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OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers

WHERE: Raymond James Stadium

WHERE THE PANTHERS STAND: The Panthers are 5-2 and in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC South division.





OVERALL: 22nd (315.9 ypg)
RUSHING: 11th (124.9 ypg)
PASSING: 23rd (191.0 ypg)

OVERALL: 1st (229.7 ypg)
RUSHING: 1st (75.7 ypg)
PASSING: 3rd (154.0 ypg)

OVERALL: 16th (326.3 ypg)
RUSHING: 24th (92.6 ypg)
PASSING: 10th (233.7 ypg)

OVERALL: 17th (310.9 ypg)
RUSHING: 2nd (78.3 ypg)
PASSING: 26th (232.6 ypg)

…Tampa Bay has lost four straight games to the Carolina Panthers dating back to the 2003 season?


After rallying the injury-plagued Panthers from a 0-7 start to a 7-9 finish in 2004, Carolina QB Jake Delhomme is having a decent season thus far.

Delhomme has completed 120-of-200 (60 percent) of his passes and thrown for 1,677 yards and tossed 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Although the Panthers are 2-1 on the road this season, Delhomme hasn’t played that well away form Carolina. In fact, the Panthers’ road wins vs. Detroit and Arizona were decided by a total of five points.

Delhomme has given Tampa Bay’s defense problems over the past two seasons, and in ’04, Carolina’s signal caller threw a total of six touchdowns and just one interception in two victories vs. Tampa Bay. The key to stopping Delhomme will be putting pressure on him, which is something the Bucs defense has struggled to do to opposing quarterbacks this season.

Running Backs
One of the reasons why Delhomme is faring well this season is because he’s got some of the players who suffered injuries last season back on the football field.

One of those players is RB Stephen Davis, who isn’t showing any signs of slowing down in his 10th season in the NFL. The 6-foot, 230-pound Davis has carried the ball 121 times for 358 yards (3.0 avg.), and he’s been a lethal weapon inside the red zone, evidenced by his team-leading nine rushing touchdowns through seven games.

Because Davis isn’t getting any younger, Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning’s offense features more of a running-back-by-committee approach. Davis is more of a north and south runner while RB DeShaun Foster, who has rushed 53 times for 236 yards (4.5 avg.) this season, is at his best when attacking the perimeter. He’s also a capable receiver, evidenced by his 13 catches for 196 yards.

Carolina rushed for a total of 253 yards in two contests vs. the Tampa Bay last season, but the Bucs have played much better in that area and currently have the No. 1-ranked run defense in the NFL.

The Bucs allowed 49ers RB Kevan Barlow to rush for over 100 yards last Sunday en route to a 15-10 loss. In fact, the 49ers were the first team to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark vs. the Bucs this season. Tampa Bay, particularly its linebackers and safeties, must do a much better job of tackling on Sunday if it is going to succeed in its attempt to contain Davis and Foster.

The bad news for the Bucs is WLB Derrick Brooks has a lingering hamstring injury that caused him to play poorly in San Francisco last Sunday. The Bucs will need Brooks, who has notched 61 tackles this season and is listed as probable, to be on his game when the Panthers’ potentially potent offense is on the field.

Wide Receivers
Delhomme’s favorite target in the passing game is WR Steve Smith. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Smith missed all but one game of the 2004 regular season after suffering a knee injury, but the Panthers still managed to beat the Bucs twice without their star receiver.

Smith has hauled in 50 passes for 797 yards (15.9 avg.) and eight touchdowns through seven games. His reception total is the NFC’s best, and his presence on the football field has played an integral role in Carolina’s ability to convert 46.7 percent of its third downs.

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. 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 gave Tampa Bay’s defense fits as the No. 3 wide out in Carolina’s offense in ’04. Colbert, who is also fast and has soft hands, caught a total of three touchdowns in two games vs. the Bucs. However, with WR Mushin Muhammad signing with the Chicago Bears in the offseason, Colbert is now a starter and will line up against Tampa Bay CB Brian Kelly, who has notched a team-leading three interceptions.

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 12 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown.

Panthers tight end Kris Magnum is a player the Bucs defense will have to account for, especially in the red zone. He has caught 12 passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns, and most of the passes that are thrown his way come near the opponent’s goal line.

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 10 times through seven games.

Tampa Bay’s offensive 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.

Nose tackle Chris Hovan has brought a physical style of play to the Bucs defense this season, and he’s played a huge role in the defense’s ability to stuff the run on a consistent basis. Hovan will go up against Wahle, who signed with Carolina during the offseason after spending several seasons in Green Bay. Hovan is all too familiar with Wahle from his playing days with the Minnesota Vikings. This should be a great matchup to watch.

Under tackle Anthony McFarland has notched 12 tackles and just one sack, and needs to win the 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.

Tampa Bay desperately needs to get pressure and production from defensive ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires. Rice, who should have a chip on his shoulder after being sent home last Sunday for violation of team policy, has a favorable matchup vs. Wharton, who is a first-year starter at left tackle. Rice has notched a team-leading five sacks and really needs to get pressure on Delhomme. Spires has anchored the left side of Tampa Bay’s defensive line well, and he’s recorded two sacks. Getting past Gross, who is solid in pass protection, will be a challenge, though.

Defensive Line
With QB Chris Simms making just his second start of the season, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden will likely lean heavily on running backs Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Michael Pittman, who is nursing a shoulder injury, in this contest.

The problem is 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 six straight games vs. the Panthers, posting rushing totals of 71, 67, 60, 89, 46 and 62 yards, respectively.

Williams appears to be getting over the foot/hamstring injury that kept him out of two games earlier in the season. The Bucs need Cadillac to make a difference in this football game. He’s rushed for 467 yards (4.2 avg.) and two touchdowns but did nothing vs. the 49ers. If Williams can help the Bucs establish the run, things will open up for Simms and Co. in the passing game, where the Panthers rank 26th in the league.

But getting the ground game going won’t be easy. The Panthers have the No. 2-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 struggled to protect Simms, who was sacked five times, in San Francisco last Sunday and will likely see some blitz packages from Carolina. It’s important for the Bucs to get the running game going. Otherwise, Peppers, who will go up against Bucs RT Kenyatta Walker, and Rucker, who faces first-year starter, LT Anthony Davis, will not stand much of a chance of holding off these dangerous pass rushers that have combined for 4.5 sacks this season.

Bucs LG Dan Buenning is a physical player, but he’s also a rookie. However, the good news for Buenning is Panthers DT Kris Jenkins is out for the season, which means he’ll face Carstens instead. Carstens is still a capable pass rusher, evidenced by his two sacks.

Tampa Bay RG Sean Mahan struggled mightily vs. San Francisco, and things don’t get any easier for him this Sunday when Buckner lines up against him. Buckner isn’t a great pass rusher, but he’s a good run defender and will give Mahan problems.

Carolina’s linebacker corps is one of the most talented units on the team. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan made the Pro Bowl last season and is having a great 2005 campaign. He’s notched a team-leading 49 tackles and two passes defensed. Look for the Panthers to blitz Morgan quite often. He’s got the speed to get to the quarterback and has already notched 3.5 sacks this season.

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 one interception and four passes defensed this season. Last year, Witherspoon recorded four picks.

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. Last week, the Bucs offense missed several opportunities to hit rookie TE Alex Smith down the seams. Gruden may go back to those plays this week, especially if Short is the cover man.

Although Carolina’s pass defense is ranked 26th in the league, this unit has some talented players that could give the Bucs receivers some problems.

Bucs WR Joey Galloway is on fire. He’s notched 39 passes for 648 yards (16.6 avg.) and five touchdowns through seven games. He’ll go up against Panthers CB Ken Lucas, who has notched a team-leading two interceptions and eight passes defensed. Lucas joined the Panthers during the offseason as a free agent from Seattle. Galloway has the speed to create separation form Lucas, but the Panthers’ 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 two interceptions and four passes defensed.

The more likely scenario will have McCree 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 and Lucas each led the NFC in interceptions last year with six apiece. Gamble has one pick and four passes defensed this season. He’ll cover Tampa Bay WR Michael Clayton, who has caught 23 passes for 253 yards and has yet to score a touchdown this season.

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 opposing offenses to convert nearly 42 percent of their third down attempts through seven games.

Special Teams
Special teams have been the difference in Tampa Bay’s four straight losses to Carolina. The Bucs are hoping to turn this unit into strength instead of a weakness vs. the Panthers.

Panthers punter Jason Baker is averaging 42 yards per attempt and has a long of 53. Ten of his 30 punts have landed inside the 20-yard line. Bucs PR Mark Jones is averaging 7.9 yards per return.

Kicker John Kasey hasn’t had a stellar season. He’s made 9-of-13 (69.2 percent) field goals and has even missed an extra point. Tampa Bay’s kickoff return unit has struggled. Bucs kicker returner Torrie Cox is averaging just 17.5 yards per attempt.

Panthers KR Rod Smart is averaging 24.8 yards per attempt and has a long of 60 this season. Receiver Steve Smith returns punts for the Panthers, and although he’s averaging just 6.5 yards per attempt, Smith’s speed and playmaking ability make him very dangerous.

FLYNN’S FORECAST: Panthers 20 Bucs 16

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