On a day where many were questioning whether Greg Schiano had lost control of his locker room, his team lost control of another game.
Cam Newton rushed for a touchdown and threw for two more, as the Carolina Panthers pulled away in the second half to score a 31-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night.
With former defensive stalwarts Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice and Anthony "Booger" McFarland on hand at Raymond James Stadium, the current Buccaneers defense proved incapable of handling Newton.
The third-year quarterback led his offense on a 15-play, 70-yard drive on Carolina's opening possession, culminating with a one-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen. The drive took nearly nine minutes off the first-quarter clock, setting the tone for a contest that would see the Buccaneers fall to 0-7 for the first time since 2009.
Schiano's team has now lost 12 of its past 13 games dating back to Week 12 of last season. Tampa Bay Times reporter Joe Smith provided Darrelle Revis' perspective on his team's struggles:
#bucs Revis: "this is as low as you can get right now. 0-7. It's tough. I don't really know what to say."— Joe Smith (@TBTimes_JSmith) October 25, 2013
Mike Silver of NFL.com had published a piece earlier Thursday in which a former player compared playing under Schiano to being in Cuba.
While the team was without injured running back Doug Martin, it's clear something in Schiano's approach isn't working. The Buccaneers scored six of their points in the first half and have now scored fewer than 20 points in five of their seven games.
Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon completed 30-of-51 passes for 275 yards, hitting Tim Wright for the team's only touchdown from 10 yards out to finalize the score at 31-13 late in the fourth. Glennon struggled the rest of the time, however, with the Panthers bailing him out with multiple dropped interceptions and he and center Ted Larsen miscommunicating on two botched snaps.
Tampa managed to avoid turnovers each time, but it was merely an indicator of the team's season-long sloppiness on offense. The Panthers were thus gifted great field position throughout the contest, and Newton had no trouble taking advantage.
After orchestrating that elongated opening drive, Newton made much quicker work his next time out. He completed a 35-yard catch and run to Ted Ginn up the middle and Mike Tolbert scampered for 22 yards on the ground, helping set up a 12-yard DeAngelo Williams touchdown. Williams' touchdown was just the second rushing score given up by Tampa Bay all season and gave the Panthers a 14-3 lead with 12:50 remaining in the second quarter.
Tampa Bay would draw within 14-6 at halftime with a Rian Lindell field goal with just over four minutes remaining in the second, but it'd be the last time the Bucs scored with the game in striking distance.
Although both sides got off to a slow start in the third quarter, Newton was soon leading the Panthers on a 17-point run. He scored on the ground from six yards out with 6:34 remaining in the third to give the Panthers a 21-6 lead capping off a nine-play drive. Tolbert got into the end zone on Carolina's opening drive of the fourth quarter, catching a three-yard pass after the Panthers took over from a muffed punt.
Newton finished the game completing 23 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns, adding another 50 yards on the ground.
Thursday saw Ginn replace Steve Smith as his quarterback's top option, making five catches and using his yards after catch skills to compile 80 yards. Smith, who had caught a touchdown in each of the past two weeks, had four receptions for 42 yards and was seen autographing a jersey for a fan in the final moments of the action.
As pointed out by Fox Sports' NFL Twitter feed, this is the first time since the end of the 2008 season the Panthers (4-3) have been over .500—a span of 70 games:
The Panthers are above .500 for first time since the end of the 2008 season.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLONFOX) October 25, 2013
With three straight wins, Carolina has also put itself in the thick of the NFC playoff race, tied with the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears for the second wild-card spot heading into Sunday. The Panthers have a difficult upcoming schedule, though, with a contest against the Atlanta Falcons set for November 2.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is left to pick up what's left of a lost season. The Bucs will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the sixth straight year as questions about their head coach mount. With a blowout loss at home and billboards hanging around the city in hopes of getting Schiano fired, those concerns are unlikely to get assuaged anytime soon.
Cam Newton (QB, Carolina Panthers): A
I think it's safe to say the hand-wringing about Newton's progression can probably stop. After a less-than-stellar first quarter of the season, he's has been everything the Panthers hoped and more over the last three games.
Although their game plan obviously didn't call for much downfield passing, Newton was able to attack the Buccaneers underneath. He did well to get the ball out of his hand early on his drops, with Tampa often sending five and six men to disrupt the offensive rhythm.
It didn't work.
Newton accounted for three touchdowns and embodied the cliche of "taking what the defense gives him." With the Panthers at 4-3, maybe it's time he re-enters the young franchise quarterback conversation with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.
Luke Kuechly (LB, Carolina Panthers): B-
For the first three quarters, I was wondering whether anyone had a milk carton. We were on the verge of two straight weeks with Kuechly turning in nondescript performances, which is kind of shocking considering how rarely he disappeared as a rookie.
The Bucs avoided the run with Doug Martin, so his lack of tackles were explainable. But he wasn't all that involved in coverage schemes either and seemed like a man alone on an island for a good part of the game.
Then he got involved in the fourth quarter, finishing with eight tackles, and all was right with the world.
Individual game performance for linebackers can vary for any number of reasons, so there's no need to worry here. Kuechly is still one of the best (if not the best) young linebackers in the game. It wouldn't shock anyone if he came out and had a 10-tackle next week against Atlanta, nor should it be a surprise if that number is cut in half.
It's just comforting when stats back up the game-tape.
Mike Glennon (QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers): C+
It's hard to criticize Glennon too harshly. Anyone who watched him at N.C. State knew he was a couple years away from developing into a useful NFL quarterback—if he ever did. Glennon's collegiate inaccuracies and propensity for turnovers were always bound to be more magnified at the NFL level.
That said, we're grading his performance, not the decision to put him in the lineup before he was ready. He fumbled twice on the botched center exchanges, overthrew receivers on intermediate passes and led his offense on a series of quick drives that allowed the Panthers to pull ahead.
Yet it wasn't all bad. Glennon showed off his strong arm by putting good zip on his passes and avoiding major mistakes against a very good Carolina defense. (Even if it was lucky he recovered both botched snaps.)
As the season progresses, perhaps Glennon can develop into a reliable signal-caller. But he's not there yet.
Lavonte David (LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers): A
For all the boundless negativity in Tampa this season, David has been a weekly positive on this underrated defense. A week after recording 10 tackles against the Atlanta Falcons, he recorded his second consecutive double-digit tackle game for the second time in his young career.
David was a fixture of the NFL Network broadcast, his name getting called for blowing up run attempts and making plays on Newton in the pocket. His first-half sack gives him five for the season. He had just two as a rookie.
Coupled with Darrelle Revis and Gerald McCoy, you can see why many Buccaneers fans are frustrated by the team's lack of progress. There is enough talent here defensively to compete for a playoff spot.
The Panthers will try to extend their winning streak to four games next week when they host the scuffling Atlanta Falcons. Tampa Bay's struggles look likely to continue, with a trip to CenturyLink Field looming next Sunday. The Seattle Seahawks haven't lost a game at home since Christmas Eve 2011.
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