Buccaneers observations: Little looks good in loss to Panthers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) runs the ball in the first quarter against the Carolina Panthers.

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TAMPA, Fla. — Not quite.

What looked like a major rout Sunday by the Carolina Panthers turned interesting in the closing minutes. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rallied late behind two touchdown passes from quarterback Josh McCown, who looked listless most of the afternoon.

Still, the surge wasn’t enough. The Cam Newton-less Panthers raced to a 17-point lead and held on for a white-knuckle 20-14 victory at Raymond James Stadium.

"That’s not exactly how we wanted to start the football season," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "The guys work really hard to get in a position to play better. We got ourselves in a hole the first half. We didn’t do many things right."

For Tampa Bay, this was a what-could-have-been result. What if the offense had shown the late spark earlier? What if Bobby Rainey hadn’t fumbled that pass from McCown near the end? What if the Bucs shook that sleepy start a few minutes into the second half?

But the NFL has no time for what-ifs. The cold, hard reality is this: The Bucs didn’t do enough.

"You never want to lose a division game at home on opening day, but (they are) the defending champs, and we knew we had a tough one," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "We’ve just got to be better next time."

Here are a few thoughts from Tampa Bay’s Week 1 loss …

1. The Bucs’ offense must get better.

It’s hard to see the Bucs winning many games if their offense slogs along each week like it did Sunday for three quarters. The effort was improved late, but the stars must be better for a whole game. There was McCown, who was invisible much of the day in finishing 22-of-35 passing for 183 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. There was running back Doug Martin, who finished with 9 yards rushing on nine carries. There was wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who had a few drops early and closed with four catches for 36 yards.

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No one is asking Tampa Bay’s offense to be dynamite. Of course, this will be a team driven by defense and special teams. But what was seen Sunday isn’t sustainable.

Where was the up-tempo personality? Where was some semblance of prolonged efficiency? Where was a respectable running game?

None of those things were there for most of the afternoon. This was a bad first impression, and guard Logan Mankins’ knee injury in the second quarter was a bad development on top of it all.

2. Where was the Bucs’ pass rush?

Tampa Bay produced an impressive pass rush in the preseason, highlighted by McCoy’s dominance. But most of that strength was nonexistent Sunday, a major reason why Carolina’s offense became effective enough to earn the victory.

McCoy finished with eight tackles and one sack, but he was contained for the most part. Credit Carolina’s offense for limiting him and others. Still, Tampa Bay’s defense must become more active at the line of scrimmage. The more pressure, the better, and it was sorely lacking Sunday. The telling stat: Just a single sack earned.

3. Carolina quarterback Derek Anderson was better than expected.

Surprisingly, the Panthers made Newton inactive because of a lingering rib injury. He was questionable going into Sunday and considered a game-time decision, but it seemed logical that the Panthers would play him if he were a borderline call.

Still, Anderson damaged the Bucs with a short-but-disciplined passing game. He finished 24-of-34 passing for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Series after series, he was given too much time to work. The pass rush that was so prevalent during the preseason for Tampa Bay was gone.

This was a disappointing day and a missed chance for the Bucs’ defense. Newton had become a familiar tormentor, and without his presence, the Panthers figured to lose a dynamic rushing and passing threat. Anderson was less flashy than Newton, but Carolina’s desired result was achieved.

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4. McCown was worse than expected.

For most of the afternoon, his play was troubling. One of the biggest assets McCown was supposed to provide the Bucs was his veteran eye. Smith’s familiarity with him was a sign of trust that McCown was the right man to ease the Bucs into a new era with smart decision-making as Mike Glennon continued to grow as an understudy.

Well, not so much for most of Sunday.

McCown was terrible through three quarters, plain and simple. He looked like a rookie at times with some of his strange choices from the pocket. Both of his interceptions were ugly. He failed to give the Bucs the spark they needed to gain early, needed momentum.

There are no mulligans in the NFL, so most of this performance was concerning. He showed admirable leadership late, but he must get off to faster starts.

5. The Bucs should hope for offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford’s full recovery soon.

As reported by FOX Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer on Sunday morning, Tedford was in the press box after stents were placed near his heart as part of the previously unknown medical procedure that had sidelined the first-time NFL assistant. Quarterback coach Marcus Arroyo called plays instead, though Tedford had a presence at the stadium.

It’s hard to measure the impact of Tedford’s absence from his play-calling duties, but it’s fair to assume something was lost without him in his usual role. Of course, Tedford shouldn’t take over full work responsibilities until he’s ready. But the Bucs should pull for a swift return. It’s hard to see how their offense can fully develop without its mastermind.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.