The Buccaneers may be catching the Panthers at the right time as there has been a lot of roster turnover this offseason in Carolina. 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, FL
When: 4:25 p.m. ET – Fox
Last year: Panthers swept Bucs 2-0
All-time series: Panthers lead 16-11
1. BUCS’ O- LINE MUST BE STOUT AGAINST PANTHERS’ FRONT FOUR
The Bucs vs. Panthers game has the feel of being a low-scoring, defensive slugfest. Carolina’s strength is its defensive line, led by franchise defensive end Greg Hardy, who had 15 sacks last season, and right end Charles Johnson, who had 11 sacks last year for the Panthers, who led the league in sacks with 60 in 2013. Bucs left tackle Anthony Collins was shaky at times in the preseason, surrendering a couple of sacks, and has to be on top of his game against the fast and physical Hardy, who is in a contract year and has terrorized Tampa Bay in the past with 2.5 sacks in the past three games.
Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, last year’s first-round pick, is an emerging force against the run and also had three sacks in his rookie season. Guards Patrick Omameh and newcomer Logan Mankins along with center Evan Dietrich-Smith will have to keep Lotulelei at bay in pass protection and power him out of place in the run game. The Bucs’ retooled offensive line faces a stiff challenge right out of gate against the Panthers’ veteran, playmaking unit and can’t allow more than a couple of sacks in order for Tampa Bay’s offense to be successful.
2. McCOWN MUST BE EFFICIENT AND TURNOVER-FREE
Points might be hard to come by for Tampa Bay’s offense, which features four new offensive linemen and a new quarterback in Josh McCown. The veteran QB was the sixth most accurate QB last year, completing 66 percent of his passes. In the preseason, McCown completed 74 percent of his throws and will have to be near that mark against Carolina to sustain drives and put points on the board.
McCown did throw two interceptions during the preseason, with both coming on throws that were off his back foot while he was being pressured. McCown has some mobility, so if he is pressured he needs to try to avoid the sack and scramble rather than put the ball up for grabs. If the Bucs are turnover-free they stand a good chance of winning on Sunday.
3. GET NEWTON ON THE GROUND
The Buccaneers defensive line will have the pressure of containing one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the league in Cam Newton. Although containing him won’t be good enough as Tampa Bay needs to sack Newton multiple times in order to be successful in the season opener. Complicating matters for Newton is the fact that he is coming off offseason ankle surgery and injured his ribs in the third preseason game against New England. That might make him an easier target for the Bucs’ pass rush, which must maintain gap integrity when going after Newton and not allow him a clear running lane.
Like the Bucs, the Panthers have reshuffled their offensive line, and Tampa Bay’s veteran defensive line must take advantage of a lack of chemistry upfront in Carolina. Gone is long-time left tackle Jordan Gross, who retired. He’s replaced by Byron Bell, who played right tackle and is now moved to the left side where he’ll square off against Michael Johnson. Nate Chandler, a newcomer to the offensive line, will be the right tackle and will have to use his athleticism to combat the hard-charging Adrian Clayborn.
Amini Silatolu and rookie Trai Turner are Carolina’s guards, and they, along with Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, will have the tough task of containing Pro Bowl tackle Gerald McCoy and nose tackle Clinton McDonald. McCoy is on top of his game right now and if he doesn’t get to Newton a couple of times on Sunday he will surely set up sacks for others.
4. DAVID NEEDS TO OUTPLAY KUECHLY
Although linebackers don’t play directly against each other, two of the best young ‘backers in the NFL will be showcased on Sunday. Carolina’s Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly had 156 tackles, four interceptions, two sacks and seven passes broken up last year, while David posted career-highs in several categories, including tackles (145), passes defensed (10), sacks (seven), interceptions (five), forced fumbles (two), fumble recoveries (one) in addition to a safety.
Kuechly and David are both one-man wrecking crews that have the ability to take over games. Whichever linebacker makes the most plays for his team on Sunday could definitely determine the outcome. If the Bucs want to help the Panthers achieve the dubious goal of losing their seventh straight season opener in as many years, David will have to play like a Pro Bowler at the friendly confines of Raymond James Stadium.
5. DON’T LET BENJAMIN BEAT YOU
The Panthers completely revamped their receiving corps this offseason. Gone is 35-year old Steve Smith, who is the best player in franchise history, along with Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn, Jr. Carolina signed veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, who lack dynamic playmaking ability, but are dependable route-runners, and drafted 6-foot-5, 240-pound Kelvin Benjamin. Although he’s a rookie, Benjamin is clearly the most talented receiver and is the biggest threat to the Buccaneers on opening day.
Although Alterraun Verner is Tampa Bay’s best and most accomplished cornerback, he is only 5-foot-10, 187 pounds. Whether it is Verner or a bigger cornerback like 6-foot-2, 187-pound Johnthan Banks, the Bucs must pay close attention to Benjamin and use bracket coverage with linebackers underneath and safeties over the top to neutralize him.
6. BUCS MUST ACHIEVE BALANCE ON OFFENSE
The Panthers will try to establish their powerful running game right off the bat and the Buccaneers must do the same. Tampa Bay has some tempting targets in a trio of 6-foot-5 targets in wide receivers Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, in addition to rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. But every time Josh McCown drops back to throw, it’s an opportunity for the Panthers to create a turnover with a sack-fumble or an interception.
When the Bucs have had success against Carolina Doug Martin has been able to rush close to 100 yards or more. In a 16-10 win in the 2012 season opener, Martin had 95 yards and averaged four yards per carry. Later that season, Martin rushed for 138 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Martin having success running the ball will keep Carolina’s potent pass rush at bay and tire out the Panthers’ defensive linemen. A strong running game with Tampa Bay’s rebuilt offensive line will keep the defense at bay and open up play-action passing opportunities for Jackson, Evans and Seferian-Jenkins downfield.
SR’s Prediction: Buccaneers 20, Panthers 17
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd 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 enjoys 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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