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Grading the Panthers vs. the Buccaneers: How Bryce Young, offense did without Frank Reich

The first game of Chris Tabor’s tenure as Panthers interim head coach felt a lot like the previous 11 matchups with Frank Reich at the helm.

Tabor — six days after Reich was fired by owner David Tepper — led the Panthers (1-11) to a 21-18 loss on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7) at Raymond James Stadium. The road defeat officially knocked Carolina out of the playoff picture and further solidified the Panthers’ struggles as a squad.

For a sixth consecutive game, the Panthers offense — despite dismissing Reich and two of his top offensive assistants — failed to eclipse 20 points. Rookie quarterback Bryce Young, yet again, struggled to move the ball consistently and his supporting cast did very little to help him.

While the defense put together a solid performance for most of the matchup against former Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield and his Buccaneers crew, the unit eventually leaked out and allowed some big plays to the opposition.

Here is a look at how the Panthers graded out in Tabor’s debut:

Panthers’ rushing offense

Under former running backs/assistant head coach Duce Staley, the Panthers’ rushing offense averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Carolina’s running backs — including Laviska Shenault, who was used mostly in the backfield — averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. The Panthers’ rushing game came into the matchup against the Buccaneers averaging 92.6 yards per game, which ranked 28th in the league entering the weekend.

With offensive coordinator Thomas Brown as the primary offensive play-caller and new manager of the running backs, the Panthers focused heavily on under-center handoffs early in the game. That outlook benefited the running game, as Chuba Hubbard picked up ground in the rain. Hubbard, the Panthers’ starting running back since before the bye week, ran the ball seven times for 37 yards in the first quarter, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

Dec 3, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) hands the ball off to running back Chuba Hubbard (30) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 3, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) hands the ball off to running back Chuba Hubbard (30) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina continued to lean on the run game throughout the first half, eventually getting Miles Sanders involved in the act through shotgun looks. He averaged 3.2 yards per carry in the first two quarters. The offensive line did a nice job of getting push up front with the backs doing a nice job of following his blockers.

The Panthers picked up 75 yards on 17 carries in the first half. Hubbard, Sanders and Raheem Blackshear combined for an average of 4.4 yards per carry in the first half.

Hubbard was able to score for a second consecutive week with a short run in the third quarter. After two big passing plays, Hubbard toted the ball twice before reaching the end zone.

Hubbard scored another second-half touchdown in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to three points. His plunge into the end zone followed a couple of notable passing plays.

Hubbard finished the game with 104 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. Hubbard became just the second running back to surpass 100 rushing yards against the Buccaneers this season.

Sanders added 23 rushing yards on eight carries.

Grade: B

Panthers’ passing offense

The Panthers’ passing attack entered the matchup averaging just 173.3 passing yards per game, which ranked 30th in the league ahead of Week 13. The unit had a 4.32 yards per play average, which ranked at the bottom of the league as well. Young, the first overall pick, hadn’t thrown more than one touchdown pass since Week 6.

With Brown back in charge of offensive play-calling, Young got off to an underwhelming start in the rain. Young stuck mostly to small ball, as he attempted to push the Panthers down the field.

He completed 8 of 15 passes for 66 yards in the first half. He had a 64.9 passer rating at the break.

Young also had an incidental lateral — against inside pressure — that lost the Panthers 11 yards on a second-down play in the second quarter. Luckily for Young, it didn’t result in a turnover. He was also whistled for “intentional grounding” on the next series.

While Young had a tough first-half performance, he did have a pair of impressive completions to Adam Thielen and DJ Chark.

The completion to Chark, in particular, was a highlight, as Young floated the ball to the sideline for a leaping Chark, who kept the final drive of the first half alive and preserved the clock. Still, the Panthers couldn’t take advantage of the 22-yard connection and left the field without a score.

Dec 3, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) runs with the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 3, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) runs with the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers’ offensive weapons failed to get consistent separation in the second half. Young was forced to hold onto the ball too long and took some hits as a result. Remember, this grading category is about the passing attack — and not necessarily all about Young — as the group has been a disaster as a whole, no matter how you feel about the rookie quarterback.

Later in the third quarter, Young stood tall — with great protection — on a third-down toss to tight end Stephen Sullivan for a gain of 16 yards. He then hit rookie wideout Jonathan Mingo for a 32-yard gain that put the Panthers on the cusp of a touchdown. Young’s two big tosses on the drive led to the second scoring series, giving Carolina second-half lead.

Young struggled to find answers after the Buccaneers quickly scored on a 75-yard passing play as an answer to Carolina’s first touchdown drive. While his weapons didn’t do much to help him, Young didn’t seem to make much work either, as he missed on a pair of third-quarter throws.

With the Buccaneers firmly in control of the game in the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead, Young led a third scoring drive by hitting Chark for a 30-yard gain, which set up a second rushing touchdown. It was the first time the offense had produced three scoring drives in a game since Week 9. He then scrambled to convert a two-point try after a penalty.

Young completed 15 of 31 passes for 178 yards and an interception — the turnover taking place on fourth-and-1 at the end of the final series. He had a 52.9 passer rating and led three scoring drives.

Young was sacked three times and hit four times. His top receivers were Mingo and Chark. Mingo collected six passes for 69 yards on 10 targets while Chark caught three passes for 56 yards on four targets.

Young still hasn’t passed the 250-yard mark in a game. He hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in two weeks.

Grade: D-

Panthers’ rushing defense

Carolina’s defensive front did a nice job of mitigating the Buccaneers’ run game in the first half. The likes of Derrick Brown, Shy Tuttle and Yetur Gross-Matos were able to keep Rachaad White contained for most of the first half.

White picked up 34 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries (2.8 yards per carry) in the first two quarters. Tampa Bay had just 53 rushing yards in the first half of a rainy affair against an often-porous run defense. The unit averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a group.

Dec 3, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns (0) tackles Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Rachaad White (1) during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 3, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns (0) tackles Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Rachaad White (1) during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Gross-Matos — who returned from injured reserve in this game — did a great job of setting the edge. He made a couple of big stops, including a big second-down stop in the third quarter.

Then the dam broke, as the Buccaneers’ running game executed a handful of big runs in the fourth quarter.

The Buccaneers finished with 128 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. While the Panthers’ run defense did a good job for most of the game, the home team was able to pull off some solid runs down the stretch with the lead.

Grade: C-

Panthers’ passing defense

Cornerback Jaycee Horn — who returned after spending 10 games on injured reserve with a hamstring injury — gave up the game’s first big play on defense. He allowed Pro Bowl wideout Mike Evans to get behind him for a 40-yard completion by Mayfield. That big play was followed up by a pass interference penalty by safety Xavier Woods in the end zone. From there, the Buccaneers were able to push in a rushing score.

The Panthers’ secondary settled down after the touchdown-scoring drive, as the rain assisted them against the pass game. Cornerback Donte Jackson had a pair of nice coverage plays in the first half.

Woods later came up big with an interception in the second quarter. The pick was Woods’ first of the season and a notable turnover as he had dropped a handful of potential interceptions last season.

Dec 3, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Carolina Panthers safety Xavier Woods (25) intercepts the ball from Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) in the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 3, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Carolina Panthers safety Xavier Woods (25) intercepts the ball from Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) in the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Buccaneers picked up just 89 passing yards in the first half. The Panthers held Mayfield to a 47.1% completion percentage and picked him off in the first two quarters.

The back end of the defense attacked the ball during the afternoon, picking up five pass breakups in the process. While the front wasn’t able to close with sacks, it still forced Mayfield out of the pocket.

But after the Panthers took the lead on a third-quarter rushing touchdown, the Carolina pass defense gave up a massive play to Mayfield and Evans. The wideout got behind cornerback Troy Hill for a 75-yard touchdown, which was the longest play of the year for Tampa Bay. It was soul crushing for Carolina’s pass defense, which had been strong to that point.

Mayfield finished with a 48.3% completion percentage and a 68.5 passer rating. He threw for 202 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Evans, Mayfield’s top target, collected seven catches for 162 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets.

Grade: C

Panthers’ special teams

The Panthers’ kicking units put up with torrential rain throughout the first half. Still, that didn’t stop the Panthers from putting up three points to start the second quarter. Consistently accurate kicker Eddy Piñeiro knocked in a 23-yard chip shot to put the Panthers on the scoreboard on the team’s second series of the game.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette had an excellent 22-yard punt return in the second quarter as rain drenched the field in Tampa. He shook off a couple of tackles as he regained yardage to set the offense up with quality field position.

Punter Johnny Hekker did an excellent job of flipping the field after failed Carolina drives. He punted eight times, averaging 45.9 yards per punt. But he had only one punt downed within the opposing 20-yard line.

There was a tussle after the extra-point attempt following the Buccaneers’ second touchdown. That fight led to Pro Bowl pass rusher Brian Burns getting kicked out of the game.

Grade: B

Overall grade

The Panthers are a bad team. It doesn’t matter if Reich, Tabor or Santa Claus is the head coach.

While the Panthers’ offense put up more points than it had in the previous five matchups, the group’s performance in the passing game left a lot to be desired. Hubbard deserves his kudos for his performance, but this offense is largely broken, and no one is coming to save it.

On defense the unit held up for the majority of the game but eventually fell apart. The offense is asking a lot of the defense and special teams every week, and the results aren’t going to get noticeably better until Young’s group finally finds a groove. That might not happen until 2024.

Overall Grade: C-