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BUCS’ OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers

WHERE: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina

SPREAD: Panthers by 2.5

WHERE THE PANTHERS STAND: The Panthers are 3-7 and in last place in NFC South Division.

PANTHERS HEAD COACH: John Fox

PANTHERS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dan Henning

PANTHERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Trgovac

PANTHERS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Scott O’Brien

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 23rd (300 ypg)
RUSHING: 27th (95.5 ypg)
PASSING: 18th (205 ypg)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 5th (284.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 20th (120.5 ypg)
PASSING: 2nd (163.9 ypg)

CAROLINA PANTHERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 19th (317 ypg)
RUSHING: 26th (97.1 ypg)
PASSING: 14th (220.2 ypg)

CAROLINA PANTHERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL:22nd (337.8 ypg)
RUSHING: 27th (133.2 ypg)
PASSING: 15th (204.6 ypg)

DID YOU KNOW…
…Carolina is 1-4 at home this season?

PANTHERS OFFENSE:
Carolina offensive coordinator Dan Henning is by no means running an offensive juggernaut, but his unit is capable of scoring points, evidenced by the Panthers’ 35 points against the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday.

Henning’s offense has taken a huge hit, playing without weapons like running backs Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster and wide receiver Steve Smith, all of whom have been placed on injured reserve.

As a result of those injuries, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme isn’t playing as well as he did last season when he helped lead his team to Super Bowl XXXVIII. Delhomme has completed just 56.1 percent of his passes for 2,155 yards. He’s tossed 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The good news for the Panthers is their offensive line is doing a pretty good job of protecting Delhomme, who has been sacked just 12 times.

Even with Smith out of the lineup, Delhomme has some dangerous weapons to throw to in the passing game. Wide receiver Mushin Muhammad has hauled in a team-leading 45 passes for 613 yards and has scored seven touchdowns. With the exception of nickel situations, Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber will cover Muhammad on Sunday. Second-year CB Torrie Cox will likely have to cover Muhammad in nickel situations, and this is something the Panthers might try to exploit because of Cox’s inexperience.

Panthers rookie WR Keary Colbert has impressed, catching 31 passes for 510 yards and two touchdowns. Colbert is the offense’s deep threat, evidenced by his average per reception (16.5 yards per catch).

Of course, notorious Buc-killer Ricky Proehl, who has caught 24 passes for 343 yards, could also be a factor when the Panthers go to three-receiver sets. Proehl has been one of Delhomme’s favorite targets on third downs, where the Panthers have converted 38.1 percent of their tries this season.

Although Carolina’s running game is struggling without Davis and Foster, fullback Nick Goings emerged as a weapon last Sunday when he rushed for over 100 yards and scored three touchdowns against Arizona. The Panthers are averaging just 97.1 yards rushing per game this season, but Goings has carried the ball 57 times for 251 yards (4.4 avg.) and scored three touchdowns. Henning could elect to pound Goings and possibly even Brad Hoover, both of whom sport 230-pound frames, early and often against Tampa Bay’s undersized front seven.

PANTHERS DEFENSE:
Carolina’s defense, which ranked 8th overall in 2003, is ranked 22nd in that category this season and is allowing opposing offenses to produce 331 yards and 23.6 points per game.

Part of the reason the Panthers defense is struggling is because it’s without 335-pound defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who served as a great plug against the run and pass rusher last season. Jenkins, like several other Panthers, is on injured reserve.

The left side of Carolina’s defensive line is the strongest. It features left end Julius Peppers and under tackle Brentson Buckner. Peppers, who is a solid speed rusher, has notched a team-leading eight sacks this season. He’ll be matched up against Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker, who faced Peppers twice last season and managed to hold him without a sack. However, Walker committed a few penalties in the process of trying to hold off Peppers’ relentless pass rush. Walker and Co. have to limit their penalties as the Bucs can’t afford to be in long down-and-distance situations on Sunday. Buckner, who will go against guard Cosey Coleman, has notched 2.5 quarterback takedowns.

Right end Mike Rucker, who recorded 12 sacks in 2003, has just a half of a sack this season, but Bucs left tackle Derrick Deese will have his hands full against Rucker, who gave the Bucs problems last season.

Despite those sack totals, Carolina has struggled at times to put pressure on the quarterback. The Buccaneers, who have surrendered 29 sacks through 10 games, will need to win the battle in the trenches in order to protect quarterback Brian Griese and establish a running game with Michael Pittman, who has rushed for over 100 yards in three of the team’s past four games.

With Jenkins out, Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac has been forced to call more blitzes. Linebackers Dan Morgan and Will Witherspoon each have two sacks, and strong safety Mike Minter has one quarterback takedown this season. Witherspoon is solid in coverage — he has a team-leading nine passes defensed. However, if Tampa Bay can pick up the blitz, Carolina should be left vulnerable in the short-to-intermediate part of the field. The good news for the Bucs is Morgan is out of Sunday’s game with a concussion.

Carolina has two young, starting cornerbacks in second-year CB Rickey Manning Jr. and rookie CB Chris Gamble, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden will pick on them with his playcalling. Gamble has a team-leading three interceptions and seven passes defensed. Manning Jr. has hauled in two picks and has four passes defensed. Tampa Bay’s best bet will be establishing the running game and running play-action off of that. This will allow the Bucs to attack Panthers safeties Mike Minter and Colin Branch, both of whom could be the weakest links in pass coverage. The Panthers are allowing teams to convert a whopping 46 percent of their third down attempts this season.

PANTHERS SPECIAL TEAMS:
Panthers punter Todd Sauerbrun is averaging 44 yards per punt and has pinned 18 of his 49 attempts inside the 20-yard line.

The Panthers are having some kicking woes due to injuries. With John Kasay, who was making 80 percent of his tries this season, sidelined, the Panthers turned to Jeff Chandler last week by signing him to a one-year deal. Sauerbrun handles kickoffs while Kasay remains questionable for Sunday’s game.

Return man Jamall Broussard is averaging 22.4 yards per kickoff return, his longest being a 48-yarder. The Panthers have been dreadful on punt returns, averaging 5.7 yards per attempt with Broussard and Eugene Baker handling those duties.

Not having 335-pound Kris Jenkins on the line on field goal attempts bodes well for Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica, who had two kicks blocked by Jenkins in their first meeting last year.

FLYNN’S FINAL:
Although both Tampa Bay and Carolina’s rosters have been depleted by injuries, expect a very physical game when these two teams meet on Sunday.

One of the reasons the Bucs were swept by the Panthers last season was because of the fact that they got dominated in the trenches on both sides of the ball. That can’t happen Sunday if the Bucs want escape Carolina with a much-needed win over the Panthers.

Although the Panthers are just 3-7 on the season, they’ve played teams pretty tough. Expect nothing less from Carolina when Tampa Bay takes the field for this one. The good news for Tampa Bay is with all of the injuries Carolina has suffered, the Buccaneers are arguably the more talented team, which is something that couldn’t be said last season and should be the difference on Sunday.

FLYNN’S PICK: Buccaneers 19 Panthers 13
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