By Max Luckan
In a week one rematch, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will travel to Bank of America Stadium Sunday to take on the Carolina Panthers, who have been somewhat disappointing. Because it’s a divisional game, it certainly should be intriguing, especially because the Bucs are fighting for a playoff spot and the Panthers are likely out of the race and just trying to play spoiler. This game will be the second time Bucs head coach Greg Schiano and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera meet.
The Panthers currently sit in last place in the NFC South with a 2-7 record, but have played better as of late. Earlier in the year, they lost to the Bucs (16-10) at Raymond James Stadium in the first of their two meetings.
Their best win came against Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins two weeks ago, and their worst loss was at the hands of the New York Giants in week three. While more than likely out of playoff contention, the Panthers now have the opportunity to play spoiler and win some key games. Sunday’s game will be their final matchup against the Bucs this year.
Panthers on Offense
Theoretically, the Panthers have an explosive offense that can beat a team on the ground or through the air. However this year, the Panthers have been mediocre in both areas, ranking 15th in the NFL in rushing with an average of 109.1 yards per game and 17th in the league in passing with an average of 225.2 yards per game.
It’s no secret that the Panthers like to run the ball with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, but they won’t be able to do so against the Bucs, who have one of the top defenses in the league against the run. In turn, the Panthers will try to exploit the weak secondary by taking shots down the field to wide receivers Steve Smith (if he plays) and Louis Murphy, as well as over the middle to tight end Greg Olsen.
Panthers on Defense
The Panthers’ greatest strength on defense is their defensive line with the likes of Charles Johnson, Dwan Edwards, and Greg Hardy, who have all played extremely well this year. The Bucs have suffered multiple injuries on the offensive line, but will have to find a way to protect quarterback Josh Freeman, though it may be a challenge against this squad of defensive linemen.
The Panthers are fairly consistent in stopping the running and passing games, so the Bucs will have to find a good balance between the two in order to be successful. There isn’t one glaring weakness on the defensive side of the ball for the Panthers, but it’s clear that the defensive line is their strongest point.
Overall, the Panthers will bring pressure and force the makeshift offensive line of the Bucs to work extremely hard in trying to open up running lanes for Doug Martin and protecting Freeman, who hasn’t been sacked all too often this season.
Panthers Players to Watch
Cam Newton: This should be obvious, but the play of Newton will dictate the play of the rest of the Panthers’ offense. Newton has struggled with accuracy this year, and will need to have a solid game for the Panthers to have a chance. And as always, he’s a threat to run.
Charles Johnson: Johnson has 8.5 sacks this year and has forced five fumbles. He’s hard to contain, but the Bucs will have to find a way to do so, maybe by doubling him. And if they do, the Panthers have other weapons on the defensive line.
Greg Olsen: Olsen has 43 receptions for three touchdowns this year and is becoming one of Newton’s favorite targets, as was evident with his nine receptions last week against the Denver Broncos. Tight ends are always difficult to cover, but putting a physical linebacker on him should slow him down.
The Panthers lead the all-time series 14-10 over the Bucs, but many of the games have been close. This year, the Bucs won the first game, and look to have the upper hand again this Sunday, and a win would push their winning streak to four games.
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Max Luckan lives in Tampa, FL and is a sports writer covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFL. Luckan has been covering the Buccaneers for a few years now. You can find more of his work at Examiner.com.