What are the six key things PewterReport.com Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds will be looking for on Tampa Bay’s second division game of the year, this time against Carolina? Find out in SR’s Pick 6.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 1-2 on the season, but are 1-0 in the NFC South and are hoping to remain undefeated in the division with a home win against the Carolina Panthers, which have swept the Bucs in each of the last two seasons. What are the six things PewterReport.com’s Scott Reynolds is looking for in Tampa Bay’s upcoming game? Find out right here in SR’s Pick 6.
Who: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Carolina Panthers Where: Raymond James Stadium – Tampa, Fla. When: 1:00 p.m. ET – FOX Last meeting: 19-17 loss at Carolina in 2014 Series notes: Panthers have an 18-11 advantage over Bucs all-time
1. CONTAIN CAM
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is playing at an MVP level in guiding the Panthers to a 3-0 start to the 2015 campaign. Newton has completed 56.6 percent of his passes for 685 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions, but what makes him special is his ability to pick up yards, first downs and touchdowns with his legs. Newton’s mobility has been a thorn in the side of the Buccaneers for years and he is the Panthers’ second-leading rusher with 144 yards and two touchdowns this season.
The Bucs need to maintain their pass rush lanes in an attempt to keep him in the pocket and rush as a team rather than four individuals. Tampa Bay’s defensive ends will need to maintain contain on the perimeter, and head coach and defensive play-caller Lovie Smith may want to spy Newton with a linebacker with speed – either Kwon Alexander or Lavonte David. The Panthers are 6-2 against the Buccaneers since drafting Newton with the first overall pick in 2011, including sweeping Tampa Bay in each of the last two seasons. It’s hard to stop Newton, but the Bucs must do their best to contain him. Advantage: Panthers
2. RUSH HOUR
Tampa Bay’s defensive line came up virtually empty in Houston last week, registering a lone sack by defensive tackle Henry Melton – although a strip-sack by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was negated due to a penalty. Defensive end Jacquies Smith, who leads the NFL with four sacks, was shutout by the Texans and must use his speed to pressure Newton and get him to the ground. The Bucs may play him some at right defensive end to get Will Gholston, who is playing very well, on the field at left end.
With George Johnson hampered by a neck injury and ineffectiveness, look for Tampa Bay to use T.J. Fatinikun with greater regularity on third downs and in obvious pass rush situations as he is the fastest defensive end the Bucs have. Newton has only been sacked five times through three games. That’s partly due to his mobility, but also due to the fact that Carolina’s offensive line has blocked well. The Bucs will have the crowd noise on their side to help their pass rush, which should allow Tampa Bay’s edge rushers to get to Newton. Advantage: Buccaneers
3. GANG UP ON GREG With Kelvin Benjamin sidelined for the season with a knee injury and Jericho Cotchery out with an ankle injury, Newton will rely heavily on veteran tight end Greg Olsen, who leads the team with 15 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Olsen has tormented the Bucs in recent years, catching 18 passes for 193 yards and one touchdown in two contests last year, and eight catches for 106 yards and a score in two games in 2013.
Whether it is using bracket coverage with a linebacker in underneath coverage with a safety over the top, or manning up Olsen with a linebacker or a safety, the Bucs must do a better job of taking away Newton’s primary weapon. At age 30, Olsen is still in his prime, evidenced by the fact that he has three catches longer than 20 yards, including a 52-yard reception earlier this year. The Bucs struggled to stop Olsen last year, but have much more athletic personnel on defense to get the job done. Advantage: Panthers
4. RUN AND GUN
Injuries to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Luke Stocker have robbed the Bucs of two of their better blocking tight ends. With only Brandon Myers and Cameron Brate at their disposal, the Bucs may have to use reserve tackle Kevin Pamphile as a blocking tight end in run situations, but also have another, more favorable option. Dirk Koetter could spread out Carolina’s defense and force the Panthers out of base defense and into nickel or dime by deploying four wide receivers. That takes rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson, the Panthers’ first-round pick, off the field and brings in a third cornerback, which a slot receiver like Louis Murphy could take advantage of. Koetter could also line up Mike Evans or Vincent Jackson to create a mismatch and exploit the middle of the field.
The Bucs may have an easier time creating running lanes and establishing the run by running Doug Martin with a four-wide set that prevents the Panthers from stacking up against the run with eight defenders in the box. With rookie quarterback Jameis Winston exceling out of the shotgun and having four receivers to throw to, this could be a personnel grouping that creates problems for Carolina. Advantage: Buccaneers
5. THIRD DOWN MUST BE A CHARM
The Bucs struggled mightily on third down last week in Houston, converting just one of 12 situations. Winston struggled with third down throws as his base got too wide and he didn’t set his feet well and that caused his passes to drift and fall incomplete. Winston didn’t get much help from his receivers last week as Evans, Murphy and Jackson all dropped some catchable balls and that can’t happen this week.
Being in third-and-long didn’t help as the Bucs were usually forced to throw, so winning on first and second down with the running game and some strategic passes is a must to create third-and-short opportunities. Part of the reason why Tampa Bay’s run defense was gashed by Houston’s running game, especially in the second half, was because the Bucs offense couldn’t sustain drives and Smith’s defense wore down from being on the field to much. Converting at least 45 percent of its third downs is a must for Tampa Bay this week, but that’s going to be a tall order against Carolina’s defense – even without Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is missing his third game with a concussion. Advantage: Panthers
6. BUCS MUST BE THE BULLY UP FRONT Tampa Bay has struggled to run against Carolina’s physical front seven in years past, and even though the Bucs rushed for 107 yards in the 2014 season opener, 54 yards came on a sneaky fullback dive from Jorvorskie Lane. Martin was held to nine yards on nine carries in that game, but did rush for 96 yards in the rematch in Carolina in Week 15 thanks to a 63-yard dash. But what Tampa Bay needs against Carolina are steady, chain-moving runs of six yards or more. The Bucs offensive line needs to be more physical and do a better job of opening up running lanes than it did last week in Houston.
With defensive ends Charles Johnson and Frank Alexander on injured reserve, Carolina’s pass rush has been severely hampered. The Panthers traded for defensive end Jared Allen this week, and he will face rookie left tackle Donovan Smith, who must be stout again this week. Tampa Bay’s offensive line held Houston without a sack last week and that must be the case again this week to give Winston time to find his receivers, who might need an extra second to separate from Josh Norman and Charles Tillman, who are big, physical cornerbacks. Advantage: Buccaneers
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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