By: Michelle Sabin
Sports Talk Florida
The Panthers may have scored first with a 24-yard field goal, but it was the Buccaneers who dominated this divisional matchup in Charlotte.
Tampa Bay’s offense successfully navigated their drives despite being down starting receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette. All three were taken out with injuries last week against the Saints. It did not seem to be an issue for quarterback Tom Brady and the rest of the receiving corps.
“We had so many guys that stepped up and stepped in. Had a lot of trust in them. Everybody that stepped in the huddle we trusted,” Head Coach Bruce Arians said.
On their first scoring drive, running back Ronald Jones moved the ball 5 yards up the middle followed by a short 3-yard reception. Receiver Antonio Brown, who returned after 9 weeks without play, caught a 4-yard pass for the first down. Brown recorded a total of 10 receptions on Sunday for 101 yards.
After a false start moved Tampa back 5 yards, Jones was able to make a 13-yard play to the 45-yard line. The Buccaneers put in running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who broke free for a 55-yard touchdown run. The Panthers defense lined up inside anticipating a run up the middle after seeing the Buccaneers previous drive. However, Vaughn moved left and dodged three tackles including a stiff arm on safety Juston Burris.
As he took off down the sideline, Vaughn enlisted the help of receiver Cyril Grayson for a final block as he made his way into the end zone. Vaughn credited his team preparation at practice this week and said, “I felt like this was an opportunity I have been sitting back waiting on.”
“I can see how it feels probably for offensive lineman when the running back scores,” Grayson said, “They probably feel so good because when I was able to run down and give such an effort to help him get into the end zone I felt like I scored.”
Grayson had three receptions for 81 yards on Sunday, including a 62-yard pass on an out-and-up route in the second quarter. He took the ball down to the 7-yard line before being tackled by Keith Taylor. Two plays later. Brady threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Brate expanding their lead to 19-6.
The Buccaneers continued their scoring drives with a 7-yard touchdown run by Jones at the end of third quarter, and a total of four field goals by kicker Ryan Succop.
However, Tampa Bay’s defense, despite also being down several key starters, was pivotal to the 32-6 win. They brought relentless pressure and coverage against the dual-quarterback offense of Cam Newtown and Sam Darnold holding Carolina to just two field goals.
“After last week there was a sour taste in our mouth still,” safety Jordan Whitehead said, “so Coach Bowles just challenged us all week to score points on defense, he challenged us to get turnovers, and just play with a lot of energy.”
Whitehead had a standout game navigating back and forth across the field for 6 tackles, including stopping Newton on the run, deflecting passes, and an interception. The Buccaneers also landed seven sacks, a first for the team since 2013.
On the final drive of the game, Carolina made one last attempt to get into the end zone. On 4th and 4, Darnold was flushed out of the pocket and attempted a pass to Terrace Marshall in the end zone. It was deflected away by cornerback Ross Cockrell.
However, a holding penalty on safety Andrew Adams gave the Panthers a first down from the 6-yard line. Darnold threw an incomplete pass and with only one second left on the clock, he made one final pass play. Darnold attempted a throw to receiver D.J. Moore in the corner of the end zone, but cornerback Dee Delaney read the play and deflected the pass.
With the victory against Carolina, Tampa Bay clinched the division and won their first NFC South title since 2007. Arians said, “We wanted to hang three banners this year. We don’t have one of those division banners up there for a long time. It feels great.”
The Buccaneers head north to play the New York Jets on January 2.
The videos used in this story were provided by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Youtube channel.