Buc Ball is back, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started the Greg Schiano era with a low-scoring win over the Carolina Panthers. Conservative, turnover-free offense was paired with punishing, disciplined defense buoyed by a strong pass rush reminiscent of the late 1990s in the Tampa Bay area.
Greg Schiano came to town with a new philosophy: run the ball and stop the run, and you'll win the close games in the end. That's the way it turned out in today's game against the Carolina Panthers: the Bucs managed 130 rushing yards on a whopping 36 runs, and just 128 yards passing on 24 attempts. Those low totals belie an efficient and turnover-free offense, as Josh Freeman became a true game manager. With Vincent Jackson bringing a new dimension to the team's offense and Mike Williams looking more like his 2010 self, the quarterback played it safe. There were no forced passes, and Freeman took two sacks rather than attempting a risky throw on third down.
Still, it was Doug Martin who carried the offense, as the rookie provided consistency and the ability to close out a game. With 95 yards on the ground, the running back was a big part of the game's offense - and no other back had more than 3 carries. The second-most frequent rusher? Quarterback Josh Freeman, who scrambled for a couple of first downs and had a few quarterback sneaks to add to his totals.
The Tampa Bay offense didn't start out conservatively, however, steadily marching down the field on the team's opening possession and capping that drive with a touchdown. It was all downhill from there, though, as the offense added just two more field goals in the first half and one in the second half. That despite being gifted good field position three times because of Panthers turnovers. Still, Schiano will be happy that the offense didn't turn over the ball - a stark turnaround from last year, when they led the league in turnovers with a ridiculous 40 giveaways.
The real magic didn't happen on offense, though, it happened on defense - as is usually the case with old school Buc Ball. Led by third-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the team was aggressive and stifling on defense. Nowhere was this more obvious than in run defense, as the Bucs held Cam Newton and the Panthers to just 10 yards on 13 carries. That marks the single worst rushing performance in Panthers history, and is tied for the best run defense performance in Tampa Bay history. It's even more impressive when you consider the Panthers' offensive stats the year before: their 2,408 yards on the ground were ranked 3rd in the league, while their mark of 5.4 yards per carry was the best performance in the NFL.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy led the charge, delivering a dominant performance against both the run and the pass in his third NFL season. McCoy ended both of his last two seasons on injured reserve, quickly earning him the "injury-prone" label. But today's performance showed once again that McCoy will be a very important part of this team - as long as he can stay healthy. At times, McCoy seemed to live in the Panthers' backfield as he ended the game with one sack, two tackles for less and two quarterback hits - as well as frequently forcing Newton to move and make poor decisions with the football.
Those poor decisions were then exploited by a swarming Bucs secondary, as both Ronde Barber and Ahmad Black picked off Cam Newton passes, while Aqib Talib, Mark Barron and Eric Wright delivered a few more standout plays on defense. It wasn't all great for the defense, however, as the pass defense was inconsistent at best. Two consecutive blown coverages gifted the Panthers 54 yards and a touchdown in the air on a third-quarter drive, while a fourth-quarter drive saw the Panthers move 71 yards down the field on just two plays. Newton ended the night with 303 yards in the air - but two interceptions and three sacks on defense made up for a lot.
Despite a suffocating defense, the lackluster offense meant the Panthers had a good chance to come back when they gave the ball to the Buccaneers with 2:41 left in the game. A textbook four-minute drive ended those chances, however, as an efficient offense milked the clock, and Doug Martin gained 23 yards on three carries to end the game.
To cap it all off, the Bucs suffered just one injury during the game: Legarrette Blount had to leave with a leg injury, but he is "not injured" according to Pewter Report and was held out because of a coaches' decision.
The effort wasn't perfect, and there was room for improvement, but this was a solid debut for Greg Schiano and his version of Buc Ball was prominently on display. The Bucs ran the football well, played disciplined football for the most part on defense, and were fundamentally sound. If the Bucs can keep this up, they'll have a chance to win a lot of games in the fourth quarter. Buc Ball is back in town - and it's off to a good start.