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OPPONENT:
Carolina Panthers

WHERE:
Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

WHERE THE PANTHERS STAND: The Panthers are 1-3 and in third place in the NFC South division.

PANTHERS HEAD COACH:
John Fox

PANTHERS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jeff Davidson

PANTHERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ron Meeks

PANTHERS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Danny Crossman

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE
OVERALL: 26th (284 ypg)
RUSHING: 26th (95 ypg)
PASSING: 23rd (190 ypg)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE
OVERALL: 28th (380 ypg)
RUSHING: 28th (153 ypg)
PASSING: 21st (227 ypg)

CAROLINA PANTHERS OFFENSE
OVERALL: 27th (282 ypg)
RUSHING: 23rd (97 ypg)
PASSING: 24th (185 ypg)

CAROLINA PANTHERS DEFENSE
OVERALL: 15th (321 ypg)
RUSHING: 30th (156 ypg)
PASSING: 2nd (166 ypg)

DID YOU KNOW …
… Carolina is 9-3 against Tampa Bay since 2003?

SCOUTING THE PANTHERS

Quarterbacks
One of the reasons why the Panthers are off to a disappointing 1-3 start is because of quarterback Jake Delhomme, who used to be considered a good caretaker and game manager, but has been a turnover machine as of late.

Delhomme, whose arm strength is in question, has completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 782 yards and tossed three touchdowns and eight interceptions this season. He has thrown 13 interceptions over Carolina's last five games dating back to the Panthers' devastating loss to Arizona in the playoffs.

Although he isn't the only Panther that has turned the ball over, Delhomme has played an integral role in Carolina's minus-9 turnover ratio, which currently ranks 32nd in the NFL.

The Bucs defense intercepted Delhomme twice the last time these two teams met. This unit could benefit from some turnovers on Sunday, but the Bucs defense must stop the run first in order to force Delhomme to throw.

Running Backs
The strength of Carolina's offensive attack is its ground game, which is led by two former first-round draft picks in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

Williams is the primary weapon in the running game. The 5-foot-9, 217-pound Williams has carried the ball 59 times for 220 yards (3.7 avg.) and two touchdowns. He's also had two costly fumbles.

Stewart (5-10, 235) is more of a downhill runner. He's rushed 33 times for 138 yards (4.2 avg.) and one score.

Both running backs are led by fullback Brad Hoover (6-0, 245), who is one of the best players at his position in the NFL.

While neither player is having a banner year, the Bucs know what Williams and Stewart are capable of on the ground. In their meeting last December, Tampa Bay's defense allowed Carolina to rush for 299 yards on 37 carries (8.1 avg.) and four touchdowns.

Williams did the majority of the damage, carrying the ball 19 times for 186 yards (9.8 avg.) while scoring twice. The Bucs defense, which is surrendering 153 yards rushing per game, must be assignment sound and solid in terms of tackling in order to limit Carolina's production in the running game.

Receivers
The Bucs defense has allowed several deep touchdown plays via the passing game this season. That's something defensive coordinator Jim Bates still is attempting to figure out. Tampa Bay will have to remedy that issue in a hurry with Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith poised to take the field at Raymond James Stadium.

Smith (5-9, 185) is one of the league's most explosive receivers, but his production has been hindered by Delhomme's poor play. The good news for Bucs cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib is Delhomme doesn't have a great arm in terms of throwing the deep ball, which could make it difficult for the Panthers to exploit a perceived weakness in the Bucs secondary.

Still, Smith and WR Mushin Muhammad (6-2, 215) are capable of being very productive in the passing game. Smith leads the team with 20 catches for 255 yards while Muhammad, who is more of a possession receiver, has 19 grabs for 178 yards. Neither player has scored a TD this season, and the Bucs would like to keep it that way.

Delhomme's lack of confidence in throwing the ball deep has allowed tight ends Dante Rosario (6-4, 25) and Jeff King (6-3, 260) to get much more involved in the passing game. Each player has seven receptions. Rosario has compiled 111 yards (15.9 avg.) and two touchdowns while King has produced 87 yards and one score. The Bucs defense had trouble containing Eagles TE Brent Celek last week, so look for the Panthers to attempt to get Rosario and King involved early, especially on third downs, where Carolina is converting just 31 percent of its attempts.

Offensive Line
The Panthers re-signed left tackle Jordan Gross during the offseason in an effort to establish Carolina's offensive line as one of the best in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Panthers, that hasn't happened.

Gross (6-4, 305) still is Carolina's best offensive lineman, which is good seeing as how he protects Delhomme's blindside But teams have been much more aggressive in terms of stacking the box to stop the run and pressuring Delhomme, which has led to 12 sacks through four games. Bucs defensive end Gaines Adams, who was held without a tackle or a sack vs. the Eagles last week, must find a way to win some battles with Gross in order to rattle Delhomme.

Carolina is fairly strong on the right side of the offensive line as well, where Jeff Otah plays right tackle. The former first-round pick uses his massive 6-foot-6, 330-pound frame to hold off pass rushers, which will make it difficult for Bucs DE Jimmy Wilkerson to follow up on his three-sack performance from last Sunday's game.

The key to Tampa Bay's attempt to limit Carolina's production on the ground lies in the trenches, particularly in the middle, where Panthers left guard Travelle Wharton (6-4, 312), center Ryan Kalil (6-2, 295) and right guard Keydrick Vincent (6-5, 325) play physical football. Kalil is undersized, but Vincent and Wharton will be called on to help him double-team either Bucs defensive tackle Ryan Sims or Chris Hovan, along with rookie Roy Miller.

The Bucs defense has struggled to stop the run and pressure the quarterback this season. In order to limit Carolina's rushing attack and collapse the pocket around Delhomme, Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Jim Bates might have to get creative in terms of dialing up some blitzes, but this battle ultimately will be won by the team that is more physical on Sunday.

Defensive Line
Carolina has sorely missed defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu and his 6-foot-5, 345-pound frame. With Kemoeatu on injured reserve, the Panthers have struggled to stop the run. In fact, the Panthers currently rank 30th in that category, allowing 156 yards per game.

That's good news for the Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson, whose philosophy is to run the football early and often. It will be key for Tampa Bay to not fall behind early, which has forced the Bucs to abandon the ground attack too early and often this season.

With Kemoeatu out, the Panthers are relying on under tackle Damione Lewis (6-2, 301) and nose tackle Nick Hayden (6-4, 292) to help stop the run. That hasn't happened. Bucs center Jeff Faine, who was sidelined four games with a triceps injury, picked a good time to return as he and guards Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah should be able to dominate in the trenches, which will help open up running lanes for Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward.

While Panthers right defensive end Julius Peppers, who has three sacks in 2009, is one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL, the Bucs feel fairly comfortable heading into this contest because of the stellar play of left tackle Donald Penn, who has been solid in pass protection this season.

Carolina could move Peppers over to left end in some passing situations in an effort to get a more favorable matchup with Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who has been plagued by penalties. If Peppers stays put on the right side, Trueblood would face Panthers DE Tyler Brayton (6-6, 280), who still is looking for his first sack of the season.

The Panthers have nine sacks through four games, and one of those was recorded by second-round pick Everette Brown, who could be played at left end in some passing situations.

Linebackers
Bucs second-year QB Josh Johnson will make just the third start of his NFL career vs. the Panthers. The Eagles blitzed Johnson unmercifully last Sunday, which contributed to three interceptions. Carolina prides itself on getting after the quarterback with its front four, particularly Peppers, but the Panthers could follow a blueprint similar to Philadelphia's in terms of blitzing Johnson.

The Panthers have two solid players in middle linebacker Jon Beason and weakside linebacker Thomas Davis. Beason (6-0, 237) is second on the team in tackles, but has also notched two sacks.

Davis is considered the Derrick Brooks of Carolina defensive coordinator Ron Meeks' Cover 2 system. Like Beason, Davis possesses good quickness, instincts and tackling ability. He leads the Panthers in tackles and is considered the team's best blitzer. Davis has two sacks through four games.  

The player the Bucs might attempt to pick on in terms of calling play-action bootlegs for Johnson, is Panthers strongside linebacker Na'll Diggs (6-4, 240), who might have trouble keeping up with Bucs TE Kellen Winslow. Tampa Bay's athletic and quick tight end is coming off a nine-catch, two-touchdown performance against Philadelphia. Carolina could ask Beason, who is excellent in coverage, to help cover Winslow in this game.

Secondary
Carolina has two talented cornerbacks in Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble. Both are capable of generating turnovers, but they've combined for just one interception due to the fact that opposing offenses aren't having to throw too often against the Panthers.

Gamble (6-1, 200) is the more experienced and consistent of the two cornerbacks. The Panthers might elect to stick him on Bucs WR Antonio Bryant, who recorded nine catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns in his last meeting with Carolina last December.

Marshall (5-11, 189) is a former second-round pick and will improve with experience, but he hasn't been as assignment sound as Carolina would like. It's unclear which Bucs wide receiver Marshall might cover since the team is extremely frustrated with Michael Clayton's dropped passes (he has seven through five games in 2009). There's a chance Maurice Stovall could see more action on Sunday.

Panthers strong safety Chris Harris (6-0, 205) is considered one of the defense's best playmakers, but he hasn't been in much of a position to do that in the passing game due to Carolina's woes against the run. Still, the Bucs must respect Harris, who is a physical player and has a knack for forcing fumbles.

If Tampa Bay can establish the run early things could really open up for the Bucs in the passing game since the Panthers would have to play Harris and/or free safety Charles Godfrey, who ranks third on the team in tackles and has one interception, closer to the line of scrimmage.

Despite getting gashed in the running game, the Panthers are allowing opposing offenses to convert a respectable 38.3 percent of their third down attempts. Carolina's talented secondary is a big reason for that. The Bucs, who are converting just 29 percent of their third downs in'09, must find a way to keep the chains moving on Sunday.

Special Teams
Panthers kicker John Kasay is fairly accurate on field goals, whether it's from short range or long distance. Kasay has made all four of his field goal attempts this season, including one from 50-plus yards out.

Carolina punter Jason Baker is averaging 49.9 yards per attempt. He's pinned three of his 15 punts inside the 20-yard line and has a long of 61.

Baker and Kasay will be kicking to Bucs return specialist Clifton Smith, who has been productive, but hasn't played at a Pro Bowl level like he did as a rookie last year.

Bucs kicker Shane Andrus and punter Dirk Johnson will kick to Panthers punt returner Captain Munnerlyn (8.9 avg.) and kickoff return man Mike Goodson (21.6 avg.). Munnerlyn and Goodson have longs of 26 and 33, respectively. Tampa Bay's special teams coverage units have been solid and shouldn't have trouble containing these players.

FLYNN'S FORECAST: Buccaneers 23  Panthers 20

 

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