That is what doomed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011. The Bucs seemed physically unable to perform at a high level early in games last season and they often found themselves in deep holes that they couldn't climb out of.
But this is no longer 2011. It's 2012 and the Bucs appeared to be an entirely new ball club in their 16-10 opening day win over the Carolina Panthers.
Offensively, the Bucs dominated the line of scrimmage and mixed things up with great results. Quarterback Josh Freeman didn't look like the inexperienced signal caller that we saw in the preseason, but rather a seasoned veteran that made good decisions all day long.
On defense, Tampa Bay didn't look anything like the same unit that got gashed on the ground nearly every week last season. They put pressure on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, contained and shut down the Panthers' potent rushing attack, and got off the field on third downs.
Rookie Doug Martin nearly rushed for 100 yards in his first NFL game, Freeman threw for 138 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions, and the defense allowed just 10 rushing yards after allowing an NFL-worst 156.1 rushing yards per game last season
After bottling up running back DeAngelo Williams on Carolina's first drive, the Bucs' offense took to the field and looked completely different from a season ago. Freeman was calm, cool, and collected in the pocket and led the Bucs on 13-play, 80-yard scoring drive. The Bucs rode rookie running Doug Martin down the field and then Freeman, who went 7-for-7 on the opening drive, hit wide receiver Mike Williams in the back of the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown to give Tampa Bay an early 7-0 lead.
The Bucs struck again just minutes later after holding the Panthers to a three-and-out. On first down, Freeman found new tight end Dallas Clark down the field for a 33-yard gain. The offense stalled in the red zone, but kicker Connor Barth squeezed the ball inside the left upright for a 36-yard field goal to put the Bucs up 10-0 late in the first quarter.
Tampa Bay continued to dominate the time of possession and field position battle in the second quarter. The defense was able to rest on along the sidelines while the offense chewed up clock and drove down the field. Freeman connected with wide receiver Vincent Jackson on a couple of nice gains, including a 15-yarder to get the offense inside the red zone. Martin got the offense down to the Panthers' 1-yard line, but Carolina's defense tighten up and forced the Bucs to settle for a 20-yard Barth field goal.
The Panthers tried to get things going on offense before the end of the first half but to no avail. With no rushing game to speak of – the Panthers had negative one rushing yards in the first half – Carolina had to go to the air, and Tampa Bay's defensive line was able to pin their ears back and get after Newton. The Bucs defense constantly put the Panthers in second- and third-and-long situations that they just couldn't overcome and they went into halftime down 13-0.
After an extended halftime break due a rain and lightning delay, the Bucs got the football first to start the second half. However, after a couple of first downs, the Panthers defense forced their first punt of the afternoon.
Carolina made some major adjustments during halftime because they got on the scoreboard quickly on their next possession. After a few short gains, Newton hit a wide open Steve Smith in the middle of the field for a gain of 32 yards. On the next play, Newton got his first TD of the season with a beautiful play-action pass to wide receiver Brandon LaFell for a 22-yard score.
After another ineffective drive, the Bucs' offense had to punt the football to the Panthers. But the man whom the organization celebrated on this day got the ball right back for the offense. Safety Ronde Barber, who started his 200th consecutive game on Sunday, intercepted a pass after cornerback Aqib Talib tipped it into the air.
At the end of the third quarter, the Bucs' secondary struck again when safety Ahmad Black picked off a Newton pass intended for Smith on third-and-12. The former Gator did a nice job of blocking out Smith on the play for his first career interception.
Even with all the turnovers Tampa Bay's defense forced, the offense did nothing once they got the ball and couldn't take advantage of some prime opportunities to put the game away in the second half.
That is until the special teams unit blocked a punt to give them excellent field position. Talib came through untouched and blocked Brad Nortman's punt to give Tampa Bay the ball at the Panthers' 42-yard line. From there, the offense got close enough for Barth to hit this third field goal of the game to give the Bucs a 16-7 lead with 7:58 left in the game.
With Panthers being forced to pass, the Bucs' pass rush stepped up and brought down Newton twice on their next drive. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who was in the backfield most of the day, sacked Newton on first down for an 8-yard loss. On third down, defensive end Michael Bennett got to Newton from behind and forced a fumble while bringing him down.
The Panthers would get the ball back once more, and this time would cut into Tampa Bay's lead. Newton found wide receiver Louis Murphy deep for a 51-yard gain. But once in the red zone, the Bucs stiffened up and held the Panthers to a field goal to maintain a 16-10 lead.
But the Panthers would not get a chance for a late game-winning drive because Martin, who finished with 118 total yards, and the Bucs' offense churned out a few first downs to run out the clock for an impressive opening day win over a hated division rival.
Next week, the 1-0 Bucs will travel to New York to take on the 0-1 Giants on Sunday.
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