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OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers

WHERE: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina

WHERE THE PANTHERS STAND: The Panthers are 2-1 and tied with the Buccaneers for 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: 22nd (312 ypg)
RUSHING: 13th (119 ypg)
PASSING: 23rd (192 ypg)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE
OVERALL: 11th (310 ypg)
RUSHING: 21st (124 ypg)
PASSING: 9th (185 ypg)

CAROLINA PANTHERS OFFENSE
OVERALL: 12th (351 ypg)
RUSHING: 6th (142 ypg)
PASSING: 18th (208 ypg)

CAROLINA PANTHERS DEFENSE
OVERALL: 23rd (342 ypg)
RUSHING: 13th (95 ypg)
PASSING: 21st (246 ypg)

DID YOU KNOW …
… Tampa Bay has lost seven of its last eight meetings vs. Carolina, and its last win came in Carolina during the 2005 regular season?

SCOUTING THE PANTHERS

Quarterbacks
Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme moved the ball effectively through the air against Tampa Bay’s defense last year. In two meetings, Delhomme completed 44-of-70 passes (62.8 percent) of his passes for 512 yards and tossed three touchdowns and just one interception. Delhomme is off to a good start in 2007. He’s completed 64 percent of his passes for 626 yards and tossed eight touchdowns and just one interception. The good news for Tampa Bay’s is Delhomme is listed as day-to-day with a right elbow injury he sustained vs. Atlanta last Sunday. Should Delhomme not be able to play, David Carr would start at quarterback in his place. Carr, who signed with the Panthers as a free agent after being releasing by the Texans during the offseason, originally entered the NFL in 2002 as the number one overall pick in the draft. Carr has completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 13,447 yards and tossed 59 touchdowns and 65 interceptions. Sacks have been a major issue for Carr, who has been brought down 251 times in 75 career starts. Carr threw just four times in relief of Delhomme, but he was still sacked by Atlanta last Sunday. No matter who the quarterback is for Carolina, Tampa Bay’s defense, which has posted five sacks through three games, must sustain a consistent pass rush on Sunday.

Running Backs
Carolina’s ground attack ranked 24th overall in the NFL last year, but it’s getting better production from running backs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams this season. Through three games, Foster has rushed for 238 yards on 46 attempts (5.2 avg.) and one touchdown. Foster is also a capable receiver. He’s caught seven passes and scored a touchdown in 2007. Foster is coming off of a strong game vs. Atlanta, where he rushed for 122 yards on 20 carries (6.1 avg.) and one score. Williams has carried the ball 34 times for 140 yards (4.1 avg.) in 2007. Carolina is averaging 142 rushing yards per game, which has its offense ranked 6th in that category. With Delhomme ailing, look for Carolina offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson to give Tampa Bay’s defense, which currently ranks 21st against the run, a healthy dose of Foster and Williams.

Wide Receivers
One of the biggest reasons why Delhomme has been successful and the Panthers have converted 40 percent of their third down attempts this season is because of wide receiver Steve Smith, who has given the Bucs problems over the last few years. In 2006, Smith caught a total of 15 passes for 261 yards and one touchdown in two meetings vs. Tampa Bay. He finished the season with a team-high 83 catches for 1,166 yards and eight touchdowns. It’s still early, but it looks like Smith is making a strong case for the Pro Bowl again in 2007, evidenced by the fact that he’s already caught a team-leading 16 passes for 281 yards (17.6 avg.) and four touchdowns through three games. Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who made the Pro Bowl in 2006, will carry most of the responsibility of containing Smith in this contest. Barber will have to be on top of his game due to Smith’s tremendous speed and route-running ability. The matchup between Bucs CB Brian Kelly and Panthers WR Keary Colbert will also be an interesting one seeing as both of them played collegiately at USC. Colbert turned in a great rookie season in 2004, but he’s struggled to follow it up. He has seven catches for 86 yards so far. Kelly is a physical corner that can give the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Colbert some problems getting off the line of scrimmage. One of Delhomme’s favorite targets this season has been an unlikely candidate. Tight end Jeff King is second on the team in receptions with 13 catches for 130 yards and one touchdown. Tampa Bay linebackers Cato June and Derrick Brooks, and strong safety Jermaine Phillips will share in the responsibility of accounting for King in this contest.

Offensive Line
The Panthers fired offensive coordinator Dan Henning during the offseason and replaced him with Davidson, who has implemented a zone-blocking scheme along the offensive line. Although it is undersized, Carolina’s offensive line features some talented players. Travelle Wharton, who missed most of the 2006 season with a torn ACL, plays left tackle and is responsible for protecting the blind side of Delhomme or Carr. Last week, Falcons right defensive end John Abraham notched two sacks vs. the Panthers. Wharton will face several different players, including defensive ends Greg Spires, rookie Gaines Adams and possibly Patrick Chukwurah, who missed the first three games of the season with a knee injury. Jordan Gross struggled in place of Wharton last year, but he’s moved back to right tackle and played fairly well, especially in the running game. Center Justin Hartwig and left guard Mike Wahle likely will double team Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan quite a bit on Sunday, which should leave under tackle Jovan Haye in some favorable one-on-one matchups with rookie right guard Ryan Kalil, who was considered the best center in the 2007 NFL Draft but has started his NFL career at guard. The Bucs will look to keep Haye fresh by playing veteran Kevin Carter and rookie Greg Peterson at under tackle as well. Carolina has allowed six sacks through three games this season.

Defensive Line
Carolina’s defense is extremely physical, especially inside the trenches. That’s one of the main reasons why the Panthers have defeated the Buccaneers in seven of their last eight meetings. This unit is led by left defensive end Julius Peppers, who has established himself as one of the league’s best pass rushers. Peppers has yet to record his first sack in 2007, but he had four quarterback takedowns in two meetings with the Bucs last season. Bucs second-year right tackle Jeremy Trueblood will have his hands full with Peppers, who is a great athlete. Carolina’s defense has been solid against the run, and Peppers and defensive tackles Maake Kempeatu and Kris Jenkins have had a lot to do with their success in this particular area. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden will be hard pressed to have success by running Cadillac Williams, Earnest Graham or Michael Pittman up the middle. Kempeatu and Jenkins weigh 350 and 335 pounds, respectively. In fact, the Panthers are giving up just 95 yards rushing per game this season. However, Kempeatu isn’t much of a threat to rush the passer, which is good news for Bucs second-year right guard Davin Joseph, who has been inconsistent this season. Jenkins has a big frame but is still quick enough to get after the quarterback. He has one sack this season and likely will line up against center John Wade and rookie left guard Arron Sears. Because Carolina’s defensive line has so much size in the middle, Tampa Bay likely will call plenty of bootlegs for quarterback Jeff Garcia and attempt to run the ball along the perimeter, especially on the left side, where Bucs left tackle Luke Petitgout and Sears, who is an extremely effective run blocker when pulled, match up well against Panthers right end Mike Rucker. Cadillac Williams rushed for just 92 yards on 34 carries (2.7 avg.)in two games vs. the Panthers last season. That type of production won’t be good enough for the Bucs to pull off the upset in Carolina on Sunday.

Linebackers
This group is led by Panthers middle linebacker Dan Morgan, who plays well against the run and is extremely fast. He currently leads the Panthers in tackles. However, Morgan has had trouble staying healthy over the years. For now, Morgan is healthy, and his physical presence in the middle of the defense, along with the size of Kemoeatu and Jenkins, will make it that much more difficult for the Bucs to find success running the football up the middle on Sunday. Outside linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason are talented as well. Davis, who is a former safety, is at his best in pass coverage, and Beason was the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2007. Bucs tight end Alex Smith caught seven passes in two games vs. the Panthers last year, but Beason and Davis likely will make it difficult for Smith to have that type of success again vs. Carolina in 2007.

Secondary
The weakest part of Carolina’s defense is its pass defense, which ranks 21st in the NFL through three games. In fact, the Panthers are allowing opposing offenses to convert 44.2 percent of their third down attempts and they allowed the Falcons to produce 442 yards of total offense last Sunday. That included Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington’s performance, where he completed 31-of-44 of his passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns and en route to a 27-20 loss to Carolina. Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas has some ballhawking ability, but he’ll have to keep up with Bucs speedy WR Joey Galloway, who has hauled in a team-leading 13 passes for 249 yards (19.2 avg.) and two touchdowns this season. Carolina CB Chris Gamble will be charged with containing Michael Clayton, Ike Hilliard and Maurice Stovall, all of who make up the No. 2 receiver spot in Tampa Bay’s offense. The Bucs would ideally like to get Galloway matched up with Gamble, who, pardon the pun, is known to gamble too often. Look for the Bucs to attempt to exploit the same weakness in Carolina’s secondary as the Falcons did last Sunday when WR Roddy White hauled in seven passes for 127 yards and one touchdowns vs. the Panthers. The fact that Carolina has several outstanding run stuffers in its front seven usually allows the Panthers to keep strong safety Chris Harris and free safety Deke Cooper back in coverage. The Panthers are still looking for their first interception of the year, but Harris has helped the Panthers create turnovers by forcing three fumbles. Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia has faced the Panthers several times during his career, including 2006 when he completed 21-of-39 passes and threw for 312 yards and tossed three touchdowns en route to the Eagles’ 27-24 win over Carolina. Garcia has completed 66.2 percent of his passes for 595 yards and tossed two touchdowns and no interceptions for the Bucs this year. He’ll likely have to continue to keep plays and drives alive with his mobility and play turnover-free football in order for Tampa Bay to escape Carolina with a big win. The team that wins this contest will be in sole possession of first place in the NFC South division. 

Special Teams
Panthers kicker John Kasey has a strong and accurate leg. He’s drilled 4-of-5 (80 percent) of his field goal tries this season. Kasay was perfect on field goal attempts inside 50 yards last season. Punter Jason Baker is also consistent. He’s averaging 44.8 yards per punt with a net of 41.6. Baker’s directional kicking ability could come in handy vs. Bucs punt returner Mark Jones, who is averaging 15 yards per attempt this season. Jones is also averaging 36 yards per kickoff return. Carolina return specialist Ryne Robinson hasn’t shown much big-play ability through the first three games of the season. He’s averaging 20.3 yards per kickoff return and 8.0 yards per punt return. Robinson’s production shouldn’t improve vs. the Bucs, who have been excellent in terms of covering kicks and punts. Punter Josh Bidwell is also averaging 45.1 yards per punt. If Robinson continues to struggle, the Panthers could put Steve Smith or running back Nick Goings back to return punts and kickoffs, respectively.

FLYNN’S FORECAST: Buccaneers 20 Panthers 16

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