CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Panthers at Buccaneers game is previewed ahead of Sunday’s regular season finale.
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.
Given this is a repeat opponent, this will be treated more as an update. For a full breakdown on the rosters, check our previous Bucs/Panthers preview from late December.
*All stats are provided by pro-football-reference.com
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A few things have changed since the Bucs defeated the Panthers 32-6 two weeks ago at Bank of America Stadium. For starters, the team released one of its top wide receivers in Antonio Brown following a bizarre series of events that culminated with Brown leaving last week’s contest against the New York Jets mid-game. The details of what led to that, however, are still being determined as both parties have vastly different accounts. But regardless, Tampa Bay is now without two of its primary targets in Brown, and Chris Godwin (Injured Reserve).
Additionally, the Buccaneers have clinched a playoff berth at 12-4 and currently sit as the three-seed in the NFC postseason standings. They still have a shot to grab the two-seed with a win Sunday and a Rams loss, so head coach Bruce Arians indicated this week that the team does not intent to sit its starters for the finale. That being said, Carolina was taken to task by several non-starters in the loss two weeks back.
In their matchup on December 26, Antonio Brown was a big factor against the Panthers, catching a game-high ten passes for 101 yards. Outside of Brown, though, the Bucs were working with a lot of reserves especially in the backfield. And the backup running backs, given Leonard Fournette’s placement on IR, answered the call.
Both Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Ronald Jones II did considerable damage on the ground to the tune of a combined 135 yards rushing and two touchdowns, including a big 55-yard score by Vaughn. Cyril Grayson had a big 62 yard catch, and even backup tight end Cameron Brate found the end zone. So the Bucs were able to have a highly productive day utilizing lesser known talent on their roster. And they’ll likely be working with a similar grouping this week given the release of Brown and with Fournette/Godwin still on IR. That being said, Jones II didn’t practice this week and so an expanded role for Vaughn seems imminent.
Tom Brady wasn’t his MVP-caliber self in the matchup, but he didn’t need to be. Tampa Bay was having success on the ground, and its defense kept the Panthers from threatening for most the game. But it was more of an anomaly performance from the 44-year-old QB than it was the norm. So far Brady leads the league in completions, attempts, yards, touchdowns. If that holds following week 18, it will be the first time in his career that he has led the NFL in all four categories. You can bet 12 will be motivated come Sunday.
The Panthers are now riding a six-game losing streak as they look to avoid back-to-back five-win seasons (5-11 currently). Sam Darnold has started the past couple of weeks for the Panthers following his return from injured reserve, but not much progress has been made offensively. Head coach Matt Rhule stated this week that all three quarterbacks (including P.J. Walker who returns from the COVID list) have a chance to play on Sunday.
Darnold and Newton saw the field against the Bucs in week 16, completing fewer than 50% of their passes and no touchdowns. Newton tossed one interception. Any rhythm whatsoever has evaded the offense, and that’s unlikely to change much ahead of a matchup with one of the league’s best defenses. Tampa Bay held Carolina to just six total points in their first meeting.
Carolina, nevertheless, has an opportunity to end an overall disappointing season on a good note with a win over a talented divisional opponent and defending Super Bowl champion. They’ll almost certainly be doing so without Stephon Gilmore once again, who was placed on the COVID-19 list Thursday. But most of their players are back healthy, so they’ll have more at their disposal as opposed to recent weeks. And they’ll get another look at rookie Brady Christensen at left tackle, a position he may be moving off of going into next fall. But any additional tape will aid the team in those decisions. And with so much uncertainty heading into next season, the Panthers will attempt to bring any amount of momentum they can into the offseason and upcoming 2022 campaign.
Keys to the game
While these are teams are very similar to what they were two weeks ago, the keys to the game will also mirror the previous ones.
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, along with DJ Moore’s ability to separate, 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.
Stop the run: Carolina can’t let Vaughn and Jones beat them again in this one. While Brady is a lethal component on offense, the Panthers will be better served to at least force him to beat them through the air rather than skate by with the run game. Dialing up more pressure and shutting down the run will at least give those outside edge rushers a chance to pin their ears back and do what they do best.
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. (This will be a good chance to test Christensen once again). 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.