Wed, 21 Oct 2020

Tampa Bay Buccaneers The Bucs' offense was sharp early in Week Two, turning a string of turnovers into a 21-0 halftime lead on the way to a 34-17 victory over Carolina in the home opener…Leonard Fournette and the rushing attack put the game away late

Now that's more like how it's supposed to look.

After an underwhelming opener in New Orleans, Tampa Bay's Tom Brady-led offense was sharp - at least in the first half and at crunch time - in the Buccaneers' 2020 home opener, a 31-17 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at a crowd-less Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers improved to 1-1 with the victory, two games into their new Brady era.

"I think he has a pretty good history of that, and this game never should have gotten to as close as it did. We let them back in. But I thought he played outstanding. His leadership on the sideline was great and he put us in the right play on a number of different audibles and played really, really well."

In retrospect, the Buccaneers' communication issues and lack of cohesion in Brady's first game was unsurprising, given the lack of any offseason program or preseason games. Brady, who was out on the stadium turf four-and-a-half hours before kickoff on Sunday, was intent on improving those issues in Week Two and the results were, again, unsurprising.

"Execution was a little bit better," said Brady. "I think we are still a long way from where we need to be. I think we have the ability to make plays; I think consistency, dependability are going to be things we really need. It feels good to win and it's going to feel good to watch the film and learn. It's a long season. We've got a tough game ahead on the road. We didn't do very well in our first road game and we're going to have to do really well this time to beat this team."

The Buccaneers got a much-needed win within the NFC South with Sunday's decision and watched Carolina and Atlanta fall to 0-2. New Orleans will play in Las Vegas on Monday night and will either be 2-0 or 1-1 by the end of the NFL's second week. Tampa Bay's next game is at Denver on Sunday, September 27 and the Bucs will try to continue their progression on offense to pair with a defense that has started the season with two strong efforts, including four critical takeaways on Sunday.

"We're 1-1," said Arians. "It's 16 games. Like I just told the guys, 'Are we going to practice, are we going to show up any different this week because we won versus last week when we lost? No.' We're going to come to work and get ready for the next one and play another really, really good football team on the road.

"I don't think there's any doubt," said Arians as to whether Brady and the offense will show steady improvement as they become more familiar with each other. "It's going to take time. With having no preseason and all those practices we missed, we're just growing day by day with Tom and the receivers and the entire offense. I think we'll just get better and better."

Brady completed 23 of 35 passes for 217 yards, one touchdown and one interception and led the home team to a 21-0 halftime lead. The Buccaneers capitalized on the first four takeaways by their defense in 2020, scoring two touchdowns and a field goal on drives after turnovers. They also got another touchdown after a failed fake punt and scored the clinching touchdown on a one-play drive after a failed onside kick.

Brady's lone interception, early in the third quarter, did lead to a swing in the momentum as Carolina scored on the ensuing drive and mounted a rally that got them within seven points with most of the fourth quarter still to be played. After out-gaining the Panthers in total yards by a 230-109 margin in the second half, the Bucs had a chance to put the game out of reach after Lavonte David forced and recovered a fumble by Robby Anderson at the Carolina 27. However, CB Donta Jackson picked off a pass that went over Rob Gronkowski's head and returned it from inside the 10 to midfield.

Carolina subsequently scored on that drive and the one that followed, with Christian McCaffrey running it from one and seven yards out. The Panthers got into a groove offensively and had 228 yards on their last five drives. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, their final takeaway of the day swung the momentum back to the home team for good with 10 minutes to play. Carlton Davis made an acrobatic interception over intended target D.J. Moore and the Bucs took the ensuing possession down for a 33-yard Ryan Succop and a 10-point lead with six minutes left.

"Turnovers come in bunches; they're week-to-week," said Arians. "We had our hands on balls last week but we didn't catch them. I thought defensively we set the tone for this whole ballgame getting turnovers. I thought we were a little leaky in our run defense but that was a big [turnover] to start the second half and then we give it right back to them, let them back in the game. And then Carlton was a great interception to ice this thing with Leonard [Fournette]'s run."

McCaffrey's two touchdowns came on 88 total yards from scrimmage as the Buccaneers' defense continued to fare better against the Panthers' all-around star back than most other teams. McCaffrey also missed the Panthers' last two drives due to an ankle injury. In addition to holding McCaffrey to 3.3 yards per carry, the Bucs' defense also collected five sacks after only getting one in Week One in New Orleans. DL Ndamukong Suh led the day with his first multi-sack game as a Buccaneer and Pierre-Paul, Will Gholston and Antoine Winfield added one each. Winfield's sack also forced a fumble in the first quarter that led to a touchdown.

"I thought we had a good rush, especially our interior guys," said Arians. "They were focused on our outside guys a little bit and our interior guys got great push up the middle - Suh, Gholston, I thought Vita [Vea] got held a couple times but nobody's throwing flags this year that. Yeah, I thought the pass rush was good."

Brady, meanwhile, was not sacked once and only absorbed one QB hit as he often had a lot of time to survey the field. In the first half, that led to frequent connections with Mike Evans, who played a bigger role in Week Two with Chris Godwin sidelined by a concussion. Evans finished the day with 103 yards on seven catches, recording the 25th 100-yard game of his career. Evans' lone catch in the opener was a two-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter. He scored again against Carolina on a 23-yard reception one play after Pierre-Paul recovered the fumble forced by Winfield's sack.

"It was better," said Brady of his connection with Evans. "We left some out there, I think he and I both know that. We've just got to practice and work hard at it. It's not an easy game. We've got to work at it. There's no easy way about it. We've got to get to work, find our rhythm and keep it for the rest of the year."

In the second half, that strong work by the offensive line led to a rushing attack that was able to put things away. The Bucs finished with 122 yards on the ground an average of 5.5 yards per carry, punctuated by Fournette's game-clinching 46-yard touchdown run on the next play after Carolina's unsuccessful onside kick. Fournette gained 103 yards on just 12 carries and also scored on a one-yard run in the first half. It was his first 100-yard rushing game as a Buccaneer. Ronald Jones opened the scoring with a seven-yard run in the first quarter following Whitehead's interception but Arians rode the hot hand down the stretch.

"It's nice to have a hell of a player with fresh legs in the fourth quarter," said Arians. "Our guys did a good job of mixing the backs in. [LeSean McCoy] did a great job of catching balls and making first downs. I know he wants that one back that he dropped for a touchdown but he'll make some more in the future. The running game, I thought our line blocked well all day."

The Buccaneers opened up a double-digit lead in the first quarter when they turned their first two takeaways of the season into a pair of touchdowns just 64 seconds apart. Whitehead's diving interception preceded a 78-yard drive that ended in Jones' seven-yard touchdown run to the right pylon, and Pierre-Paul's fumble recovery deep in Carolina territory led to a one-play drive on Brady's 23-yard strike to Evans.

"We knew we had to step up to the challenge this week because of what happened last week," said Whitehead. "We had a couple penalties last week so we had to try to eliminate that today and make some plays on the ball with no interceptions last week. We got a couple turnovers today...so that was really great to see. We started off the game, first drive, with an interception, and the next drive we had a forced fumble. Those are big plays. We got 14 points off of that."

A fumbled exchange between Brady and Jones ended another Buccaneer scoring opportunity in the second quarter but Brady got the ball back after Whitehead stopped Jeremy Chinn short on an attempted fake punt. A 36-yard flea-flicker from Brady to WR Justin Watson, after a pitch-back from Fournette, helped the Bucs take the ensuing drive 65 yards for a third score, with Fournette scoring from one yard out.

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More Game Detail (scoring plays highlighted):

The Bucs took the opening kickoff but did nothing with the first drive, punting after a three-and-out series. Carolina threatened on its first possession but ultimately came up empty thanks to the Bucs' first takeaway of 2020. Bridgewater got the ball over midfield when he improvised a quick sidearm sling to McCaffrey just as a blitzing Devin White was hitting the quarterback. Two plays later, Bridgewater again stood strong in face of a collapsing pocket and managed to get a 19-yard throw down the middle to Moore. On the next snap, Bridgewater lofted an attempted screen to McCaffrey a bit too far and it was intercepted by Whitehead at the Bucs' 22.

Three straight catches by McCoy got the ball close to midfield but a block-in-the-back call on Ryan Jensen on the third one pushed it back to the Bucs' 29. On second-and-14, Brady had time to let a play develop and eventually found Evans deep over the middle for a gain of 50 yards to the Carolina 21. Miller just missed on a diving attempt of a pass in the corner of the end zone but the drive was extended two plays later when former Buccaneers LB Adarius Taylor was flagged for a late-hit on McCoy. Jones scored on the next play when he took a first-and-goal handoff, bounced it out to the right, stiff-armed out of one tackle attempt and trotted across the goal line on a seven-yard run.

The Bucs doubled their score just over a minute later thanks to a second defensive takeaway. This time Winfield sacked Bridgewater as the quarterback scrambled forward, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Pierre-Paul and returned six yards to the Panthers' 23. It took Brady one play to get it in from there, throwing a perfect back-shoulder dart to Evans, who spun to catch it just as he was crossing the goal-line.

A sack by Ndamukong Suh short-circuited the Panthers' next drive and the Buccaneers took over at their own 15 in the last minute of the opening period. After switching sides, McCoy kept the drive alive on the first play of the second quarter with a great individual effort to elude several tacklers and turn a short pass into a seven-yard gain. A great toe-tapping catch by Watson gave the Bucs a first down at the Carolina 28 but a botched handoff between Brady and Jones on the next play led to a fumble that was recovered for Carolina by Woodrow Hamilton at the 41.

The Bucs rebuffed a scoring chance on the ensuing Panthers drive, which advanced as far as the Bucs' 36. But Devin White stood RB Mike Davis up on third-and-two and the Panthers attempted a fake punt that fooled approximately nobody. Upback Jeremy Chinn took a direct snap and tried to blast up the middle but Whitehead stopped him cold.

Three plays into the next drive it was the Bucs who got tricky, running a classic flea-flicker, with Fournette taking a handoff and then pitching it back to Brady, who had Watson wide open deep down the middle. The throw was a little bit of a wobbler that Watson had to wait for, and he was tackled at the Carolina 17 after a 36-yard gain. Brady converted a third-and-six two plays later with a 12-yard pass to Fournette down to the goal line, and Fournette was rewarded on the next play with a handoff that became a one-yard touchdown run.

The Bucs had a chance to put Carolina in an even deeper hole at the start of the second half when David forced a fumble by Anderson and recovered it at the Carolina 27. However, on the very next snap Brady sailed a pass over the head of TE Rob Gronkowski and it was intercepted by a diving Donte Jackson at the nine. Jackson got off the turf and followed his blockers 44 yards just across midfield.

The Panthers turned that takeaway into their first score of the game, driving 47 yards to set up McCaffrey's one-yard touchdown plunge. A third-down pass-interference call on CB Carlton Davis set the Panthers up with a first-and-goal at the one.

The Bucs got across midfield when Scotty Miller got open deep and drew a 23-yard pass-interference call on a third-down target on the right sideline. A hands-to-the-face penalty on _ proved to be well-timed as it erased a third-down incompletion in which Brady's arm was hit as he threw. However, the drive stalled without getting to the 40 and the Panthers were pushed back to their seven by a punt and a penalty.

Carolina escaped that bad field position with a 93-yard drive that included two big plays by Curtis Samuel, a 10-yard catch on third-and-six and a reverse that he took around right end for 14 yards down to the Bucs' 15. Carolina then went for it on fourth-and-two at the Bucs' seven and, after a timeout to think it over, got the first down and the touchdown on a pitch to McCaffrey that he got around the left edge.

The Bucs were forced to punt again and on the next play Bridgewater hit a wide-open Anderson down the left sideline for a gain of 39 to the Bucs' 49-yard line. Will Gholston sacked Bridgewater for a loss of seven and on Bridgewater's next pass Davis got the Bucs' third takeaway. The throw was a little behind Moore and Davis leapt over the receiver as he slid and rolled to the ground with the ball in his arms.

That gave the Bucs the ball at their own 40 with 10 minutes to play. Two plays later, Fournette broke free up the middle and rumbled 25 yards to the Carolina 27. Two more Fournette runs created a first down in the red zone but the Bucs had to settle for a field goal try after McCoy dropped a pass in the end zone. Brady scrambled away from pressure and made a perfect throw on the run but the veteran back couldn't hold on. Ryan Succop came on to hit a 33-yard field goal and the Buccaneers went up by 10 points with just over six minutes to play.

Playing against a defense trying to keep the ball in front of it and run down the clock, Bridgewater took the Panthers down the field with a quick string of underneath passes. An intentional grounding penalty pushed Carolina back after they reached a first and goal and the Bucs were able to keep the ball out of the end zone. Needing a field goal and a touchdown, the Panthers elected to take the easy three points on fourth-and-goal, with Joey Slye drilling a 23-yard field goal. The drive ate four of the final six minutes off the clock.

With just under two minutes to play, the Panthers tried an onside kick but Gronkowski smothered it at the Carolina 46. Carolina had two first downs remaining, meaning the Buccaneers' offense likely just needed to get one first down to run out the clock. Fournette got that and more when he broke through over left guard, got to the second level and then out-ran the last Carolina defender for a 46-yard touchdown run.

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