OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
WHERE THE PANTHERS STAND: The Panthers are 4-1 and in first place in the NFC South division.
PANTHERS HEAD COACH: John Fox
PANTHERS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jeff Davidson
PANTHERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Trgovac
PANTHERS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Danny Crossman
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE
OVERALL: 7th (350 ypg)
RUSHING: 9th (135 ypg)
PASSING: 12th (215 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE
OVERALL: 16th (318 ypg)
RUSHING: 14th (100 ypg)
PASSING: 22nd (219 ypg)
CAROLINA PANTHERS OFFENSE
OVERALL: 14th (330 ypg)
RUSHING: 12th (123 ypg)
PASSING: 15th (207 ypg)
CAROLINA PANTHERS DEFENSE
OVERALL: 4th (254 ypg)
RUSHING: 13th (98 ypg)
PASSING: 3rd (156 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW …
… the Buccaneers are 2-8 vs. the Panthers since 2003, including 0-5 at Raymond James Stadium?
SCOUTING THE PANTHERS
Carolina's offense is starting to click again thanks to the return of quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had season-ending elbow surgery last year. Delhomme has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,096 yards and tossed five touchdowns and two interceptions en route to getting the Panthers off to a 4-1 start. Delhomme is a good leader and manages games well. It will be critical for the Buccaneers to pressure him early and force some turnovers in this contest.
The Panthers have returned to their roots on offense and pride themselves on being a physical football team that attempts to run the ball down the defense's throat. Carolina has two capable running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
Both players are former first-round draft picks and are difficult to contain. Williams, who possesses speed and cutting ability, has rushed for 324 yards (4.3 avg.) and two touchdowns. Williams is the starter, but Stewart receives a similar workload. He is a bruising back and has the ability to break a big run off at any time. He's rushed for 269 yards (4.2 avg.). Carolina likes to use Stewart down near the goal line, evidenced by his four touchdowns through five games. Brad Hoover serves as Carolina's primary blocking fullback. He is also a player the Bucs will have to account for in the passing game.
If Tampa Bay can limit the production from Carolina's ground attack it will stand a good chance of stopping the Panthers offense, which is converting just 33.3 percent of its third down tries this season. That won't be easy, though, especially if the Bucs are without middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who is nursing a knee injury he sustained last Sunday. Should Ruud not be able to go, second-year LB Adam Hayward would play in his place, and the Panthers likely would test him early.
The Panthers suspended wide receiver Steve Smith for the first two games of the year, but that didn't stop them from winning. Smith, who caught 15 passes for 261 yards and one touchdown vs. Tampa Bay in two meetings in 2007, has hauled in 16 passes for 262 yards (16.4 avg.) and one TD in three games. Bucs cornerback Phillip Buchanon will spend quite a bit of time covering Smith, who is an excellent route runner and has explosive speed and playmaking ability. Teams haven't thrown much at Buchanon (17 career interceptions) this season, but that could change on Sunday.
One of the reasons why Smith is off to such a good start is because of the return of WR Mushin Muhammad. Bucs CB Ronde Barber is familiar with Muhammad, who spent the first nine seasons of his career with Carolina before playing for Chicago from 2005-07. Although he's 35, Muhammad still is a capable receiving threat. He leads the Panthers in receptions with 25 for 358 yards (14.3 avg.) and two touchdowns. Barber, who still is looking for his first interception of the season, shouldn't have a problem covering Muhammad, but he will have to be prepared for a physical matchup as Muhammad is considered a very good blocker.
Panthers WR D.J. Hackett was also acquired during the offseason. The former Seattle Seahawk has proven to be a good addition. He's hauled in 10 passes for 131 yards and serves as the team's No. 3 receiver. When Hackett comes on the field, Barber likely will cover him while rookie CB Aqib Talib covers Muhammad.
Tampa Bay's defense had some trouble covering Denver's tight ends in the short-to-intermediate part of the field last Sunday, which could prompt Carolina to test the Bucs in that area early, especially with Ruud nursing a knee injury. Panthers TE Jeff King is the primary blocker and TE Dante Rosario has hauled in 12 passes for 138 yards and one score.
Carolina's revamped offensive line has been doing a fairly good job of protecting Delhomme and opening holes for the Panthers' ground game.
Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross is back at his more natural position, which has helped. He will be matched up with Bucs second-year defensive end Gaines Adams, who did not get after Broncos QB Jay Cutler enough last week. Carolina right tackle Jeff Otah was acquired in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. Bucs veteran DE Kevin Carter and pass-rushing specialist Greg White will see plenty of action vs. Otah and they must win their matchups vs. the rookie.
Left guard Travelle Wharton has also returned to his more natural position. He will spend a significant amount of time helping to double team Bucs nose tackles Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims since Panthers center Ryan Kalil is considered undersized. Right guard Keydrick Vincent is a player the Panthers like to run the ball behind due to his 325-pound frame. He will spend most of the game going up against Bucs under tackle Jovan Haye (6-2, 285). The Panthers have surrendered nine sacks through five games, and Haye still is looking for his first quarterback takedown of the season, but he and Tampa Bay's defense must stop Carolina's running game first.
Although Tampa Bay has lost five straight games to Carolina at Raymond James Stadium, the home crowd could play a role in helping the Bucs defense stop the Panthers offense. Carolina has been penalized 47 times through five games, which is nearly 10 penalties per game. False start penalties could go a long way in the Bucs' attempt to put the Panthers offense in long down and distance situations on Sunday.
Tampa Bay's best bet of moving the ball vs. Carolina's defense is via the ground game, where the Bucs are averaging 135 yards per contest behind Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn. The problem is Carolina has played fairly well vs. the run this season, allowing just 100 yards per contest.
The Bucs must establish the running game in order to avoid having their quarterback (either Jeff Garcia or Brian Griese) drop back to throw too often. Panthers right defensive end Julius Peppers is off to a great start this season. He's notched a team-leading three sacks and will go up against Bucs left tackle Donald Penn, whose strength is pass protection even though he struggled last week in Denver. The Bucs likely will use Dunn and tight end John Gilmore to help chip and block Peppers, who is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden might choose to attack the interior of Carolina's defensive line, which is manned by nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu and under tackle Damione Lewis. Kemoeatu has a massive 350-pound frame that will make it difficult for center Jeff Faine and left guard Arron Sears to move the massive defensive lineman off the ball. Lewis has one sack, but is considered a better run defender. Lewis will be matched up with Bucs right guard Davin Joseph, who returned from a foot injury last week, but still needs to shake off some rust, particularly in pass protection.
Panthers LDE Tyler Brayton is a good pass rusher, evidenced by his 1.5 sacks. Brayton will face Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who did a good job against Peppers last year but struggled with poor play and penalties last week in Denver. Tampa Bay's offensive line will have to put together one of its most physical outings of the year in order to dominate the line of scrimmage and help the Bucs offense move the ball on a defense that is allowing just 14 points per game.
With opposing offenses having so much difficulty running the football up the gut vs. Carolina, Tampa Bay could be tempted to call some perimeter runs for Graham and Dunn, but that could be tough sledding as well. Panthers middle linebacker Jon Beason is a tackling machine and does a great job of playing sideline-to-sideline. He leads the team in tackles and has one interception this season.
Weakside linebacker Thomas Davis is second on Carolina's team in tackles and strongside linebacker Na'il Diggs has one sack. Davis isn't considered a playmaker, but he does have great speed. Both Davis and Diggs are considered good blitzers and solid in pass coverage, which will help vs. Bucs tight ends Jerramy Stevens and Alex Smith.
As good as Carolina's defense is, Tampa Bay did have quite a bit of success running the football vs. the Panthers in its 20-7 win over Carolina in Week 4 of the 2007 regular season. The Bucs rushed for 189 yards in that game, which helped them dominate the time of possession by nearly 10 minutes. The Minnesota Vikings are the only team to have defeated Carolina this season, and in that 20-10 contest the Vikings won the time of possession by 10 minutes. Establishing a solid ground game will help the Bucs offense move the ball and keep the Panthers offense off the field.
Whether it's Jeff Garcia or Brian Griese playing quarterback for the Bucs on Sunday, Tampa Bay will have a difficult time throwing the football vs. Carolina's secondary, which is one of the best in the NFL and one of the main reasons why the Panthers are allowing opposing offenses to convert just 30.8 percent of their third down attempts.
The Bucs offense has sorely missed wide receiver Joey Galloway (foot), and he likely will be sidelined again, which means Antonio Bryant will start at split-end. Bryant leads the team with 24 catches for 278 yards, but he's averaging just 11.8 yards reception. Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble's last name fits as he tends to gamble too often, but Gamble has played better this year, evidenced by his one interception and eight passes defensed.
Panthers CB Ken Lucas will be matched up with Bucs WR Michael Clayton, who is a physical player, but has just 12 catches for 114 yards (9.5 avg.). Neither Clayton nor Bryant have been able to stretch the field in Galloway's absence, which has been a real problem for the Bucs offense. Lucas has notched one interception and five passes defensed this season.
Tampa Bay WR Ike Hilliard is averaging just 8.8 yards per reception, but he's been fairly reliable, evidenced by his 22 receptions. Hilliard has also been a popular target inside the red zone, where he's hauled in three touchdowns through five games. Hilliard had some success vs. the Panthers last year, but he could find it difficult to get open this time around since Panthers nickel CB Richard Marshall is much more experienced.
If Tampa Bay cannot establish the running game vs. Carolina, the Panthers likely will be able to keep safeties Chris Harris and Charles Godfrey back to defend the pass, which will make it even more difficult for the Bucs receivers to gain separation. Harris has recorded two forced fumbles and Godfrey, a 2008 third-round draft pick, has one sack.
Both the Panthers and Bucs have reliable kickers. John Kasay and Matt Bryant have each made 10-of-10 field goal attempts through five games.
Panthers punter Jason Baker is averaging 46.2 yards per punt. He likely will be punting to Bucs rookie return specialist Dexter Jackson, who is averaging just 4.3 yards per punt return and 25.3 yards per kickoff return. Jackson needs to help establish good starting field position for Tampa Bay's offense vs. Carolina's defense.
Bucs P Josh Bidwell, who is averaging 46.7 yards per attempt, will be kicking to former Bucs WR Mark Jones, who is handling punt returns for the Panthers. He is averaging 10.2 yards per attempt and has a long of 31 this season. Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart is averaging 23.5 yards per kickoff return.
FLYNN'S FORECAST: Panthers 20 Buccaneers 16