January 1, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell (11) lines up for a play against the New Orleans Saints during the first quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Buccaneers De-Claw Panthers in Opener, 16-10

The total body makeover that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got over the offseason apparently is quite the success.

In a game that was held up for about 20 minutes after halftime due to lightning strikes, the Carolina Panthers should have had someone go bottle some for use in the second half. They entered intermission without having scored.

Cam Newton’s first half of the 2012 season was a dud. So was everyone else’s on the offense. Let’s put it this way: WR Keolaha Pilares was the Panthers’ leading rusher. He had one attempt for five yards.

The team tied for a franchise tying record low of 10 yards. TEN. With Newton, DeAngelo Williams, and Mike Tolbert.

I’ll leave the play-by-play for you to see on Sportscenter or to watch highlights online, but the game was every bit as ugly for Panthers’ fans as it sounds. The offense barely had over a hundred total yards in the first half.

The second half gave us a glimpse of the team Carolina fans expected to see all year. Newton and the Panthers exploded on their first possession after the weather delay and marched them 70 yards, hitting a wide-open Brandon LaFell for a 22-yard TD pass.

Under heavy pressure from a blitz, Cam read it perfectly and actually double-clutched his throw. He nearly tossed it out in the flat to his “hot” receiver as the Bucs brought a “house” blitz, but then saw LaFell moving across the field on a slant from his tight-in slot WR position on that particular play. I don’t know exactly why he was there, but the formation was fairly tight and these days WRs are sometimes called upon to give the DE a shove – called a “chip block” – to help lull the initial burst of the pass rush.

Newton saw that he’d have an easy TD and held on just as he started his throwing motion and zipped the ball to LaFell.

That was about all the fireworks for the Panthers the entire game.

I have to give credit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the victory. I figured they’d come into the season, make some early mistakes, lose a few ball games, but start getting things together by midseason and finish strong like many young teams do.

It’s what the Panthers did last season.

No, the Bucs played like a bunch of grizzled veterans. They moved the chains when they had to; they stopped the Panthers when the game was on the line. In short, they played a full 60 minutes and played hard. They smelled the blood in the water, went in for the kill, and notched their first victory of the short season.

Obviously, the Panthers didn’t play their best game. Newton’s stats were artificially good-looking other than the turnovers: 22/33 for 303 yards with a TD and 2 INTs. The first interception came on a tipped pass while the second one was just a bad throw. Newton was hot and cold all day and only had the one consistent drive when they scored a TD.

Without going on TOO much of a rant or playing the Blame Game, I’ll first say that part of this loss is on Cam’s inconsistent play but he didn’t play any worse than the rest of the offense. On one critical series in the second half, rookie LG Amini Silatolu was flagged for a false start. A couple of plays later, RG Geoff Hangartner did the same thing. One’s a rookie and the other is an 8-year veteran. The fact that the guards were jumpy is a testament to the strong play of the Buccaneers defensive tackles, Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller, and the inside pass rush in general.

The Panthers had an outside chance for a 52 or 53-yard FG attempt at the end of the first half, but were pushed back 5 yards by…wait for it….wait for it…a false start.

I think as much “blame” should go to Ron Rivera as anyone else. The Panthers actually out-gained the Bucs 6.1 to 4.2 yards per play. For one thing, it shows that the Bucs were much more consistent while the Panthers did little, but would bust a big play once in a while that didn’t score.

Rivera and his staff ran only 49 offensive plays…36 passes and 13 rushes. That sort of imbalance just doesn’t work, and if that’s your game plan then why even have so many highly-paid and talented running backs? With their depth in the backfield, losing any one guy for a game, like Jonathan Stewart, should NOT be an issue AT ALL.

Chalk this loss up to rookie-like coaching. The Panthers weren’t nearly as prepared for their opponent as Greg Schiano’s troops were. The Bucs didn’t even draw a flag until the second half, “scab” officials or not. That’s a sign of a disciplined team, and another testament to the job Schiano is apparently doing.

With the Saints, Giants, and Falcons coming on the schedule, the fear now is that an 0-4 start is very clearly on the table unless Rivera can pull his guys together…and fast.

Next week should tell us what we need to know. If the Panthers play like they did today, they’re looking at a blowout loss. If they answer the bell and get on the move, the Saints are still mortal.

Week two will set the tone for the rest of the season and Rivera, Newton, and everyone in the organization knows it.

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