CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers continued to show remarkable growth. The Carolina Panthers remained in disarray, and may be ready to turn permanently to their own young quarterback.
Freeman returned to the site of the worst game of his brief pro career and threw for 178 yards and two touchdown passes in Tampa Bay's 20-7 win over Carolina on Sunday to give the Buccaneers their first 2-0 start in five years.
A year after starting 0-7 and just over nine months removed from Freeman's five-interception nightmare against Carolina, the second-year quarterback avoided any big mistakes or turnovers. The miscues were made by the bumbling Panthers (0-2), who couldn't move the ball as Matt Moore had two more turnovers and was benched for rookie Jimmy Clausen in the fourth quarter.
Freeman threw touchdown passes to Earnest Graham and rookie Mike Williams, and also scrambled for 43 yards on four carries for the Bucs, who were 3-13 last season.
But in just the second year of their youth movement, the Buccaneers appear on the right path. After beating Cleveland with a solid second-half defensive effort in Week 1, Tampa Bay held Carolina's running game in check to end a three-game skid against the Panthers.
Moore threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith for Carolina, but had an interception and lost a fumble on a sack leading to his benching early in the fourth quarter after completing just 6 of 16 passes for 125 yards.
Clausen completed that many passes on his first drive, but it ended with Jonathan Stewart stuffed shy of the goal line. Clausen was picked off by Aqib Talib in the final minutes and finished 7 of 13 for 59 yards.
Freeman, who last season led Tampa Bay inside the Carolina 30 eight times but produced just six points, showed his versatility early in staking the Bucs to a 7-0 lead. After his 17-yard scramble on third-and-11, Freeman found an open Graham in the flat on a Carolina coverage breakdown for a 14-yard touchdown.
Freeman was even more impressive on Tampa Bay's second TD. He eluded a sack twice on third-and-long, then threw a bullet to Kellen Winslow, playing despite a sore knee, for a 40-yard gain. On the next play, he threw a 35-yard, catch-and-run TD to Williams to put Tampa Bay ahead 14-7 midway through the second quarter.
That would be all Tampa Bay would need with Carolina's anemic offense in a matchup of the NFL's youngest teams.
Moore, who started despite suffering a mild concussion in the season-opening loss at the New York Giants, had trouble finding receivers. Often he'd be forced to run out of bounds or throw the ball away despite having decent protection.
He made a poor decision — trying to jam a pass into a well-covered Smith — and Ronde Barber picked it off at the Carolina 25. But the Bucs managed just a field goal by Connor Barth to go ahead 17-7 midway through the third quarter.
On the next possession, Moore was drilled to the turf for a sack by the unblocked Quincy Black. Moore's day ended when Tim Crowder sacked him and Kyle Moore recovered the fumble.
Clausen, the former Notre Dame star, trotted on the field on the next possession with 10:03 left to loud cheers from the crowd.
The Bucs, who had allowed 299, 267 and 157 yards rushing to Carolina in the previous three meetings. limited DeAngelo Williams (54 yards) and Stewart (43 yards) to mediocre performances.
It didn't take long for the crowd, sitting in 90-degree heat, to grow restless with Moore, who replaced longtime starter Jake Delhomme. Moore failed to see an open Smith down the right sideline, then threw a third-and-11 screen pass into a sea of bodies on the ground, producing boos before the first quarter was over.
The Panthers tied it at 7 early in the second quarter when normally conservative coach John Fox decided to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 37. Moore threw a pass over the middle to Smith. Talib, the Bucs' top cornerback who made his season debut after being suspended from Week 1 for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, fell down and Smith had clear sailing to the end zone.