The Tampa Bay offense, led by QB Josh Freeman, continues to play smart, efficient, and explosive football. Over the past five games, Freeman has thrown 13 TDs with only one interception and rookie running back Doug Martin has 868 yards from scrimmage, the most by a rookie in a five-game span since Edgerrin James in 1999.
The Bucs are now third in the league in scoring with an average of 28.9 points scored per game and are tied at No. 3 in the NFL in sacks allowed with 13.
The Bucs’ run defense is now the top of the league with 80. 1 yards per game, but the pass defense continues to struggle at the bottom with 321.3 passing yards allowed per contest on average.
Key 1. End Newton’s Theory of Relativity
Cam Newton is an explosive, dangerous, highly athletic football player who has all of the physical tools to do a lot of damage to opposing teams. Unfortunately for Carolina, their high-octane QB makes a lot of mistakes. The best way to force Newton into making mistakes is by pressuring last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick.
Against the Chargers, the Bucs ran a lot of stunts in the first half and weren’t getting much pressure on Philip Rivers until making adjustments at halftime and allowing the front seven to go for it. DT Gerald McCoy’s performance this season has been outstanding, although the stat sheet doesn’t reflect his contributions.
McCoy was directly responsible for causing both of Rivers’ interceptions last Sunday. On the first, the third-year three-tech was chasing the San Diego signal caller and on the second pick, McCoy was in the face of Rivers, forcing the errant throw which sealed the deal for the Bucs in the fourth quarter.
Although the Bucs’ staff has been working with the secondary non-stop, Tampa Bay’s pass defense continues to allow chunk plays and without a lockdown corner, will more than likely continue to do so. The only way to combat the 321 yards in the air per contest is by forcing interceptions, something the Bucs have done very well this season with 15, the third most in the NFL. On the other side, Newton has been careless with the ball this season with 10 interceptions (eight touchdowns) through nine games.
Key 2. Keep Man-ing Up
The Bucs’ offensive line has faced some very good pass rushes this year and so far has come away allowing 13 sacks, tied for third fewest in the league. The Panthers are tied for ninth in the NFL with 25 total sacks, with defensive ends Charles Johnson (8.5) and Greg Hardy (6.5) combining for 15 of them.
Tampa Bay’s tackles Donald Penn and Demar Dotson have done an outstanding job holding off Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants), DeMarcus Ware (Cowboys), and Jared Allen (Vikings) and allowing only four sacks among them.
Johnson and Hardy may not be as well-known as the pass rushers the Bucs have faced before them, but they are just as dangerous.
One of the reasons Freeman has been playing so well the past five games is the time he’s been afforded by the O-Line to go through his progressions and make smart choices with the football. A lot has been asked of Tampa Bay’s front five and regardless of the combination they have risen to the challenge every week. If the line can continue their excellent play and keep Freeman upright, the Bucs will be leaving Charlotte with a season sweep of the Panthers.
Key 3. Stay Offensive
The Bucs offense has been generating a buzz all over the league due largely in part to Mike Sullivan transforming the unit into one of the most multi-faceted, well-rounded offenses in the NFL.
Tampa Bay can hurt teams both on the ground and in the air and at times it seems as if the Bucs are playing with too many men on the field because there’s too many weapons for defenses to cover.
The Panthers have the 16th overall defense with opponents averaging 344.9 yards of offense per game and are consistent against both the pass (16th) with 231.9 yards allowed per contest and the run (16th) with an average of 113 yards allowed on the ground.
The best way to wear down a consistent defense is by keeping them guessing. Sullivan needs to be aggressive against a hungry Carolina team that do not want to fall 0-2 to the Bucs for the season.
Key 4. Win The Rookie Showdown
In the season opener, Doug Martin carried the ball 24 times for 95 yards and added four catches for 23 yards. The Tampa Bay rookie is less that 200 yards away from eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards on the season and is already over that mark in yards from scrimmage (1,158). After the performance in Week 1, it would appear Martin should be able to top 100 yards this time around, but there is a big difference between the two meetings – Luke Kuechly.
The Panthers’ first round draft pick has been nothing short of a tackling machine since moving over to Mike to replace an injured Jon Beason. In the first matchup, Kuechly was very quiet due to the different packages Carolina was running but don’t expect the Boston College product to be silent on Sunday.
Since taking over the middle in Week 5, Kuechly is averaging 15.2 tackles per game and has recorded double-digit tackles in five contests.
With Kuechly in the middle and Martin a between-the-tackles runner, the battle between the two rookies will be exciting to say the least. If Martin can come out on top, the Bucs are almost assured a victory.
Key 5. Greg Olsen: Take Two
Former Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Greg Olson sent Bucs fans into fits last season with questionable play calls, lack of using Freeman’s natural abilities, and what seemed to be just breathing air.
The Panther’s have a Greg Olsen of their own that may also cause some fits to the Bucs team and the fans Sunday. Last week against Denver, Olsen had nine receptions for 102 yards and two touchdowns and if the Bucs aren’t focused, the Newton-Olsen combo will be vying for a repeat performance.
The linebackers will be without starting Sam Quincy Black who was lost for the season after suffering a terrifying neck injury tackling Ryan Mathews of the Chargers last week and Adam Hayward is thought to be Black’s replacement.
The sixth-year linebacker out of New Mexico was primarily a two-down back, with Dekoda Watson coming in for third-down pass plays. Watson should continue doing so with Hayward at strongside, but Mason Foster and Lavonte David have been steady against the pass.
At 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, Olsen is a big, strong target for Newton and has replaced WR Steve Smith as Newton’s go-to guy with four more receptions than the veteran receiver. Olsen has posed a matchup problem for defenses this year as focusing too much on the tight end leaves an arsenal of weapons open for Newton to find and vice versa.
Tampa Bay may rely on rookie strong safety Mark Barron to step his game up if Olsen starts to do the same.
Cook: 27-22 Buccaneers
LeBlanc: 24-10 Buccaneers