Carolina Panthers

After weeks of waiting, Panthers defense finally hits on the moneyball against Bucs

In the defensive backs section of the Carolina Panthers locker room at Raymond James Stadium, safety Mike Adams and nickel back Captain Munnerlyn were having a conversation about money.

And takeaways.

Munnerlyn thought Adams owed him for his part in Adams’ fourth-quarter interception of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, which ended the Panthers’ franchise-long, six-game drought without a pick.

Adams asked Munnerlyn how much he was thinking.

“We hadn’t had a pick in so long, since the first game,” said Munnerlyn, who hit Winston’s arm or the ball before he released it. “A couple thousand.”

That’s a small price to pay for a top-5 defense that has been very good through the first half of the season, but had been missing the takeaway element that’s usually a characteristic of great defenses.

And then came Sunday.

Adams’ was the first of two fourth-quarter interceptions for the Panthers, who throttled the Bucs and the sore-armed Winston 17-3 on a windy day on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The Panthers (5-3) finished with a season-high three takeaways to Tampa Bay’s one, marking the first time this season Carolina had won the turnover battle. The Panthers have won 88 percent of their games under Ron Rivera when they force more turnovers than their opponent.

Adams’ interception was the first by a defensive back this season. On the Bucs’ next series middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, back after missing a week while in the concussion protocol, snagged his second pick this year.

“It was big. It feels like the monkey’s off our back now,” Munnerlyn said.

“We hadn’t taken that next step yet. I feel like we did that today. We definitely are a great defense, don’t get me wrong. But we definitely have to have that element of the game and try to take the ball away and give it to the offense.”

Turning point

With the Panthers hanging on to a 10-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Bucs (2-5) faced a third-and-7 from their 33. Munnerlyn blitzed, came in behind and swatted at Winston’s arm.

“I don’t know if I hit his arm or the ball,” Munnerlyn said. “But I hit something to (affect) the throw and Mike made a helluva play.”

The ball floated to a diving Adams, who made the catch and promptly fumbled, but Kuechly made the recovery.

The Panthers took over at the Tampa Bay 48 and needed only five plays before quarterback Cam Newton found Kelvin Benjamin for a 25-yard touchdown and a 14-point lead.

It was a welcome change from the previous week, when the Panthers gave up a pair of defensive scores to Chicago rookie safety Eddie Jackson and lost by the same 17-3 score.

Although the Panthers scored after only one of the takeaways, Newton said they still were advantageous.

“It does so much with the field position battle. Last week it’s tough knowing that you’re starting inside the 10, inside the 10,” Newton said. “Now this week when you’re getting the ball starting at the 50 – we’re supposed to put more points up. But this is a good (Bucs) team.”

Team effort

Tampa Bay came in with the league’s top-ranked passing offense and No. 2 offense overall.

Maybe it was Winston’s sore shoulder – he missed practice time after bruising a deltoid muscle at Buffalo last week, to go with his sprained AC joint. Maybe it was the wind.

Or maybe it was the pressures that defensive coordinator Steve Wilks dialed up that threw Winston out of rhythm and resulted in the Bucs’ lowest point total in Winston’s three seasons as the starter.

The Panthers sacked Winston three times and held the Bucs to 194 net passing yards, more than 100 yards off their average (312.3).

Defensive end Julius Peppers, who had a strip-sack on Winston in the first half, said it was a team effort that resulted in the Panthers holding a team without an offensive touchdown for the second time in as many weeks and fourth time this season.

“I thought Wilks brought the pressure a good bit. Back end, they covered up pretty well,” Peppers said. “It all works together. Front, coverage – I thought everybody did what they were supposed to do.”

A new dimension

Winston overthrew receivers most of the day, but said his shoulder and the wind were the not the problem. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter thought Winston might have to come out midway through the fourth quarter after taking a shot from a blitzing Munnerlyn.

Munnerlyn said he could tell Winston was hurting after the hit, but said he thought Winston’s shoulder looked normal otherwise.

The defense gave up virtually no big plays. Tight end Cameron Brate’s 23-yard catch was Tampa Bay’s only gain longer than 20 yards.

Carolina and Minnesota are the only teams that have not allowed a 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver this season.

Veterans such as Peppers and Adams who have played for other teams say this defense is as good as any they’ve played on. But the NFL’s third-ranked D can be even more dangerous if they make these takeaways a habit.

“You get that going and it changes the whole dimension of every game,” Adams said. “Think about it. Offense can get back on the field when we’re getting more turnovers. ... It helps in most every part of the game.”

Even though it might have hurt Adams in the wallet on Sunday.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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