After a disappointing sequel to the Week 2 victory in New Orleans, the Buccaneers have another chance to put an AFC loss behind them while making a statement in their own division this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
For Tampa Bay to pick up the Lovie Smith era’s first win in Tampa Bay, they’ll need to defeat the reigning NFC South Champion Carolina Panthers, a task they haven’t accomplished since 2012 when they swept the division foe. Last season the Bucs dodged an injured Cam Newton twice, but still managed to lose both games with backup quarterback Derek Anderson at the helm.
Newton, healthy now, is set to lead his 3-0 team into Ray Jay following a 27-22 win last Sunday against the Saints, where he completed 20 of 31 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns. But while the Panthers remain undefeated, they’ve shown some vulnerability each week on both sides of the ball.
On paper their defense looks the part: Top 10 in average yards allowed (315), total points allowed (48) and turnovers (7). But after allowing backup QB Luke McCown to complete 31 of 38 passes for 301 yards last Sunday, it looks like Jameis Winston and the offense might have an opportunity to find some rhythm. The Saints incorporated a lot of high percentage pass plays for McCown in the first half, giving him a high completion rate and confidence as the game progressed. If the Bucs follow the Saints blueprint, Winston could be throwing a lot of underneath routes to receivers and screen passes to Charles Sims and Doug Martin in the early going. Without former Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, who will miss his third straight game with a concussion, the Panthers linebacking corps hasn’t been as reliable against the pass.
That said, A.J. Klein and Thomas Davis are two underrated players with a reputation for being stout against the run. Same goes for the Carolina defensive front, as tackles Star Lotulelei and Dwan Edwards anchor the unit that allowed 70 yards on 24 carries last week. In fact, the Panthers have not allowed a 100-yard performance this season, holding Jacksonville to 96 yards and Houston to 61 in the first two games. But that won’t keep the Buccaneers from trying.
Tampa Bay, still without a 100-yard rusher so far this season, will look to establish a ground game early on. Doug Martin nicked his knee earlier in the week, but said Friday that he “feels good” and should be ready for Sunday. Also in the backfield is second-year pro Charles Sims, the lone touchdown scorer for the Bucs last week. Expect both to get their share of attempts, plus a few looks in the passing game.
The Bucs will look to spread the ball out a little more after throwing to Mike Evans 17 times in Week 3. While Dirk Koetter said there’s no issue with targeting Evans often, especially given a favorable matchup, the offensive coordinator plans on taking some of the workload off and getting Vincent Jackson and Louis Murphy more looks. This is also another opportunity for Brandon Myers to get more involved in the team’s second week without Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The Panthers have rising cornerbacks, with the likes of Josh Norman and Bene’ Benwikere, combined with veterans Charles Tillman and Roman Harper, which presents another interesting matchup in the secondary this Sunday.
For the defense, it all starts with containing one of the NFL’s most dynamic quarterbacks. Cam Newton, who’s a career 4-2 against Tampa Bay, received a great deal of praise this week from Gerald McCoy. “That dude might really be Superman,” McCoy said. In six games, Newton has averaged 235 yards passing and rushed for a combined 278 yards and six touchdowns. The Bucs recognize him as an elite escape artist and an especially dangerous threat in the red zone.
The Panthers appear thin at wide receiver – 24 combined receptions by WRs – but the defense will have their hands full with tight end Greg Olsen. The former Miami Hurricane caught 18 passes against the Bucs last year for 193 yards a touchdown during a pair of Panther wins. This is will be a true test for rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, as he expects to cover Olsen over the middle and progress from Week 3, where he recorded his first career interception in Houston.
While Carolina may lack depth at receiver, Tampa Bay doesn’t exactly have a surplus of cornerbacks. With Johnthan Banks likely out (knee), the Bucs will rely on Tim Jennings and Mike Jenkins to cover the perimeters. Both players struggled at times last Sunday, especially against quick slants, but it appears they’ll both get the start along with Sterling Moore at nickel. Alterraun Verner, who has been demoted to fourth cornerback, says he’ll be ready to rotate in if his number is called and will make the most of his time on special teams.
It goes without saying that defending the Panther’s offense starts with stopping the run. Coaches and players talked about gap integrity this week, calling out the front four for not doing their own job in Houston. Tampa Bay allowed the Texans front five to control the line of scrimmage too often, leading to big gains against unbalanced defenders. If the defensive line can penetrate their own gap, the Bucs fast linebackers – Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander and Danny Lansanah – have shown their elite ability in run pursuit and will look to shut down running backs Jonathan Stewart and Cameron Artis-Payne in the first half.
A win at home on Sunday would redeem the Bucs from last week and provide another jolt of momentum heading into their last game before their bye in Week 6. A victory against the Panthers would also put Tampa Bay in great position in the division, with a 2-0 record in the NFC South. Every game is another chance to prove they’re a young team on the rise, and Sunday is no exception.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2) vs. Carolina Panthers (3-0) Sunday, October 4, 2015, 1:00 p.m. ET
Raymond James Stadium (65,908) Network Television: Fox (WTVT Local) Play-By-Play: Chris Myers Analyst: Ronde Barber Sideline: Jennifer Hale Bucs Radio: US 103.5, Flagship Station (103.5 FM, 620 AM & 95.3 FM) Play-By-Play: Gene Deckerhoff Analyst: Dave Moore Sideline: T.J. Rives Last Game: Tampa Bay Lost at Houston, 19-9; Carolina Won vs. New Orleans, 27-22
Pewter Report’s Predictions
Scott Reynolds: Bucs 17-16
Mark Cook: Panthers 28-20
Eric Horchy: Panthers 31-17
Zach Shapiro: Bucs 27-17
Zach is entering his 3rd year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a writer for PewterReport.com. Since 2014, he's handled a large part of the beat reporting responsibilities at PR, attending all media gatherings and publishing and promoting content daily. Zach is a native of Sarasota, FL, and a graduate of the University of Tampa. He has also covered high school football for the Tampa Tribune and the NFL for Pro Player Insiders.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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