Too Little, Too Late Again For Buccaneers

Tampa Bay can’t come back from first half disaster

After a week of seemingly nonstop quarterback talk, it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense that proved critically lacking in their 42-28 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte on Sunday. On five consecutive first half drives, the Panthers scored touchdowns, a 35 point performance that set a franchise record for first half points. The Bucs never recovered.

Just when it looked like the Buccaneers might make the football game a close one, bringing the score to 35-28 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the defense allowed Carolina to put together a nine play, 75 yard touchdown drive that effectively put the game out of reach.

If there is one game that could come back to haunt Dirk Koetter when his job status is evaluated after the season, this loss to Carolina could be it. Once again, Tampa Bay came out unprepared to play the Panthers. It could be argued that they came out unprepared to play football at all.

Early on, Carolina was ready for what the Buccaneers had to throw at them, as though their offense is so set in its formulas that the defense could call the plays for them. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers’ defense looked equal parts confused and overwhelmed by Carolina in the first half. They had no answers for Cam Newton and no answers for Christian McCaffrey.

Even the offense’s not-quite-comeback seems a bit like “garbage time points,” those scores a defense allows when a game is already wrapped up. Yes, the game became as close as a touchdown, but the moment it was that close Carolina scored another touchdown at will.

Outside of the passing game, the Buccaneers looked lost. There was a fake punt on their own 25, one that failed predictably. The run game was close to non-existent, even more than Buccaneers fans might be used to at this point. Ryan Fitzpatrick turned the ball over a second time late to put a final nail in the team’s coffin.

Hairy Game for Fitzpatrick

The Buccaneers’ starting quarterback is not entirely blameless in the loss. Fitzpatrick threw two interceptions, including an early turnover that set up the Panthers’ first touchdown. That play was simply an overthrow, an unforced error on a play where the Bucs’ line was able to keep the Panthers at bay.

Yes, the veteran from Harvard threw for four touchdowns on the day, and looked sharp in bringing Tampa Bay back within a score, but it was too late to get back in the game by then. Expecting the Tampa Bay defense to hold enough to facilitate a 28 point comeback is, to say the least, a tall order.

The passing game was still the best part of the Buccaneers’ game. More to the point, it was the closst thing to a bright spot in another loss during an unraveling season.

Fitzpatrick’s performance does not suggest another change is coming at the quarterback position. Four touchdowns and an offense that looked dangerous at times will be enough to stay at the starting position, with Jameis Winston’s future remaining in some doubt. Coach Dirk Koetter has already declared Fitzpatrick the week 10 starter,

Panthers Shut Down Evans, Jackson

Wide receiver Mike Evans was strangely absent from the Bucs’ offense on Sunday, only catching one pass for 16 yards. DeSean Jackson did not fare much better, catching two passes for 32 yards. It was a great job by the Carolina defense to limit Tampa Bay’s top receivers and make Fitzpatrick look for other options. Adam Humphries led the Bucs in receiving.

McCaffrey a one-man wrecking crew

Christian McCaffrey was dominant in the Panthers’ win. The second-year running back led the game with 79 yards rushing, as well as 78 yards receiving. McCaffrey had two touchdowns on the ground Sunday.

While perhaps scheme and blocking is responsible in many ways for the Buccaneers’ inability to run the football, they can’t help but look across in jealousy at somebody like McCaffrey who can be a weapon in the running game and passing game alike. Having that playmaker in the backfield helped Carolina gain an edge in time of possession, and McCaffrey was critical in that final touchdown drive to put the game away.

Up Next for Bucs

The Buccaneers come back to Raymond James Stadium for a Sunday afternoon matchup with the Washington Redskins. The Redskins come in off a loss of their own, having fallen to the Atlanta Falcons 38-14 on Sunday at FedEx Field.

At 3-5, the Buccaneers’ schedule does not get much easier the rest of the way. Games in November against the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers look like the only games they should be favored to win moving forward. It could easily be another ten-loss season (or worse) for the Buccaneers.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.