CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Tampa Bay is not a team full of superstars, which could explain why its role players responded so well during its 20-7 road victory against Carolina.
The Bucs' initial problem occurred in the first quarter when running back Cadillac Williams went down with an injury to his right knee after a hit by Panthers safety Chris Harris. He was in agony after the play, was taken off the field in a golf cart and probably is lost for the season.
Things worsened when Bucs left tackle Luke Petitgout injured his right knee in the next quarter and did not return. Petitgout said it was a sprain, and he expects to learn more about his injury today.
As a result, running back Earnest Graham, fullback Michael Pittman and offensive lineman Donald Penn were forced into bigger roles. All responded well under the circumstances.
'We have to step up and play better without Cadillac. I told Donald 'you have to step up and play better than Luke,'' Pittman said.
The replacements performed well as they rushed for 32 times for 138 yards and one touchdown - the Bucs had 189 yards and two TDs overall on the ground - without Williams. Pittman finished with 15 carries for 90 yards, Graham rushed 17 times for 48 yards and one touchdown. Penn blocked extremely well and did not allow a sack.
As a testament to Tampa Bay's cohesiveness, receiver Ike Hilliard led the team with seven receptions for 114 yards, while Joey Galloway had only one reception for seven yards.
'We have a lot of cohesiveness. It might be something we haven't had in my five years here,' Graham said. 'It is definitely something that will carry us this season.'
BUCHANON REGAINING FORM: Bucs CB Phillip Buchanon was asked when he found out that Brian Kelly would be unable to play, and Buchanon's answer showed why his second start this season was successful.
'To me, it really doesn't matter when I find out. Whether they tell me I'm going to start right before the game, or they tell me on Tuesday, I'm always going to be ready,' Buchanon said. 'I'm always going to be ready to give my best.'
Buchanon's best was enough to shut down Carolina receiver Steve Smith, who had five receptions for 32 yards. Buchanon also led the team with six tackles and successfully defended two passes.
After four games this season, Buchanon is starting to show why he was a first-round pick (17th overall) by Oakland in 2002, and after unsuccessful stints with the Raiders and Houston, Buchanon has seemingly found a home in Tampa.
'It helps to be on a winning team,' Buchanon said. 'In my last couple of years, our offense struggled to score ... Jeff Garcia is looking good. The offensive line is looking real good. We have to continue to keep getting better.'
WELCOME BACK: Tampa Bay cornerback Torrie Cox will return today after serving a four-game suspension.
Cox was suspended without pay by the NFL for the first four regular-season games after violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He was allowed to participate in preseason practices and games before his suspension, which began on Aug. 31. Cox was eligible to rejoin the Bucs' active roster today following the team's road game against Carolina on Sunday.
Tampa Bay will have to release a player on its 53-man roster to make room for Cox's return.
BUCS BITS: Bucs kicker Matt Bryant's 38-yard field goal gave him sole possession of fourth place in team history for career field goals. Bryant now has 44 field goals, while Bill Capece has 43 ... Hilliard recorded his ninth career 100 yard game ... Tampa Bay has not given up a point in the first quarter this season. The Bucs have outscored their opponents 27-0 this season, however, only scored 30 first-quarter points last season ... Tampa Bay recorded its third consecutive first-half shutout. The last time Tampa Bay recorded three first-half shutouts were the final three games of the 1998 season against Buffalo (won 10-5), New England (lost 10-7) and Detroit (won 21-10) ... Bucs S Jermaine Phillips made his 50th career start since entering the league as a fifth-round pick (157th overall) in the 2002 NFL draft. He has played in 72 games overall.
Anwar S. Richardson