CHARLOTTE - The Panthers won the game but lost their two starting defensive tackles at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Rookies Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, both selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft by Carolina, suffered season-ending injuries and have been placed on injured reserve. Fua severely strained his right hamstring during pregame warm-ups and did not play, while McClain sprained his left knee in the third quarter and did not return.
Fua, a space-eating run stopper, produced 15 tackles and one quarterback pressure in 11 starts. McClain, who provided a pass rush from the interior, started 12 games and recorded 20 tackles, one sack, four quarterback pressures and one fumble recovery.
"We've got two young defensive tackles that have played very, very well," head coach Ron Rivera said of Fua and McClain three weeks ago." They've played hard for us, and they're learning and developing."
The pair becomes the 13th and 14th players to land on injured reserve for the Panthers this season, equaling the team record for the most players on injured reserve - occurring previously in 2004 and matched last year.
Seven players on each side of the ball are represented on the list. However, the defense has been particularly hard hit. Projected starting defensive tackle Ron Edwards tore a triceps muscle in training camp, and starting linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis suffered Achilles' and knee injuries, respectively, in the first two regular season games.
The loss of Fua and McClain makes a defensive line that already started two rookies but had almost a full season under their belts even less experienced. The Panthers lack a veteran presence behind them.
Against the Buccaneers, second-year pro Andre Neblett and rookie Frank Kearse capably replaced them. Also, defensive ends Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Antwan Applewhite moved inside when needed.
"With those two guys getting hurt, Andre Neblett really stepped up and played very well, as did Frank Kearse with him getting some extended playing time," Rivera said. "Whenever you have defensive ends that can play three-technique, that's huge. Greg Hardy did a tremendous job, as did Charles Johnson and at times Antwan Applewhite. Those three guys give you versatility."
To replace Fua and McClain on the roster, Carolina signed defensive tackle Jason Shirley off the team's practice squad and free agent defensive tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo. In addition, the Panthers added former North Carolina State defensive tackle DeMario Pressley to the practice squad.
Originally a fifth-round draft choice by Cincinnati in 2008, Shirley began the season on the Bengals' practice squad and had a brief stint with the Seattle Seahawks prior to being signed to the practice squad by Carolina on Nov. 8.
Nwagbuo played three seasons under Rivera in San Diego before being waived by the Chargers on Nov. 1. He entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the New York Giants in 2008.