Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 9/9/12
TAMPA, Fla. It was a smashing debut for rookie NFL head coach Greg Schiano and his new-look Tampa Bay Buccaneers as in the smash-mouth football on defense and offense that shattered any lingering connection to the misery of last season. On a day that celebrated an icon of Buc glory days with 37-year-old Ronde Barber extending his NFL record for defensive backs to 200 straight starts Schiano's mostly young squad celebrated a fresh start for the franchise. With a relentless, swarming defense and a pounding offense, Tampa Bay erased the memory of two embarrassing losses last year to Carolina with a 16-10 victory Sunday afternoon to kick off the 2012 campaign in style. Ten wasn't only the number of points the Bucs' defense held Carolina to on the scoreboard, before a boisterous crowd of 51,533 at Raymond James Stadium. Amazingly, it was also the number of total rushing yards the energized unit allowed against the high-voltage Panther offense and dazzling quarterback Cam Newton, tying an 18-year-old franchise record for fewest allowed in a game (against Washington in 1994). And that performance was just one of many Sunday that helped put an end to the 10-game losing streak the Bucs carried into this season, after finishing last year at 4-12 and as an NFL laughingstock. "Coach Schiano said the sooner we buy in the sooner we'll win," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who led the aggressive defense and notched one of three Newton sacks after missing most of the last year with a torn bicep muscle. "Change is never easy, but once everybody adjusted to the change and actually dove in and bought in to what he was coaching, things fell into place. He gave us a game plan and we just came out, played to the best of our ability and played Buc football." It was as much a departure from the chaos of last season as you could imagine, and a reflection of Schiano's disciplined, detailed approach and the grueling "boot camp" style workouts he instituted. Consider this: The team that was one of the most penalized in the entire NFL in 2011 was flagged only four times for 35 yards. And the offense that was beset with costly turnovers last year committed a grand total of zero. "It was a good team win," said Schiano, who became the first Bucs head coach to win his debut since Sam Wyche in 1992. "I'm really happy for the guys. They've worked awfully hard, and for them to be able to get a win after all that is good. And now the journey begins." That journey got under way Sunday with an array of impressive individual efforts, giving the Bucs their first victory since Oct. 16, 2011 in a 26-20 decision over New Orleans. Barber added to the festivities surrounding his landmark start by notching the 43rd interception and 28th sack of his heralded career. Rookie tailback Doug Martin carried the rushing load like a veteran, gaining 95 yards on 24 carries (and catching four passes for 24 yards). Fellow first-round pick strong safety Mark Barron flew all over the field, going airborne to break up a Newton pass and putting a huge hit on wideout Steve Smith. And fourth-year quarterback Josh Freeman, coming off his worst season in 2011 with 16 touchdowns, 22 interceptions and a rating 74.6, provided a steady hand at the helm of the offense. He completed his first seven passes and finished 16-of-24 for only 133 yards but a 6-yard TD pass to Mike Williams to open the scoring. He didn't throw a pick and finished with a much-improved rating of 95.5. But the game ball, perhaps fittingly, went to Schiano to mark a victory that validated everything he has been preaching since leaving a successful Rutgers University program to take over the Bucs' reins from Raheem Morris in late January. "He does a great job of preaching that this is a one-game season," Barber said. "This is the Carolina season. Next week will be the New York (Giants) season. We play them one at a time and search for wins the best way we can." Barber, who pondered retiring, acknowledged that he was glad he'd come back to play his 16th NFL season, moving from his traditional spot at right corner to free safety. For the record, he actually started the game Sunday at his old cornerback spot for a play, before shifting to the inside for most of the game. "He told me before the game that he'd give me the opportunity (to play corner if it was important to me) and I said, Well, 200 is a nice, even number,' " Barber recalled. "He said, All right, you're in the nickel for the first snap, no matter what (the Panthers) are in. After that, we'll go back to business.' " And the Bucs' defense wasted no time getting down to business, harassing Newton from the start with heavy pressure and holding the Panthers' potent rushing attack which steamrolled the Bucs both games last year to minus-1 yards at the half. "It felt like old times," Barber said. "When we were a defense back in the day, guys played fast. We would say in the film room that it can't be this fast. It had to be sped up. That's how it felt today. We swarmed the ball all day long. We kept Cam in check. We were able to anticipate passes. We can look at this game and were completely dominant only 10 yards rushing." The offense did its part, too, dominating time of possession 37:27 to 22:33 and staking the Bucs to an early lead that they never relinquished. A six-yard pass from Freeman to Williams got things rolling, and a pair of four-yard runs by Martin produced a quick first down. By the time it was over, Freeman had directed an 80-yard drive in 13 plays capped by a six-yard touchdown toss in the middle of the end zone to Williams. "We always say to ourselves that we want to start fast," Williams said. "And that was the definition right there. Josh was seven-for-seven with a touchdown. That's starting fast. That can take the heart out of an opponent if you can go out and do that." The play was set up by an 11-yard scamper around the left side by Martin, who carried the ball five times for 24 yards on the drive and caught a pair of passes for 13 yards. All in all, it took a mere 7:20 on the clock for the Bucs to make a statement and for Martin to show he's more than capable of handling the primary load at the expense of last year's starter, LeGarrette Blount (who carried just three times for eight yards). "We came out fast with the opening drive and throughout the game, we wanted to be a more physical team," Martin said. "And we did that pretty well throughout the game. Running the ball and having a balanced passing attack." The Bucs struck again following a 33-yard pass from Freeman to tight end Dallas Clark deep down the right side a flashback to all those similar catches he made for the Colts and former Indy quarterback Peyton Manning. The play put the Bucs at Carolina's 17, setting up Connor Barth's 36-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead with 1:20 left in the first quarter. The Bucs had a chance to bust the game open with a 17-point lead soon after. They moved downfield with the help of a pair of Panther pass interference calls and moved to a first and goal at the Carolina 4 on a 15-yard completion to wideout Vincent Jackson, who led Buc receivers with 10 catches for 47 yards. But the Panthers pushed back, keeping Martin out of the end zone on two carries and forcing the Bucs to settle for a 20-yard Barth field goal and a 13-0 lead with 2:59 left in the half. Carolina threatened to make a game out of it the second half, cutting the deficit to 13-7 with 8:55 left in the third quarter on a 22-yard touchdown from Newton to wide receiver Brandon LaFell. On his next possession, Newton went to work at his 41 and threw a deep pass over the middle. But cornerback Aqib Talib tipped the pass and Barber swooped in for the interception to kill the drive. "I wanted to give him a little gift to celebrate his 200th start," Talib quipped. "Nothing better than a pick, you know?" On the Panthers' next drive, Newton marched the offense from its 20 to the Buc 31. On 3rd and 12, he faced an intense pass rush while trying to complete a sideline pass to Smith. But Bucs backup free safety and Lakeland native Ahmad Black cut inside for the interception that once again foiled a promising Carolina opportunity. The Bucs extended their lead to 16-7 on Barth's 40-yard field goal with 7:58 to play, following a blocked punt by Talib. Five minutes later, spurred by a 51-yard, over-the-shoulder reception by Panther wideout Louis Murphy, the Panthers moved to a 1st and goal at Tampa Bay's 7 with 4:02 to play. But the Buc defense held firm, forcing the Panthers to settle for a Justin Medlock 21-yard field goal with 2:46 remaining. And they would get no closer. Newton finished with 23 completions in 33 attempts for 303 yards and his TD, but also suffered the two interceptions and three sacks. Round One went to his counterpart, Freeman. "The first game is always important," he said. "You know, it kind of sets the tone. Especially running a new system, with a new coach, a lot of new faces. That was important, I think, for our team confidence." And for smashing whatever memories remained of the nightmare of 2011.
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