The Buccaneers (0-6) host the Carolina Panthers in a prime-time contest Thursday night desperately needing to find a way to win. Panthers QB Cam Newton has rebounded nicely from his disappointing second season in the NFL and has shown maturity and development as a quarterback. What are the six things are PewterReport.com publisher Scott Reynolds is looking for in Tampa Bay’s Week 7 game?
1. GET WELL SOONUp until last week’s game against the Falcons, the Buccaneers had been pretty fortunate with injuries this season, with only Carl Nicks’ MRSA recurrence taking a starter out of the lineup for any significant amount of time. Sunday’s loss to the Falcons stung not only based on the final score, but also because the injury bug got both running back Doug Martin (shoulder) and safety Dashon Goldson (knee). Losing two Pro Bowl talents in the same game hurt Tampa Bay’s chances to beat the Falcons, and will also make it more difficult to defeat the Panthers on Thursday night. Tampa Bay also saw rookie nose tackle Akeem Spence go down with an injury that required a soft cast for his injured left wrist.
The Buccaneers will turn to rookie Mike James, a sixth-round selection from Miami to try and fill Martin’s role as Tampa Bay’s primary ball carrier. James played well considering the circumstances last week in Atlanta, but there is unquestionably a drop off in talent from Martin to James. Tampa Bay is hoping James can effectively get yards on the ground, and while no one is expecting a 100-yard effort, that isn’t a necessity to beat the Panthers. James just needs to gain positive yards, be a weapon out of the backfield and continue to do a tremendous job of picking up the blitz on passing downs.
Goldson did return for some snaps in the Falcons game but has been limited all week in practice. With Keith Tandy nursing a concussion, and questionable for the game on Thursday, the Bucs may have to turn to Kelcie McCray who filled in for Goldson in Atlanta. With Martin ruled out for Thursday night’s game the Bucs are hopeful that Goldson and Spence at least will be in the starting lineup. Trying to win without your star running back is tough enough, but trying to do so without three starters in the lineup will pose an even more uphill challenge.
2. STOP THE GROUND GAMEOf all the complaints fired at defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan’s scheme this season, no one can question the Buccaneers play against the run. So far in 2013 Tampa Bay ranks fifth in the NFL at stopping the run, giving up just 88 yards on the ground per game. The Buccaneers limited Falcons rushers to just 18 yards on 18 carries last week and will need that momentum to continue in order to win Thursday night against the Panthers.
Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and has totaled 434 yards so far this season on the ground. Running back Mike Tolbert has added 147 rushing yards and quarterback Cam Newton is second on the team with 179 yards, making the Panthers one of the better rushing teams in the NFC. The Buccaneers need linebackers Mason Foster and Lavonte David to continue to play well and limit any breakout runs. The Panthers haven’t had any runs longer than 27 yards this season and the Buccaneers need to make sure they don’t allow that to change that on Thursday night.
3. CONTAIN CAM NEWTONNewton suffered through quite the sophomore slump in 2012, but appears to have overcome his shaky play from a year ago. So far in 2013, Newton has a QB rating of 95.0 and has thrown 10 touchdowns with just five interceptions while compiling 1,331 yards through the air.
Newton’s pocket presence is noticeably better in 2013 and his accuracy has also improved (63.5 percent). The Buccaneers will need to be disciplined with their eyes and technique as Newton will sometimes appear to take off running then stop and find an open receiver. That is a sign of maturity that the Panthers coaching staff has been waiting to develop since Newton was a rookie in 2011. Pressuring Newton will also be key, and even if the Bucs can’t bring him down, just affecting his launch point and mechanics can lead to interceptions, or at the very least third-down stops.
4. NEUTRALIZE LUKE KUECHLYWhen Bucs fans come into Raymond James Stadium for home games they are there ultimately to see their team win. But hardcore fans love to see individual matchups, and this game features a great one, as the Panthers offer up last year’s defensive star rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly, while the Buccaneers counter with their own stud linebacker in David. Who is the better linebacker? Fans all across the country will be able to make up their own minds, as these two up-and-comers will be on display in this nationally-televised contest.
The Panthers boast a terrific front four and they open things up for Kuechly to make big-time tackles and third-down stops. If the Buccaneers want to earn their first victory of the season it is crucial they limit Kuechly’s damage. Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan must know where Kuechly is at all times and make sure Tampa Bay’s blockers get at least one hat on him on every play.
5. MAKE A DIFFERENCE ON SPECIAL TEAMSSo far in 2013 the Buccaneers special teams have been solid, but not spectacular. When a football team is mired in a six-game losing streak, creating a score, or at the very least a momentum boost, on special teams could go a long way in helping Tampa Bay secure its first win of the season.
Linebacker and special teams ace Dekoda Watson, who has two blocked punts in 2012, has been close a few times to getting to the punter so far this season, and is overdue for a game-changing play. Punt returner Eric Page, who has shown no fear while staring down oncoming tacklers racing at him full speed, has also, like Watson, been close a few times in breaking off a long punt return. If Watson, Page or any member of Tampa Bays special teams unit can come through with a “special” special teams play, the Buccaneers could very well finally achieve that so far elusive victory.
6. DON’T PLAY LIKE ROOKIESRookie quarterback Mike Glennon and running back Mike James have proven they can play solid football so far in 2013, but now with the whole country watching, will the pressure of playing in the spotlight of a nationally-televised game be too much for the rookies? If the Buccaneers plan on walking off the field Thursday night with a win, they will need both to not only handle the expectations, but thrive in the moment.
Talking to Buccaneers players like offensive lineman Davin Joseph and Donald Penn, along with receivers Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson in the locker room the last three weeks, all have raved about Glennon’s command of the huddle, and say he is light years ahead of where a rookie should be when comprehending the game plan put forth by Sullivan. Glennon is still a rookie, and prone to making silly mistakes, but played well enough last week in Atlanta last week for the Buccaneers to be in position to have won.
No one will confuse James with Martin, but coaches have raved about James ability to make the initial man miss and gain positive yards, leaving the Tampa Bay offense with manageable down and distances. Tough and smart, the organization hopes James can have the success that backup running Earnest Graham provided the Buccaneers at times during his career in Tampa Bay.
Scott Reynolds is in his 22nd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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