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OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers

WHERE: Ericsson Stadium

WHERE THE PANTHERS STAND: The Panthers are 9-3 and in first 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: 24th (300.2 ypg)
RUSHING: 13th (113.3 ypg)
PASSING: 22nd (186.9 ypg)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 2nd (270.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 8th (93.8 ypg)
PASSING: 5th (176.7 ypg)

CAROLINA PANTHERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 23rd (302.3 ypg)
RUSHING: 21st (94.7 ypg)
PASSING: 17th (207.6 ypg)

CAROLINA PANTHERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 4th (282.8 ypg)
RUSHING: 2nd (85.5 ypg)
PASSING: 14th (197.3 ypg)

DID YOU KNOW…
…Tampa Bay has lost five straight games to the Carolina Panthers dating back to the 2003 season?

SCOUTING THE PANTHERS

Quarterbacks
Panthers QB Jake Delhomme has come on strong as of late. He’s completing more of his passes and making smart decisions with the football, which is exactly what he did on Nov. 4 en route to leading the Panthers to a 34-14 win over the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.

Delhomme has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 2,602 yards and tossed 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions this season. He’s extremely dangerous on third downs, where the Panthers are converting 43.6 percent of the time. The Bucs defense, particularly the front four, must put pressure on Delhomme early and often in order to create some much-needed turnovers and keep a potentially potent Panthers offense off the field.

The team that wins the turnover battle will likely win this game. The Panthers have a plus-9 turnover ration while the Bucs have produced a plus-6 ratio in the turnover department.

Running Backs
Carolina has a running back by committee approach that’s been pretty effective this season. Panthers running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster are two ball carriers that the Bucs will have to account for since the Panthers will likely attempt to establish the ground game early.

Tampa Bay’s defense, which ranks 5th against the run this season, did a nice job of shutting down Carolina’s ground attack in the first meeting. The Panthers rushed 32 times for just 77 yards (2.4 avg.) in that contest but still managed to win by 20 points.

Although Davis, who is more of a downhill runner, is the primary ball carrier near the goal line, evidenced by his 12 rushing touchdowns this season, Foster is probably the bigger threat. He’s rushed 130 times for 525 yards (4.0 avg.) and one touchdown in 2005 and is coming off a strong game vs. the Atlanta Falcons. Foster is also a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield. He’s hauled in 28 passes for 348 yards and one touchdown. However, Tampa Bay outside linebackers Ryan Nece and Derrick Brooks have the speed to keep up with Foster.

The Panthers are tough beat when they get the running game going, which means the Bucs must use sound tackling technique and good gap control to contain Davis and Foster on Sunday.

Wide Receivers
Delhomme’s favorite target in the passing game is WR Steve Smith. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Smith has hauled in a team-leading 82 passes for 1,226 yards and 10 touchdowns through 12 games. His reception total is also the NFC’s best.

Smith is a quick receiver with clutch hands. He’s also very elusive and has great acceleration. Those attributes make him one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers, and Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber will be charged with the difficult task of covering him. In their first meeting, Smith managed to catch five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. However, Barber is coming off a great game vs. the Saints where he recorded a career-high three interceptions. Some teams have elected not to throw toward Barber’s side of the field since he’s considered a ballhawk, but Delhomme will make a point to throw Smith’s way on Sunday, and Barber must find a way to make him pay for it.

Panthers second-year WR Keary Colbert, who has hauled in 21 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns this season, will line up against Tampa Bay CB Brian Kelly. Kelly should be able to limit Colbert’s production as Delhomme will spend most of the game looking for Smith.

The Bucs have received improved play at the nickel cornerback spot, where Juran Bolden has played well for the most part. He’ll have his work cut out for him vs. Buc killer Ricky Proehl, who has caught 17 passes for 272 yards and one touchdown. Proehl caught a key third down catch vs. the Bucs in their last meeting, and Delhomme won’t hesitate to throw his way in similar situations on Sunday seeing as Proehl is a clutch performer.

Although he only has 15 catches and two touchdowns this season, Panthers tight end Kris Magnum is a player the Bucs defense will have to account for, especially in the red zone, where Delhomme often looks his way when Smith is double covered. The Bucs have done a nice job of limiting the production of opposing teams’ tight ends this season.

Offensive Line
Carolina’s offensive line, which consists of left tackle Travelle Wharton, left guard Mike Wahle, center Jeff Mitchell, right guard Tutan Reyes and right tackle Jordan Gross, has done a nice of job of giving Delhomme a comfortable pocket to throw out of. This unit has surrendered just 21 sacks through 12 games.

Tampa Bay’s defensive line has struggled to win the battle in the trenches vs. Carolina over the past two seasons. The Panthers offensive line is very physical, and the Bucs must match that intensity if they are to stand a chance of winning this game. Keeping the Bucs defensive linemen fresh, particularly defensive tackles Anthony McFarland and Chris Hovan, will also be key seeing as fresh bodies could help the defense’s attempt to penetrate the offensive backfield and stop the run.

Hovan will go up against Wahle, who is pretty familiar with Hovan from their playing days in the NFC North division. This was a very physical battle in the first meeting and will likely be interesting to watch the second time around.

McFarland needs to win his battle in the trenches vs. Reyes, who is an adequate player but isn’t special. McFarland should be able to continue help stop the run since Reyes is a better pass protector than he is a run blocker. Reyes is listed as questionable on Carolina’s injury report with a knee injury, which should bode well for McFarland.

Tampa Bay desperately needs to get pressure from defensive ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires. Rice appears to have a favorable matchup vs. Wharton, who is a first-year starter at left tackle. However, Rice, who has notched a team-leading nine sacks and six forced fumbles this season, was handled easily by Wharton in their first meeting. In fact, Rice didn’t record a sack or a tackle in that game. Rice can’t get shut out again this time around.

Spires has anchored the left side of Tampa Bay’s defensive line well, and he’s recorded three sacks. Getting past Gross, who is solid in pass protection, will be a challenge since Spires’ first priority will be containing Foster, who thrives on running the ball on the perimeter.

Defensive Line
Tampa Bay has not fared well in the running game vs. Carolina over the past three seasons. In fact, the Bucs have failed to rush for over 100 yards in seven straight games vs. the Panthers, posting rushing totals of 71, 67, 60, 89, 46, 62 and 44 yards, respectively.

Bucs rookie RB Cadillac Williams wasn’t 100 percent healthy when these two teams clashed on Nov. 4. The Bucs need Cadillac to make a difference in this football game. He’s rushed for 812 yards (4.2 avg.) and three touchdowns but rushed for just 29 yards on 11 carries vs. the Panthers earlier this season. If Williams can help the Bucs establish the run, things will open up for quarterback Chris Simms and Co. in the passing game, where the Panthers rank 17th in the league.

But getting the ground game going won’t be easy. The Panthers have the No. 4-ranked run defense in the NFL thanks to a solid front four that’s made up of defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker and defensive tackles Brentson Buckner and Jordan Carstens.

Tampa Bay’s offensive line has been inconsistent in its attempt to protect Simms, who has been sacked 18 times in seven games and will likely see some blitz packages from Carolina. It’s important for the Bucs to get the running game going right away.

Otherwise, Bucs RT Kenyatta Walker, who will go up against Peppers, and LT Anthony Davis, who will line up against Rucker, will not stand much of a chance of holding off these dangerous pass rushers that have combined for 16 sacks this season.

Don’t be surprised to see the Bucs run plenty of max protect sets. Remember – Walker had a terrible outing vs. Peppers on Nov. 4 when the speedy pass rusher notched two sacks and caused Walker to false start on three consecutive plays. Walker could use some extra help from tight ends Anthony Becht and Alex Smith.

The good news for the Bucs is both Peppers and Ruckers are listed as questionable on the Panthers’ injury report with ankle injuries.

With Panthers DT Kris Jenkins out for the season, Bucs LG Dan Buenning, who is a physical player, will face Carstens. Carstens is a solid pass rusher, evidenced by his three sacks.

Bucs RG Sean Mahan will square off against Buckner, who isn’t a great pass rusher, but he’s a good run defender and will give Mahan problems. That said, look for center John Wade to help double team Buckner on occasion.

Linebackers
Carolina’s linebacking corps is one of the most talented units on the team. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan is having a great 2005 campaign. He’s notched a team-leading 70 tackles and two passes defensed. Look for the Panthers to blitz with Morgan quite often. He’s got the speed to get to the quarterback and has already notched 3.5 sacks this season. However, there’s a 50 percent chance that Morgan won’t play in Sunday’s game. He’s currently listed as questionable on his team’s injury report with an ankle injury.

Weakside LB Will Witherspoon is a solid player. He’s capable of shutting down the run, but he’s best in pass coverage, where he’s notched two interceptions and 10 passes defensed this season.

Strongside LB Brandon Short is playing in place of Mark Fields, who is missing his second season in three years due to cancer. If there is a weakness on this unit, Short is it. Tight end Alex Smith appears to have a favorable matchup vs. Short in the passing game. The rookie tight end caught three passes for 41 yards in their first meeting, and you can bet Simms will look for Smith in the passing game on Sunday.

Secondary
Carolina’s secondary has some talented players that could give the Bucs receivers some problems.

Bucs WR Joey Galloway is on fire. He’s notched a team-leading 63 passes for 1,075 yards and eight touchdowns through 12 games. He’ll go up against Panthers CB Ken Lucas, who has recorded a team-leading four interceptions and 10 passes defensed. Galloway has the speed to create separation form Lucas, evidenced by his 50-yard touchdown reception vs. the Panthers last month, but the Carolina cornerback is a ballhawk and will make Simms pay for errant passes thrown his way.

The Panthers could ask strong safety Marlon McCree to help Lucas contain the speedy Galloway. However, the Panthers like to play McCree close to the line of scrimmage in an effort to stop the run. He’s effective in that area as well as pass coverage, where he’s recorded three interceptions and nine passes defensed.

The more likely scenario will have McCree, who leads the Panthers in tackles, playing close to the line of scrimmage throughout the game while Panthers free safety Mike Minter spends most of the game in pass coverage. Minter hasn’t come up big in the stat column, but he’s a talented player.

Carolina CB Chris Gamble has five interceptions and 10 passes defensed this season. Gamble came up big against the Bucs last month when he intercepted Simms on a ball thrown to the left sideline and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown. He’ll cover Tampa Bay WR Michael Clayton, who is having a mediocre season and has yet to reach the end zone.

The Panthers have had great success against the run, but bringing the linebackers and safeties up to defend the ground game has allowed opposing offenses to keep the chains moving this season. Carolina is allowing offenses to convert nearly 40 percent of their third down attempts.

Special Teams
Panthers punter Jason Baker is averaging 43 yards per attempt and has a long of 59. Seventeen of his 53 punts have landed inside the 20-yard line. Bucs PR Mark Jones is averaging 9.1 yards per return.

Kicker John Kasey hasn’t had a stellar season. He’s made 18-of-24 (75 percent) field goals and has even missed an extra point. Tampa Bay’s kickoff return unit has struggled. However, WR Edell Shepherd has been a slight upgrade over CB Torrie Cox and is averaging 21.3 yards per attempt.

Bucs K Matt Bryant is still listed as questionable with a hamstring injury that sidelined him for last Sunday’s game vs. the Saints. Bryant will attempt to kick this week, but there’s a pretty good chance that Todd France could be called on to play vs. the Panthers.

Panthers KR Rod Smart is averaging 21.5 yards per attempt and has a long of 60 this season. Receiver Steve Smith returns punts for the Panthers, and he’s averaging 9.3 yards per attempt, Bucs P Josh Bidwell is having a great season, but Smith’s speed and playmaking ability make him dangerous, and the Bucs must limit his production and avoid penalties as field position could play a huge factor in deciding the outcome of Sunday’s game.

FLYNN’S FORECAST: Panthers 24 Buccaneers 20



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