CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—As Carnell “Cadillac” Williams was being loaded onto a cart after injuring his right knee, every member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came onto the field to give him encouragement.
Then they used the same teamwork to make up for his absence, sending the surprising Bucs to the top of the NFC South.
Calling it the closest team he’s been on since Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, Michael Pittman had 90 of the Buccaneers’ 189 yards rushing in Tampa Bay’s dominating 20-7 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
Jeff Garcia didn’t throw an interception for the fourth straight game and ran for a touchdown, while the Bucs’ suffocating defense shut down David Carr, Steve Smith and the Panthers to take the division lead a year after going 4-12.
The beating was so thorough, Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins accused his teammates of having “no heart,” and the Bucs were talking about redemption.
“Nobody gave us a chance to do anything,” Pittman said. “But right now we’re proving a lot of people wrong.”
Williams’ injury tempered some of the enthusiasm for Tampa Bay (3-1). He and left tackle Luke Petitgout, who also left with a knee injury, will undergo tests Monday.
“To lose, potentially, these two men is not a good thing for us,” coach Jon Gruden said. “But we will show a resolve, as we did today, and we will compete the season with authority. I can assure you that.”
They did so Sunday with a reinvented defense that made life miserable for Carr and the Panthers (2-2). Starting in place of Jake Delhomme, who was nursing a strained right elbow, Carr completed just 19 of 41 passes for 155 yards and an interception. He was sacked three times and the Panthers only avoided their first shutout in five years when Carr’s screen pass to DeAngelo Williams turned into a 24-yard touchdown with 23 seconds left.
“I’m going to be honest. I think the players owe the fans an apology,” Jenkins said. “I would be as upset as they are if I had to sit in the stands for four quarters and look at that garbage. I’m going to be honest with you, it was what it was: garbage.”
Despite being without starting cornerback Brian Kelly (groin), Ronde Barber and Phillip Buchanon combined to blanket Carolina’s receivers. Carr spent much of the day either running away from pressure or throwing the ball away. The Panthers had only 236 yards.
Smith, held to five catches for 32 yards, grew more furious as the game wore on.
He was seen screaming on the phone to the coaching staff during the third quarter, then spent part of the fourth sitting on the bench with a towel over his head. Smith declined to speak to reporters after the game.
“I understand his frustration. I want to give him the ball, also,” Carr said.
The Buccaneers already led 7-0 when Williams rumbled down the right sideline for an 18-yard gain. He was hit by safety Chris Harris, and Williams’ leg bent awkwardly under him.
A couple of minutes later, the entire team came on the field to greet Williams before he was carted off.
Earnest Graham replaced him, and his 1-yard TD run made it 14-0.
The Panthers, meanwhile, were getting little done offensively. Carr completed only three of his first 11 passes, and the longest play of the first half was when Carr eluded linebacker Derrick Brooks by leaping into the air and doing a summersault on a 15-yard gain.
Carr, in his first start with Carolina after five years as Houston’s starter, got up and made a first down signal. But the drive stalled.
Coach John Fox, who said last week Delhomme would not need surgery, said after the game it’s now possible. He provided no timetable for his return.
But while the Panthers’ QB situation is unsettled, the 37-year-old Garcia continued his mistake-free season. He completed 15 of 25 passes for 176 yards and got Tampa Bay on the board with a 3-yard scramble on the Bucs’ first possession.
“As a team collectively we have no heart,” Jenkins said. “We have no energy. We have no drive.”
Former Panther Jovan Haye, Greg Peterson and Patrick Chukwurah had the sacks for the Buccaneers. … Ike Hilliard had seven catches for 114 yards. … Panthers KR Nick Goings suffered a concussion in the second half and did not return. … Panthers rookie WR Dwayne Jarrett had one catch for six yards in his first action of the season.