first down needed to set up the 7-yard R. Jones touchdown run to put Tampa up 7-0.
Before the Panthers could gather their momentum from the first Bridgewater turnover, Tampa Bay Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. fought through traffic to strip Bridgewater on the Carolina 23 yard-line. Jason Pierre-Paul recovered the fumble which set up a 23-yard touchdown completion from Brady to Evans to give the Bucs a 14-0 lead. The Panthers gave up a total 5 sacks to the Buccaneer defense.
Tampa Bay's smothering defense was the biggest hurdle for the Panthers in the first quarter. But early in the second quarter, the Panthers' defense finally started smothering back. Brady's hand-off to Jones was fumbled, then recovered by Carolina's DT Woodrow Hamilton. Hamilton, who was activated from the practice squad this week, had been very active and effective since early in the game when he recovered the loose ball for the Panthers.
The ensuing drive saw the Panthers' momentum stall at the 35-yard-line, leaving the Panthers with a 4th and short. And the Matt Rhule gamble to send Jeremy Chinn up the middle to covert failed. The Buccaneers used the momentum from that stop to extend the lead to 21-0 going into the half after a Leonard Fournette 1-yard touchdown run.
One of the key point of emphasis after week one for Carolina was developing a more stout run defense. To do that, they would need Donte Jackson back in the lineup for Carolina to cut off as many options as possible for the Buccaneers. Jackson left the game due to injury against the Raiders in week one but returned to action on Sunday. Jackson finished the day with 3 tackles, 1 interception that was returned for 44-yards and 1 pass defended. That idea, however, trended downward for the Panthers on Sunday. In the first half, the Carolina defense allowed 13-1st-downs, 222 total yards and 3 touchdowns (2 rush TD).
AT THE HALF
The first minute of the second half was full of twists and turns that put the Panthers back on track. Bridgewater's 7-yard pass to Robby Anderson was thought to have been complete. But after further review was ruled a fumble. But on the ensuing drive for Tampa, the Panthers' Donte Jackson snagged the interception that gave Carolina a do-over.
The Panthers followed with a 8-play, 47-yard drive capped by a 1-yard Christian McCaffrey touchdown run to shrink Tampa Bay's lead to 21-7 mid-way through the 3rd quarter. It was Carolina's first score of the game.
To start the 4th quarter, the Panthers's McCaffrey reeled in a shovel pass from Bridgewater for a 7-yard scamper into the end zone for a touchdown. McCaffrey, however, would leave the game with an ankle issue and would not return.
The Panthers appeared to be regaining their composure later in the 4th quarter until Bridgewater's pass intended for DJ Moore was intercepted by the Bucs' Carlton Davis at the Tampa Bay 38. "We shot ourselves, we came up short," Bridgewater said.
PANTHERS STAT LEADERS
Passing T. Bridgewater 19/26 209-yards
Rushing C. McCaffrey 18/59-yards
Receiving R. Anderson 7/85-yards
Tackles R. Douglas 7 Tot. Tackles
For the second straight week the Panthers came up short. But it wasn't just the shortcomings of the defense that told the final story. The Panthers racked up 77-yards on 9 penalties - a departure from last week's performance. Despite the adjustments made from the first half, the Carolina defense allowed 339 yards of offense from the Buccaneers including a final 46-yard touchdown run by Fournette to put the game out of reach. And despite also having put up 427 yards on offense, Carolina turned the ball over 4 times including two Bridgewater interceptions which proved fatal. "We have gotta become a better football team in terms of playing cleaner," Head Coach Matt Rhule said.
The Panthers are 0-2 to start the 2020 season. The team travels to Los Angeles to face the Chargers next Sunday as they look to earn their first win.