Tom Brady bounces back; 'outstanding' in first win with Buccaneers

TAMPA, Fla. -- One week after Tom Brady threw two interceptions in a losing debut with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he led four touchdown drives -- two that came off turnovers -- to hold off the Carolina Panthers 31-17 on Sunday for his first Buccaneers win at Raymond James Stadium.

Brady completed 23 of 35 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown to improve to 1-1 in NFC South play. Brady is now 49-13 (.790) since 2001 coming off a loss, second only to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

"I think he has a pretty good history of that," Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said of Brady's bounce-back performance. "This game should never have got as close as it did. We let 'em back in. But I thought he played outstanding. His leadership on the sideline was great, and he put us in the right play [on] a number of different audibles. He played really, really well."

Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans, who managed just one catch last week and struggled to get on the same page with Brady, caught seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown. Evans carried much of the load without the Bucs' other Pro Bowl wideout, Chris Godwin, who could not clear the concussion protocol. The Bucs also received big contributions from newcomer Leonard Fournette, who slashed his way to 103 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.

But the Bucs' defense gave Brady the biggest boost of all -- just as the future Hall of Famer capitalized on great D in his 20 seasons with the New England Patriots. After holding New Orleans Saints stars Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara in check last week but failing to force a turnover, the Bucs' defense notched four takeaways against the Panthers.

"We knew we had to step up to the challenge this week because of what happened last week," Bucs third-year safety Jordan Whitehead said. "We had a couple of penalties last week, so we had to try to eliminate that today and make some plays on the ball."

The Bucs' defense also had five sacks -- two from Ndamukong Suh, who also had two tackles for a loss. Devin White had 15 tackles (11 solo), his second straight week with double-digit tackles.

On the Panthers' opening drive, Whitehead made a diving interception on a screen pass intended for running back Christian McCaffrey. Brady then hit Evans for 50 yards on a skinny post route, setting up a 7-yard touchdown run by Ronald Jones.

"We're young and hungry," said Whitehead, who finished with five combined tackles, a tackle for a loss, an interception and a pass breakup. "We heard all of the noise last year, how the 'the secondary [this], the secondary that.' Then Tom Brady is coming, 'The secondary is still not good.' We block out the noise, and we just play for each other. That's what we got. That's what we're gonna keep doing."

On the Panthers' second possession of the game, Tampa Bay rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. burst off the edge to sack Teddy Bridgewater and force a fumble, with Jason Pierre-Paul making the recovery. Brady then used a pump fake to hit Evans on a back-shoulder throw for a 23-yard touchdown.

"The thing is, we trust Brady 100 percent," third-year cornerback Carlton Davis said. "Having Tom Brady as our quarterback just makes you want to go out there and play harder, because we know if we trust him to do his job, regardless of what's going on out there, we know that he'll take care of his side.

"It's an honor to go out there and compete for him."

With 4:59 left in the second quarter, Brady tossed it to Fournette, who tossed it back to Brady for a 36-yard flea-flicker to wide receiver Justin Watson, setting up Fournette's 1-yard touchdown run.

The Bucs' third takeaway came on the Panthers' first drive of the second half, with Lavonte David forcing and recovering a fumble by Robby Anderson.

On the very next play, Brady attempted to hit Rob Gronkowski on a crossing route, but the pass sailed on him and was picked off by Donte Jackson. It was Brady's third interception of the season -- tied for second most through two games in his career, after he had four in 2003 and three in 2004.

"Execution was a little bit better. I think we still are a long ways from where we need to be," Brady said. "I think we have the ability to make plays. I think consistency, dependability are gonna be things that we really need. We've gotta get back to work. Clock's ticking on next week. We're gonna get focused on next week's game and try to be a lot better next week."

Brady would have had a fourth touchdown in the fourth quarter -- off of Davis' interception, the Bucs' fourth takeaway of the game -- but LeSean McCoy dropped a pass in the end zone, forcing the Bucs to settle for a 33-yard field goal. McCoy had two drops in the game.

Brady also had a botched handoff to Jones that resulted in a lost fumble.

"It's going to take time, and with having no preseason and all those practices we missed, we're just growing day by day with Tom, the receivers and the entire offense," Arians said. "I think we'll just get better and better. We're nowhere near -- I think -- what we are in September, what I think we'll be in November."

On Tampa Bay's next and final possession, Fournette delivered a gashing, 46-yard touchdown run up the middle to put the game away.

"A lot of good runs. We have three good backs that are running hard and the line's doing a good job blocking. It's just our communication got to continue to improve," said Brady, who avoided going 0-2 for the first time in his career. "Defense played great the first two games. We've gotta match 'em. We've got a lot of improvement to make in a short period of time."

Fournette put things into perspective.

"We're still new. We're still figuring each other out right now," Fournette said. "I'm not talking about just Tom but as a team. We have to understand each other's weaknesses, what we're good at, what we're not good at, and work with it and try to get better with it as a unit.

"Coach said it's a 16-round fight. We have a lot more fights to go. This is just the second one."