Game preview: Buccaneers at Panthers

Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Buccaneers at Panthers game is previewed ahead of Sunday’s showdown at Bank of America Stadium.

This is part of a season-long preview series where we’ll break down both teams, primarily the opponent, ahead of the matchup and finish with some ‘keys of the game’ for the Panthers.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Winners of four out of their last five, the Bucs sit at a respectable 10-4 heading into the final stretch of the regular season and now prepare for their first of two matchups remaining with the Carolina Panthers.

The Buccaneers are fresh off of a shut-out loss to New Orleans, marking the first time this season they’ve been held to fewer than 19 points. With the one-seed in the NFC still within reach, Tampa is sure to bring urgency into Sunday’s tilt in Charlotte.

They returned their entire starting unit to begin the 2021 campaign, and not a whole lot has changed throughout the season as they stayed relatively healthy for the majority of the year. But they were hit by the injury bug last week and very likely will be without some key contributors in at least the near future. Wide Receiver Chris Godwin is out for the year with an ACL tear. Fellow receiver Mike Evans (hamstring) has yet to participate in practice as of Thursday. Leading rusher Leonard Fournette is dealing with a hamstring and ankle injury and is trending towards not playing this week. Those are just a few of the several questions heading into the matchup.

Tom Brady has remarkably been on an MVP trajectory in his 22nd year in the league, currently leading the NFL in passing yards (4,164) and passing touchdowns (36) while boasting a passer rating above 100. There isn’t much to be said about him that hasn’t been told over the past couple decades. He remains one of the best in the game, and navigates the pocket about as well as anyone in the league. While his arm strength has slightly regressed, he’s even more lethal pre-snap which makes him a force on any given down even when it’s not a pass play. Last week’s shutout was his first in 16 years. Very much an outlier.

TAMPA, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 19: Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in action during the 2nd quarter of the game against the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on December 19, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Head Coach Bruce Arians recently announced they’ll have WR Antonio Brown back, and that now seems to be a necessity given their lack of depth at the position. Though his most productive years are behind him, Brown still has plenty of tools to be a weapon on the field. His precise route running is still sharp and he possesses some of the most sure hands in the league. His playoff run last year, including an important touchdown in the Super Bowl, shows his value on the field. He’ll likely be a top target this week if Evans is a no-go.

Rob Gronkowski has performed at a high level at times throughout the season and still has that strong rapport with Brady. He’s often a reliable target on third down, doing most of his damage down the seam. Though he’s been banged up at times, he still has 40 catches for 527 yards and six touchdowns on the year. A great blocker, and still very large human being, Gronk is a tough guy to corral. Hard to dedicate a DB to cover him given that mismatch.

Tristan Wirfs, in just his second season, has already established himself as one of the best tackles in the league, and likely best right tackle. He’s only been penalized three times this season, and has allowed just two sacks (per PFF). He’ll be a test for Brian Burns throughout.

Defensively, the unit hasn’t been as dominant as they were last season, but they can still turn it on at any moment. They allow just 5.2 yards per play, good for sixth in the NFL. They also have 37 sacks to go along with a league-high 180 pressures (that’s a pressure on nearly 30% of all snaps). And given their 39& blitz rate, that comes as no surprise. They send guys from all over, and do it often. It’ll once again force the Panthers offense to get the ball out quick.

Their interior is stout, beginning with Vita Vea. At 6’4″, 347 pounds, Vea is about as unmovable a force as there can be. He constantly requires double teams, and plays the run extremely well, plugging rush lanes with ease. His presence up front usually serves as a great set-up for blitzing linebackers to get free, but he has three sacks this year as well, serving as a dual-threat in that capacity. Ndamukong Suh has benefitted from that as well, and at defensive tackle he’s been a solid pass rusher with six sacks. He’s added 13 quarterback hits, good for third on the team.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – DECEMBER 05: Vita Vea #50 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers applying pressure during the second quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 05, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Their linebacker corps is among the best, if not the best, in all of football. Starting with outside linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett. Pierre-Paul is a rangy, athletic rusher while Barrett possesses more raw power, serving as great complements to each other on opposite sides. Barrett is having another spectacular season. He has an interception, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, nine sacks, and a team-high 21 quarterback hits. He’s all over the field. On the inside is Devin White and Lavonte David. Both are great complements to each other as well given White’s athletic skill in space, and David’s ability against the run. White can make plays all over the field and given his speed he’s hard to get hands on from a blocking perspective.

The secondary has been their weakest link, though as Matt Rhule stated in his Wednesday press conference, this team really has no weakness. Sean Murphy-Bunting has been probably their best and consistent corner on the outside while veteran Richard Sherman has provided depth and quality snaps as well. They’re best asset comes at safety in Antoine Winfield Jr., who’s currently questionable. He would be a huge addition if he’s able to make it back from a foot injury.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers are hoping to find direction, rhythm and momentum into these final three contests as their playoff hopes are all but squashed heading into this one. Sitting at 5-9, they’re looking to bring some positivity into the offseason.

The biggest news for the team has been the recent activation of Sam Darnold as he returns from injury and is eyeing his first playing time since week nine. Matt Rhule said this week that while Cam Newton will get the start for Carolina, Darnold is expected to play. It will be interesting to see how they deploy both quarterbacks in this game, as it will possibly forecast what to expect in the remaining weeks. They’ll at least be able to get a few more looks at their free agent signing ahead of next season.

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – NOVEMBER 07: Sam Darnold #14 of the Carolina Panthers throws the ball during the first quarter against the New England Patriots at Bank of America Stadium on November 07, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

It’s been hard to find a lot of positives recently as the team finds itself in the midst of a four-game losing streak. Cam has helped mask some of the issues rushing, but they have still struggled mightily in the passing game overall. The team has yet to hit three hundred yards passing in a game this season.

Ameer Abdullah has emerged as a quality pass catching option out of the backfield, but the team is hoping to get more out of Chuba Hubbard moving forward. It’s been tough for the rookie considering game-script has not been favorable to him this season and the offensive line has had its issues. Still, though, there’s been little to no juice from the rushers not named Christian McCaffrey.

Even defensively, the team’s overall strength, they’ve had their issues. 31, 29, 33 and 27. Those are the points they’ve allowed over the last four weeks, respectively. That’s problematic especially when the offense has had the issues it’s had. And the defense has struggled particularly in the fourth quarter of games. Even when the Panthers have battled back, it seems the opposition is able to fend them off. And while things are trending in the wrong direction, and have for most of the season, they still have an opportunity in front of them to give their division rival all they’ve got and potentially play spoiler for the Bucs’ hopes of getting a top seed.

Keys to the game

Take your shots: Given the Buc’s high-powered offense, and pressure packed defense, the Panthers have to at least attempt to take advantage of their weakness on defense: the secondary. With Robby Anderson on the outside, and potentially DJ Moore in the lineup, they’ll have the weapons to take deep shots and they should. Hitting Tampa with a big play here and there could be all that’s needed to give the Panthers a leg up.

Keep pressuring: Normally against this offense I’d suggest relying on your four-man rush and keeping the receivers in check. But with the Bucs’ banged up offense, this may be the perfect opportunity to apply pressure like this defense has done all season. If they bracket Brown or Gronkowski, the Panthers can buy themselves some time to get to Brady and stymie their offensive rhythm. The Saints got to Brady four times last week, and grabbed two turnovers.

Max Protect: The Bucs blitz all the time and send guys from various spots. Far too often their linebackers get a free run at the quarterback. Newton and Darnold aren’t Lamar Jackson, and so they’re going to need some time for plays to develop. Thus, they should utilize max protection when possible. Bring in an extra tight end or tackle. Keep the running backs in to block. Whatever it takes, this will be their best chance at keeping the QB upright, and maximize their chances as a successful big play.

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