Key 1. Knock Newton
Not many people expected Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton to put up the numbers he has in his first season. Add in the fact he has a new coaching staff and entirely no offseason, and Newton’s stats (283-of-475, 3,722 yards 17 TDs, and 609 yards rushing with 13 TDs) look even more impressive.
Against Tampa Bay three weeks ago Newton was sacked just twice and was never really harassed on a regular basis. For the Buccaneers to have any shot at winning the defense must pressure the rookie and force mistakes. Newton has shown he sometimes will throw the ball up for grabs (16 INTs) and most of those come while he is trying to force a play under pressure.
Particularly in the red zone the Buccaneers can’t sit back in zone rushing just four linemen. And trying to sneak Barber through occasionally isn’t the answer. Send the house, overwhelm and see what happens. At this point there isn’t anything to lose.
Key 2. Expect the Unexpected
Back in Week 13 Newton and the Panthers caught the Buccaneers by surprise with a throwback pass to Newton. Last week Carolina ran a play literally out of the movie “Little Giants.” What will offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski have up his sleeve this week? Raheem Morris might want to watch Remember the Titans, The Longest Yard or even Wildcats and keep an eye out for Wesley Snipes sneaking on a Panthers’ jersey.
Raheem Morris said Thursday the key to stopping the trick plays is for the defense to read the keys (man assignments, not my column) but when a team is running plays scripted in Hollywood that is easier said than done.
The Bucs are sure to see something crazy on Saturday and hopefully it wont gouge them as it did last game with Carolina and as it did Houston last week. If the defense doesn’t panic and overreact, they may stop the gimmick play. And better yet possibly create a turnover out of it.
Key 3. Another Brick In The Wall
Just to add more misery to an already bleak season, the usual steady play of the offensive tackles have let the Buccaneers down over the last few weeks. Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood both struggled in recent seeks and even when not sacked Josh Freeman is feeling the heat and looks totally out-of-sorts as a result. His confidence has been shaken and a big part of that may be the porous protection by the offensive line as of late.
While it wont be sexy, and will certainly cause some fans to scream at their televisions, maybe the Bucs should come out and play exclusively in a two tight end set, giving extra help on the outside and then maybe Freeman gets some of his mojo back. While doing this limits the number of receivers for Freeman to throw to, it will not only help the tackles, but also the running game. And then, after establishing it for a few series, release the tight ends into pass routes off of play-action hopefully catching the Panthers off guard.
Let’s face it, no offense to Luke Stocker or Zach Pianalto, but Carolina hasn’t spent any time this week game planning for these two. Stocker needs to show the staff something over the next two weeks and although his blocking has been steady, his ability to get open and catch the ball has been disappointing so far.
Key 4. Run Blount Run
With just 313 rushing attempts this season the Buccaneers are at the bottom of the barrel in this stat. Certainly there are reasons, like trailing the most minutes of any team in the league, injuries at the running back position and so on, but there is no doubt that Tampa Bay has given up on the run too early at times this season.
LeGarrette Blount and the rest of the offense are averaging 4.4 yards per carry, which is ninth in the league. With Freeman’s struggles and the defenses inability to slow opposing offenses down the Buccaneers should commit to handing the ball off 30 times or more. If they can accomplish this goal it will ease the pressure off of Freeman but more importantly eat up the time-of-possession, limiting the Panthers’ offenses opportunities.
Of course if the Buccaneers get down 28-0 as they did last week the plan might go out the window. But regardless of circumstances, to limit arguably your best offensive weapon is really inexcusable. And while you can’t make up huge chunks of points running Blount, a few of these 25 or more point losses would be a little closer and maybe the psyche of your entire team is in better shape.
Key 5. Be A Rude Holiday Guest
No one likes the drunken obnoxious guy or gal that shows up at your holiday function. Those people really put a damper on things and the mood is ruined. While I’m not advocating the Buccaneers get lit on the bus ride to the stadium maybe the not-so-nice guy approach would work Saturday in Charlotte. Come out with an attitude and a chip on your shoulder and play Christmas spoiler to the Panthers players and fans. The Panthers organization is feeling pretty good about themselves while just the opposite is happening in Tampa.
The Buccaneers players should all watch tape of the celebration that took place after their wins against New Orleans and Atlanta in what seems like an eternity ago. This team has probably forgotten what it feels like to have fun on a football field. Some of these players and coaches may be participating in their last two games as Buccaneers. Go to Charlotte, let it all hang out, have some fun and see if there is enough there to leave a lump of coal in the stockings – or visiting locker room – and play the part of a red and pewter Grinch.
Based on the last eight weeks of play it is impossible to make a case or scenario for the Buccaneers to come home Saturday evening with their losing steak not still intact. But no one gave the Chiefs any shot at upending the undefeated Packers last week either. This is a team in turmoil and the roster and coaching staff may be unrecognizable when training camp begins next July.
Like the Colts and Chiefs have proven there is always something to play for. If not for your coach or yourselves, then how about displaying the effort and passion for your fans and help their Christmas and holiday season become just a touch brighter.
Cook’s Prediction: Panthers 36-17
Reynold’s Prediction: Panthers 31-20
Horchy’s Prediction: Panthers 31-24