- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
TAMPA, Fla. – The downward spiral that has become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season might not yet have hit bottom.
Stagnant offense, special teams' miscues and a defense unable to stop Carolina quarterback Cam Newton put the Bucs in a hole early in a 31-13 loss Thursday night.
An efficient Newton threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score. The Panthers (4-3) won for the fourth time in five games following an 0-2 start. They've won three straight, with Newton throwing for 667 yards, six TDs and no interceptions.
"We had spies on him, but it's just a matter of keeping him in the pocket," defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. "When we got back there and we got hands on him...we didn't get him down. We were letting him escape."
The Bucs (0-7), one of two NFL teams yet to win, have dropped the first seven games in a season for the seventh time in franchise history. They've lost 12 of 13 dating to last year, and some fans showed up at Raymond James Stadium carrying signs and wearing paper bags over their heads urging that second-year coach Greg Schiano be fired.
Bucs offensive lineman Davin Joseph acknowledged changes were possible, but said despite their struggles the players were sticking together.
"I don't think the locker room is an issue," Joseph said. "I think guys are fighting. Plain and simple our careers are on the line — everybody in the building. I don't have to convince anybody to work hard. They're going to do it. We just have to all do it together."
Despite its offensive issues, Tampa had a flitter of hope trailing 21-6 late in the third quarter before a fumbled punt by Eric Page set up Newton's touchdown pass to make it 28-6 entering the fourth.
The Buccaneers continued to struggle and didn't muster their first touchdown until 2:53 was left.
Newton tossed a 1-yard TD pass to Greg Olsen in the first quarter and added a 3-yarder to Mike Tolbert on the first play of the fourth quarter. Newton had his way against the Bucs in between those scores, too, setting up a nifty 12-yard TD run by DeAngelo Williams and getting into the end zone himself with a 6-yard run midway through the third quarter.
The third-year quarterback completed 23 of 32 passes for 221 yards. He also rushed for a team-high 50 yards on 11 attempts.
Rookie Mike Glennon threw for 275 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in his fourth start for Tampa Bay, which trailed 31-6 before finally getting into the end zone on Tim Wright's 10-yard reception.
The victory lifted Carolina over .500 for the first time since 2008, when the Panthers finished 12-4.
Newton completed 81.4 percent of his passes for 446 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions over the previous two games — lopsided victories over Minnesota and St. Louis. He set the tone for another efficient performance, going 7 of 8 for 57 yards on Carolina's opening drive and finishing the nearly 9-minute, 15-play, 70-yard march with his TD pass to Olsen.
The Panthers overcame second-and-22 following a 12-yard sack, with Newton throwing 10 yards to Steve Smith on second down and scrambling for 16 yards on third-and-12. On the TD pass, Newton stiff-armed defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim to buy time before finding Olsen wide open in the left side of the end zone.
Carolina went 80 yards in six plays on its next possession, with Newton setting up Williams' 12-yard TD run with a 35-yard completion to Ted Ginn Jr. Three minutes later, the Panthers nearly struck again, with Newton throwing deep to Ginn, who had a couple of steps on cornerback Leonard Johnson but let the ball go straight through his hands.
Glennon completed 30 of a career-high 51 passes. He has thrown 181 times this season, a record for a quarterback in the first four games of a career.
Tampa Bay played without injured running back Doug Martin and safety Dashon Goldson. Martin is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, and Goldson, one of the leaders of an improved defense, sat out because of a sore knee.
Schiano said he hasn't lost faith.
"What just got to do it better," he said. "We've done it before, so it's not where I don't think that this group of men can do it. We just need to do it better."
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower