TAMPA, Fla. Carolina’s offense probably owes its defense a steak dinner Sunday night after a key NFC South victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Panthers (5-3) not only held quarterback Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers to season-low numbers in a 17-3 victory on a rare chilly, blustery day at Raymond James Stadium, they also put the Carolina offense in positions to be successful.
It was the third time this season that Carolina’s defense has held an opponent to three points or less.
With the victory, the Panthers remain a half-game behind the New Orleans Saints (5-2) in the NFC South. The Atlanta Falcons are another half-game back at 4-3 and visit Bank of America Stadium to face the Panthers next Sunday.
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Linebacker Thomas Davis made a big drive-stuffing third-down stop on Tampa in the second quarter. Kawann Short pressured Winston early and often, including on third down in the second quarter to force an incompletion. Short also stuffed running back Doug Martin on first down for a loss of 4 yards to back Tampa up against its own goal line in the third quarter.
Defensive tackle Kyle Love and defensive end Mario Addison combined for a third-down sack on Winston in the third quarter.
On the perimeter, Carolina’s defensive backs limited the passing attack depended upon so heavily by Tampa Bay this season. The Buccaneers entered the game ranked first in the NFL in passing yards and fourth in passing touchdowns, but were held to just 81 in the first half. And after passing for over 300 yards in each of its past five games, Tampa Bay was limited to 194 on Sunday.
As the Panthers struggled to sustain drives – often from deep in their own territory – an early 10-0 lead became a 10-3 lead in the third quarter, and dangerous spot for Carolina – the defense kept the Buccaneers at bay.
An interception by Mike Adams in the fourth quarter was the momentum quarterback Cam Newton and the offense needed. On the following series, Newton kept the ball on a zone read and gained 20 yards, which set up a perfectly-placed throw-and-catch 25-yard touchdown to Kelvin Benjamin to put the Panthers up 17-3.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly picked off Winston on the following Tampa Bay drive.
Three who mattered
Julius Peppers: The Panthers’ veteran defensive end recorded his 151st quarterback sack when he strip-sacked Winston, and the fumble was recovered by safety Kurt Coleman.
Jonathan Stewart: Stewart scored the Panthers’ first non-Newton rushing touchdown of the year in the first quarter on Sunday with a 1-yard leap over the pile.
Mike Adams: Adams picked off Winston with 11:32 left to play and became the first defensive back of the year to record an interception for Carolina, and the first Panther to intercept a pass in six games.
▪ Peppers was a captain on Sunday, for the first time since he returned to Carolina this season.
▪ The Panthers’ first-quarter scoring drive was well-executed. Carolina rotated its personnel often, using three different running backs (including backup Cameron Artis-Payne, who ran the ball well) and four different receivers. That kept the Buccaneers defense constantly on its heels as they had to counter-shift their own personnel throughout the 8:38, 17-play drive.
▪ Strong winds blew through the stadium throughout the game, at one point blowing the ball off the line of scrimmage – the referee had to place his foot on it to keep it from blowing away again. The wind appeared to affect the second-half kickoff by Tampa Bay, and was short to receiver Russell Shepard, who returned it for 33 yards to give the Panthers great field position to open the half.
▪ Carolina tried three times to pass deep to receiver Devin Funchess, and all three were incomplete. Two of the three came on third down, with 10 or more yards to gain for the conversion.
▪ Corners Kevon Seymour and Daryl Worley rotated often in the secondary. The Panthers also favored their small-nickel package with corner Captain Munnerlyn over the bigger “Buffalo” package using linebacker Shaq Thompson. The secondary limited Winston’s passing yards to just 81 in the first half, after the Buccaneers entered the game first in the NFL in passing yards.
▪ Panthers punter Michael Palardy had a great game despite the gusty day. Palardy was able to pin the Buccaneers at their 3 in the fourth quarter – punting into the wind.
▪ Benjamin’s 25-yard touchdown catch was the second play of 20-plus yards in three games for Carolina. The team took four deep shots before the score, and all fell incomplete. Three of the four came on third down with 10 or more yards to gain.
▪ Sunday’s game was the first back for two key Panthers defensive playmakers: Coleman and Kuechly. Coleman had missed three games with a sprained MCL while Kuechly missed a game while in the concussion protocol. The two combined for 17 tackles Sunday.
▪ Veteran center Ryan Kalil was inactive after agitating a still-healing neck injury against Chicago last week but did travel, as did tight end Greg Olsen, who is eligible to begin practicing with Carolina next week after six weeks on injured reserve with a broken foot. Rookie Fullback Alex Armah was inactive with a hamstring injury. Running back Fozzy Whittaker was inactive as he continues to recover from a high ankle sprain.
▪ With his 48th catch of the season in the second quarter, McCaffrey broke the Panthers’ record for catches by a running back (previously held by Stewart in 2011).