TAMPA, Fla. — The Panthers’ long week in a state known for perpetual sunshine ended on a dark day at Raymond James Stadium.
The weather stank, too.
Playing on a wet track after morning showers and a halftime storm burst, the Panthers failed in all three phases Sunday to drop a 16-10 decision to Tampa Bay.
Cam Newton threw a pair of second-half interceptions, the Panthers tied a dubious mark with a lifeless rushing game and the supposedly improved special teams had another major meltdown.
The result: Another Week 1 loss for the Panthers, who fell to 6-12 in opening games, including a 1-6 mark when starting the season against a divisional opponent. The Panthers, a popular pick to challenge for a playoff berth in Ron Rivera’s second season, haven’t won an opener since 2008.
The Buccaneers lost their final 10 games last season, including two to the Panthers by a combined score of 86-35. The Panthers gained a combined 818 yards against the Bucs in the two wins.
But on Sunday, against a defense that showed different fronts under first-year coach Greg Schiano, the Panthers tied a franchise low with 10 rushing yards on 13 attempts. Carolina also ran for 10 yards in a 24-6 loss to New Orleans on Oct. 15, 2000.
“They brought the intensity. We were kind of stagnant,” veteran wideout Steve Smith said. “The first quarter, it was like they were the rabbit and we were the tortoise. We didn’t do a very good job at all.”
The Panthers tried unsuccessfully to establish their running game early on, but DeAngelo Williams’ first two carries netted minus-7 yards and he didn’t touch the ball the rest of the half. With the Bucs scoring on their first three possessions to take a 13-0 lead, the Panthers scrapped the run and tried their luck through the air.
“We just kind of got behind, had to abandon the run,” said Williams. “After doing that, we had to pass to get back in the game.”
Here’s what anemic looks like: Receiver Kealoha Pilares was the Panthers’ leading rusher with 5 yards, gained on a pitch from Newton on a zone-read play. With Jonathan Stewart out with a sprained ankle, Williams tied a career low with minus-1 yards on six carries.
Rivera said the Bucs showed different fronts than they had in the preseason under Schiano, the former Rutgers coach who replaced Raheem Morris.
The Panthers managed minus-1 rushing yards in the first half, when they were outgained 171 to 109 in total yardage and had a 7-minute deficit in time of possession. The Bucs finished with a nearly 15-minute edge in time of possession.
Tampa Bay did not punt until the 11-minute, 35-second mark of the third quarter.
After forcing that first punt, the Panthers started moving on their first possession of the third quarter. Newton was 4-for-4 on the drive, and his last three throws were all clutch.
Newton hit tight end Greg Olsen for 11 yards on third-and-5, found a crossing Steve Smith for 32 yards, then hit a wide-open Brandon LaFell for a 22-yard touchdown pass on a play Newton sold with a play-action fake.
But Newton could not maintain the momentum.He was intercepted on the Panthers’ next two series after throwing into coverage. The first came on the first play after Joe Adams gave the offense its best starting field position with a 21-yard punt return to the Bucs’ 41.
Newton was looking for LaFell, but cornerback Aqib Talib deflected the ball and safety Ronde Barber picked it. Newton was more upset with his second interception – a floater down the sideline to Steve Smith that safety Ahmad Black was able to track down.
Newton, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, was 23-of-33 for 303 yards, one touchdown and those two interceptions. The Panthers have never won a game in which Newton has thrown an interception, falling to 0-10.
“Turnovers,” Newton said. “You can’t win a game with turnovers. … I’ve got to do a better job on my part of protecting the football.”