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OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers
WHERE: Ericsson Stadium
WHERE THE PANTHERS STAND: The Panthers are 4-4 and in third place in the NFC South division.
PANTHERS HEAD COACH: John Fox
PANTHERS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dan Henning PANTHERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Trgovac
PANTHERS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Danny Crossman
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE: OVERALL: 31st (250.5 ypg) RUSHING: 30th (82.8 ypg) PASSING: 27th (167.8 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE: OVERALL: 22nd (T) (342.8 ypg) RUSHING: 26th (133.9 ypg) PASSING: 17th (208.9 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … Tampa Bay has lost six of its last seven meetings with Carolina?
SCOUTING THE PANTHERS
Quarterbacks While he’s still a dangerous signal caller, Panthers QB Jake Delhomme isn’t having a great season. Delhomme hasn’t been as accurate (59.5 completion percentage) as he has in the past, and he’s thrown for 1,730 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions. Delhomme and the Panthers offense, which ranks 23rd overall, have really struggled to keep the chains moving this season. In fact, Carolina is converting just 24.5 percent of its third down tries. In Week 3, Delhomme completed 22-of-36 passes and threw for 272 yards and one touchdown en route to the Panthers’ 26-24 win over the Bucs. The Panthers converted just 2-of-12 third down attempts in that contest, but Delhomme had a comfortable pocket to throw out of and hit wide receivers Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson for big plays. The key for Tampa Bay’s defense is to get pressure on Delhomme and force him to make mistakes with the football early and often in this game.
Running Backs One of the reasons why Delhomme isn’t having the type of productivity Carolina has benefited from over the past several seasons is because of the running game, which has struggled to get going this season. Panthers RB DeShaun Foster has carried the ball 143 times for 540 yards (3.8 avg.) and scored two touchdowns this season. He’s also hauled in 21 passes for 125 yards and has been somewhat effective on screen and swing passes. Panthers rookie RB DeAngelo Williams had success early on, but has since been left out of Carolina’s offensive attack. Foster has been more effective running the ball on the perimeter, but he hasn’t had a lot of success there, especially against faster defenses like Tampa Bay’s. In Week 3, Foster rushed 20 times for 82 yards, which was enough to set up some key play-action pass plays and completions for the Panthers offense. Tampa Bay’s defense has struggled against the run this season, but it did a nice job of tackling and filling the proper gaps against Saints RB Deuce McAllister and rookie RB Reggie Bush last week. The Bucs need that success to carry over into Monday night’s game.
Wide Receivers This position is easily the strength of Carolina’s offense. It features two of the league’s best receivers in Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson. Smith, who is an outstanding route runner and possesses explosive speed and playmaking ability, has caught a team-leading 45 passes for 631 yards and two touchdowns this season. In Week 3, Smith caught seven passes for 112 yards while going up against three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber. Barber will likely need help from safeties Jermaine Phillips and/or Will Allen in an effort to limit Smith’s production on Monday night. Johnson, who is a former Buccaneer and possession receiver, has hauled in 37 passes for 479 yards and two touchdowns in his first season with the Panthers. In Week 3, Johnson took advantage of CB Brian Kelly’s absence by getting open several times against CB Juran Bolden. Johnson hauled in seven passes for 97 yards and scored one touchdown in the passing game while scoring another one on an end around en route to helping the Panthers defeat Johnson’s former team. With Kelly (turf toe) on injured reserve, Johnson appears to have another favorable matchup against Bolden, who struggled to cover Johnson in their last meeting and is questionable for this game with a hip injury. Although he hasn’t played much this season, keep an eye on Panthers WR Keary Colbert. The Panthers might deploy more three-receiver sets than usual in an effort to get Colbert, the team’s No. 3 receiver, lined up against Bucs nickel cornerback Torrie Cox, who allowed Colbert to score three touchdowns in two games during the 2004 regular season.
Offensive Line Carolina’s offensive line has struggled to open up running lanes for Foster, and it hasn’t been great in pass protection, either. Delhomme has been sacked 18 times in eight games this season. However, Tampa Bay’s defensive line struggled to get pressure on Delhomme in Week 3, which allowed the veteran quarterback to hit Smith and Johnson for big plays in the passing game. The Bucs secondary has proved to be vulnerable when the team’s front four fails to get pressure on the opposing quarterback, which has happened far too often this season. Bucs defensive end Greg Spires sacked Delhomme in Week 3 when he got by Panthers right tackle Jeremy Bridges, but left DE Simeon Rice needs to be the player that breaks into Carolina’s backfield on Monday. Rice will go up against Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross, who fared well vs. Rice in Week 3. Rice failed to pressure Saints QB Drew Brees last Sunday when he went up against a rookie left tackle that was taking his first snaps in the NFL. Rice needs to show up in a big way on Monday night, especially in the pass rush department, but that could be a challenge seeing as he's listed as questionable with a shoulder injury. Bucs under tackle Ellis Wyms, who leads the team with four sacks but is questionable this week with an ankle injury, will be matched up with Panthers right guard Evan Mathis, who has struggled in pass protection this season. That could bode well for Wyms, who is a better pass rusher than he is a run stuffer. However, Carolina will ask center Geoff Hangartner to help double team Wyms or nose tackle Chris Hovan, who will line up opposite of veteran left guard Mike Wahle. Wahle might be the best offensive lineman on the team. The Panthers pull their guards and rely on tight end Kris Mangum quite a bit in their effort to establish the running game on the perimeter, but they haven’t had much success doing that this season. Tampa Bay’s front seven, which might include middle linebacker Barrett Ruud if Shelton Quarles can’t play due to his injury, must stuff Carolina’s ground attack in order to keep its safeties back in pass protection.
Defensive Line This is where Monday night’s game likely will be won or lost by the Buccaneers and Panthers. Carolina’s defensive line managed to get to Tampa Bay QB Chris Simms too often in Week 3. In fact, one of the hits laid on Simms landed him in surgery to remove a ruptured spleen. That injury and procedure ended his 2006 season. The good news for the Bucs is rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski is mobile enough to elude some of the pressure from Carolina’s defensive line, which consists of left end Julius Peppers, under tackle Maake Kemoeatu, nose tackle Kris Jenkins and right end Mike Rucker. Peppers, who recorded a sack vs. Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker in Week 3, appears to have a favorable matchup vs. rookie RT Jeremy Trueblood, who replaced Walker in the starting lineup several weeks ago after the veteran offensive lineman was placed on injured reserve. Don’t look for the Bucs to leave Trueblood to fend for himself vs. Peppers, though. They likely will play plenty of two-tight end sets and leave running backs Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman, and/or fullback Mike Alstott in to help chip block Peppers, who has recorded a team-leading eight sacks this season. Bucs rookie right guard Davin Joseph will face Kemoeatu, whose 350-pound frame will make it difficult for Joseph to block or maneuver, especially in the running game. The Bucs will ask center John Wade to help double team Kemoeatu and/or Jenkins, who has notched two sacks. The Bucs might even attempt to pull Joseph to the left side in an effort to avoid Kemoeatu and help left guard Sean Mahan (or Dan Buenning) and left tackle Anthony Davis get the Cadillac Williams and the running game going vs. Jenkins and Rucker.
Linebackers Carolina’s run defense has been suspect at times this season, and its woes in that department stem from the loss of middle linebacker Dan Morgan, whose season and career are in jeopardy due to a series of concussions he’s sustained. Morgan is out and Chris Draft is in. The absence of Morgan and the loss of Will Witherspoon to the Rams in free agency have haunted the Panthers. They’re allowing nearly 120 yards rushing per game. However, the Bucs managed to rush for just 64 yards vs. the Panthers in Week 3. Part of the reason why Williams only carried the ball 19 times for 49 yards and one touchdown in that contest was because the Bucs fell behind early. In fact, Carolina led Tampa Bay 20-7 at halftime of that game. The Bucs simply can’t afford to fall behind early in this contest. Outside linebackers Thomas Davis and Na’ll Diggs will have to help account for Williams in the running game and tight ends Alex Smith and Anthony Becht in the passing game. In Week 3, Smith caught four passes for 72 yards while doing a great job of finding soft spots in zone coverage.
Secondary Carolina relies heavily on its secondary. So much so that cornerback Chris Gamble and free safety Mike Minter are ranked second and third, respectively, in tackles through eight regular season games. Gamble, who has notched two interceptions, including Simms’ first pass of the game in Week 3, will go up against Bucs WR Michael Clayton, whom he held to one catch in their last meeting. Gamble will have help from Minter, whose best playing days are behind him but still is a capable player in coverage and against the run. Clayton should get some one-on-one matchups with Gamble as the Panthers bring Minter up near the line of scrimmage to help defend the run quite a bit. Like Clayton, Bucs WR Joey Galloway caught just one pass vs. the Panthers in Week 3, but his grab went for a touchdown. Carolina CB Ken Lucas is an excellent cover corner and has recorded one interception this season. Lucas, who is questionable for Monday night's game with a groin injury, and strong safety Shaun Williams will double cover Galloway, the team’s leading receiver and deep threat, quite often on Monday. The Bucs might deploy more three-receiver sets Monday, and that set could include rookie WR Maurice Stovall, who has recovered from a back injury. The Panthers make it tough for opposing offenses to sustain drives. They’re allowing them to convert just 30 percent of their third down tries, and the Panthers secondary has had a big hand in accomplishing that feat. Carolina likely will stack the line of scrimmage and dare Gradkowski to beat the Panthers through the air in this game. While he’s tossed six touchdowns and just one interception, Gradkowski and the Bucs offense have failed to make opposing defenses pay for this strategy thus far.
Special Teams The Panthers have one of the most accurate kickers in the NFL in John Kasay, as the Bucs can attest. In Week 3, Kasay’s four field goals, including a 50-yarder, a 51-yarder and the game-winning kick, which was from 46 yards out, did in the Bucs. Kasey has drilled 13-of-15 (86.7 percent) of his field goal attempts this season. His long was from 54 yards out. Carolina punter John Baker is averaging 44.6 yards per attempt with a net of 38.7. He’s pinned 18 of his 49 punts inside the 20-yard line. Rookie running back DeAngelo Williams is averaging 21.6 yards per attempt as Carolina’s kickoff returner. Cornerback Chris Gamble handles punt returns for the Panthers. He’s averaging just 5.3 yards per attempt this season. Covering punts and kickoffs well enough to give the Panthers offense a long field, and establishing good starting field position with kickoff returner Michael Pittman and punt returner Ike Hilliard will be critical for the Bucs on Monday night. FLYNN’S FORECAST: Panthers 24 Buccaneers 13