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OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
WHERE THE PANTHERS STAND: The Panthers are 6-9 and in third 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: 18th (328 ypg) RUSHING: 11th (117 ypg) PASSING: 16th (210 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE OVERALL: 2nd (273 ypg) RUSHING: 13th (103 ypg) PASSING: 2nd (170 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … Carolina is 4-3 on the road this season?
SCOUTING THE PANTHERS
Quarterbacks Carolina's offense has struggled mightily since losing starting quarterback Jake Delhomme for the season due to injury.
The Panthers, who have the 29th-ranked offense in the NFL, have gone through three different quarterbacks since Delhomme was injured during the first quarter of the season.
Carolina's current signal caller is rookie QB Matt Moore. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound undrafted free agent out of Oregon has completed 48-of-87 (55.2 percent) of his passes for 556 yards and has one touchdown and four interceptions.
The Panthers produced just 236 yards of offense in their Week 4 loss to the Buccaneers. David Carr completed 19-of-41 passes for 155 yards and tossed one touchdown and one interception in that contest.
If Moore still is in the starting lineup for Carolina's regular season finale as opposed to Carr or veteran QB Vinny Testaverde, the Panthers likely will run the ball early and often since Tampa Bay's defense could go into a turnover frenzy with the rookie signal caller throwing the football.
Running Backs The Panthers ground attack is led by two players – DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams, who give Carolina's offense a nice one-two punch at the running back position and help keep opposing defenses off balance.
Foster is Carolina's primary ball carrier. He has carried the ball 236 times for 830 yards (3.5 avg.) and scored three touchdowns and favors running the ball along the perimeter as opposed to north and south. Tampa Bay's defense likely will attempt to strip the ball out of Foster's hands each time he touches it. He has already fumbled the football five times this season.
Williams hasn't touched the ball as much as Foster, but he's making more out of his opportunities. Williams has rushed 124 times for 596 yards (4.8 avg.) and two touchdowns.
Both Foster and Williams are popular targets in the passing game and they each have reliable hands. They've combined for 47 receptions and over 300 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
Most opposing defenses aren't showing Carolina's quarterback position much respect, which means the Panthers have been facing defensive fronts that feature eight or even nine players in the box. Expect the Buccaneers defense, which ranks second overall and 13th against the run, to do the same.
The Panthers' inability to pick up significant yardage on first down is one of the main reasons why they are converting just 35.3 percent of their third down chances this year.
Wide Receivers The most dangerous weapon in Carolina's offense is WR Steve Smith. Despite the fact that the Panthers' quarterback position has been struggling, Smith still leads the team in receptions with 82 for 954 yards and seven touchdowns. Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who has intercepted two passes and scored two touchdowns this season, likely will be in charge of covering the speedy Smith throughout most of this contest. Barber did a good job in this regard in Week 4 when he limited Smith to five catches for 32 yards.
Panthers WR Drew Carter has caught just 36 passes for 458 yards and four touchdowns this year. Bucs CB Phillip Buchanon likely will spend most of the game covering Carter, and his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame could give him an advantage over Buchanon (5-11, 185) on jump balls.
One of the quarterbacks' favorite targets in the passing game has been tight end Jeff King (6-3, 240). King has hauled in 45 passes for 401 yards and two touchdowns this season. Tampa Bay's defense, particularly linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June and safeties Jermaine Phillips and rookie Tanard Jackson, have done an outstanding job of covering tight ends throughout the season. In fact, Phillips currently leads the Bucs defense in interceptions with four, and one of those picks came vs. the Panthers back in Week 4.
Offensive Line Carolina's offensive line has been better in terms of pass protection than it has been in its effort to open up running lanes for the running backs in the Panthers' zone-blocking scheme, which was implemented this year by new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson.
The Panthers have surrendered just 32 sacks through 15 regular season games. However, Tampa Bay's defense accounted for three of those quarterback takedowns en route to a 20-7 win over Carolina in Week 4.
Bucs defensive ends Greg White and rookie Gaines Adams have really come on as of late and are providing a potentially potent pass rush. They've combined for 14 sacks and nine forced fumbles, seven of which have come courtesy of White, who will be going up against Panthers left tackle Travelle Wharton.
Tampa Bay nose tackle Chris Hovan likely will spend most of the game getting double-teamed by veteran guard Mike Wahle and center Justin Hartwig. Hovan did a nice job of taking on those blocks in Week 4 vs. Carolina. He'll need to do the same this time around in order to free up under tackle Jovan Haye.
Haye should receive some favorable one-on-one matchups with right guard Jeremy Bridges. Haye, who spends most of his playing time at under tackle, has six sacks on the season.
Adams and veteran DE Kevin Carter likely will go up against Panthers right tackle Jordan Gross throughout most of the game. There's also a chance DE Greg Spires (calf) will play as well. Adams should be able to penetrate the backfield vs. Gross in obvious passing situations.
Defensive Line Tampa Bay's offensive line had success opening up holes in the running game vs. Carolina in Week 4. In fact, the Bucs rushed for 189 yards on 42 attempts behind Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman.
That said, look for the Bucs to follow the same blueprint in this game. Tampa Bay likely will split carries between running backs Earnest Graham, Michael Pittman and Michael Bennett in this game. Graham is averaging 4.0 yards per carry and has rushed for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns while catching 49 passes for 324 yards.
Tampa Bay right tackle Jeremy Trueblood held Carolina left end Julius Peppers at bay in Week 4, and he'll have to do that again this time around. Peppers has struggled this season, notching2.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. However, Peppers still is capable of having a breakout game at any point.
Bucs second-year right guard Davin Joseph likely will find himself in some one-on-one matchups with Panthers under tackle Maake Kemoeatu, who has struggled this year.
Panthers nose tackle Kris Jenkins is no longer in his prime, but he still has 2.5 sacks this season and likely will command double teams from Bucs center John Wade and rookie guard Arron Sears.
Bucs left tackle Donald Penn has been doing a great job filling in for injured T Luke Petitgout, who was injured in Week 4 vs. Carolina. Penn will be matched up with Panthers RE Mike Rucker, who has recorded three sacks and one forced fumble this season.
Tampa Bay's offensive line did not allow a sack in its Week 4 contest vs. Carolina. While that should be considered an impressive feat, the Panthers have recorded just 19 sacks through 15 games this season, which means they're struggling to get after the quarterback. As a result, the Panthers are allowing opposing offenses to convert 43.0 percent of their third down attempts.
Linebackers With Carolina's defensive line struggling to produce a potent pass rush this season, Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac has been dialing up a variety of blitz packages that often times feature his linebackers.
This unit is led by rookie middle linebacker Jon Beason, who leads the team in tackles and has notched one interception since replacing Dan Morgan (injured) in the starting lineup.
The Panthers don't usually blitz Beason, though. They leave that up to strongside linebacker Thomas Davis and weakside linebacker Na'il Diggs. Davis has notched three sacks and one forced fumble while Diggs has recoded 2.5 sacks this season.
The Buccaneers will rely heavily on running backs Earnest Graham and Michael Pittman, and fullback B.J. Askew to help pick up those blitzes and keep quarterback Jeff Garcia on his feet, and more importantly, healthy for the playoffs. With very little on the line in this game, look for the Bucs to rest plenty of starters, including Garcia. That means backup QB Luke McCown could also see action.
Look for Garcia and McCown to connect with Graham and tight end Alex Smith several times throughout this contest since the opportunity should present itself against Carolina's blitz-happy defense. Smith caught four passes for 17 yards vs. the Panthers in Week 4.
Secondary When these two teams met in Week 4, Bucs wide receiver Ike Hilliard exploded onto the scene by catching seven passes for 114 yards vs. Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble. There's a chance Hilliard will rest in this game as he's been banged up throughout the season and needs to get healthy for the playoffs. If Hilliard can't go, Bucs WR Michael Clayton likely will start in his place. Gamble has one interception this season.
That would leave Bucs WR Joey Galloway, who will also see only a few snaps, to go up against CB Ken Lucas, who limited Tampa Bay's speedy receiver to one catch for 7 yards in Week 4. Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia, who completed 15-of-25 passes for 176 yards and tossed no TDs or Ints in Week 4, must be careful when throwing the ball Galloway's way as Lucas has notched two interceptions this season.
Should Tampa Bay feature some three-receiver sets with Clayton or Michael Spurlock, Panthers nickel cornerback Richard Marshall would see action. Marshall has recorded two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, this year.
Carolina's secondary is considered a weakness of its defense, especially since the Panthers have had to play strong safety Chris Harris closer to the line of scrimmage in an effort to defend the run. The Bucs must make sure they hold onto the football. Harris has notched a team-leading eight forced fumbles and one interception.
Panthers free safety Deke Cooper will have the difficult challenge of helping Lucas defend Galloway deep. He leads the team in interceptions with three.
Special Teams Carolina's return games have not produced impressive results, which bodes well for Tampa Bay in this contest.
Wide receiver Ryne Robinson has been handling punt and kickoff returns for the Panthers. He's averaging just 21.5 yards per kickoff return and just 8.6 yards per punt return. Tampa Bay's special teams coverage units have been outstanding and should not have a problem containing Robinson in this contest.
John Kasay is one of the NFL's most accurate kickers. He has put that accurate leg on display this season by drilling 23-of-27 (85 percent) of his field goal attempts. Kasay also has a strong leg, evidenced by the fact that he's 2-of-2 from 50 or more yards out. Kasay will be kicking to Bucs kick returner Michael Spurlock, who became the first player in franchise history to return a kickoff for a touchdown two weeks ago vs. the Falcons.
Carolina punter Jason Baker is averaging 44.1 yards per attempt. He has pinned 25 of his 80 punts inside the 20-yard line. Bucs wide receiver Ike Hilliard has fielded most of the opposing team's punts in recent weeks, but he is banged up and could rest in this contest. That could prompt Tampa Bay to have Spurlock to return punts vs. Carolina.
FLYNN'S FORECAST: Buccaneers 16 Panthers 13
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