Carolina Panthers

Panthers defense reverts to form against Bucs

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Linebacker Thomas Davis knew the Carolina Panthers’ recent defensive struggles were only going to be temporary.

“It wasn’t a rut,” Davis said Sunday after the Panthers finished their regular season with a 38-10 victory Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium. “We understood from watching film that we didn’t play well against Atlanta and we knew that we had to come back and get back on track.”

Davis was referring to last week’s 20-13 loss at Atlanta, the Panthers’ only defeat of the season. It was a frustrating game for the Carolina defense, which gave up several untimely big plays, including a long, game-winning touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Ryan to Julio Jones.

But things were different against the Bucs. The Panthers allowed just 77 yards rushing and forced two Bucs turnovers (a third turnover came on a Bucs’ punt return).

Tampa Bay’s three offensive stars were all-but shut down. Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston threw for 325 yards, but was intercepted twice. Running back Doug Martin ran for 48 yards and Mike Evans caught four passes before being thrown out of the game in the fourth quarter.

“We approached this game like we do every game,” said Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had nine tackles. “Our mindset is to do our job, play hard and play well as a unit.”

The game began with the Panthers looking like the same unit that had struggled over the previous five quarters, when it allowed 21 points in the fourth quarter in a victory against the New York Giants before the less-than solid performance last week in Atlanta.

Winston converted the Bucs’ first third-down conversion – a problem area recently for the Panthers. But then the Carolina defense tightened up. After the Bucs took a 3-0 lead midway in the first quarter, the Panthers didn’t allow anything else until Winston scored on a 4-yard run in the third quarter – and by then the game was safely in hand for Carolina.

“They got physical with us,” said Martin. “We played the better team. They shut down the run game a little bit.”

Among the defensive highlights were a goal-line stand to end the first half, as well as interceptions by Davis and cornerback Robert McClain that led to Panthers touchdowns. McClain was playing in place of starter Charles Tillman, who injured his knee in the third quarter. The third turnover, a fumble recovery by Joe Webb when the Bucs’ Bobby Rainey was hit during a punt return, led to another Panthers touchdown.

“It speaks well of what we have tried to establish in terms of ball hawkers,” said coach Ron Rivera. “Guys who are looking to make plays and take the ball away. It’s kind of nice to have something like that come up and happen for us.”

The Panthers’ starters played well into the fourth quarter. Tillman’s was the only injury to the unit, although Kuechley briefly came out of the game late in the first half with what appeared to be a shoulder injury. He said after the game that it wasn’t anything serious.

Cornerback Josh Norman, who hasn’t had an interception since the fourth game of the season, nearly picked off Winston in the fourth quarter. Norman and his secondary mates so frustrated Evans that he was thrown out of the game for “disrespectfully addressing an official” in the fourth quarter.

Now it’s on to the playoffs, where the Panthers will be the NFC’s top seed and have homefield advantage.

“We’ve got to be that playoff – actually, championship – defense,” said defensive tackle Kawann Short. “We’ve got to go out there and make a statement. It’s something new now. We’ve got to focus on that championship defense. That’s what it’s all about.”

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