A scouting report on the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who meet Thursday at Bank of America Stadium in search of a key divisional win:
When the Panthers pass the ball ...
They need to take a deep shot every now and again to keep the Bucs honest. When they don’t? That’s how you end up with the boring, ho-hum passing attack that hardly challenged the Los Angeles Rams in Week 1. And although it’s only a one-game sample, Tampa’s secondary only allowed 158 net passing yards to San Francisco in their first game. Greg Olsen is questionable for Thursday night but said this week he expects to play. Regardless, Cam Newton needs to get the ball to DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel in space more than was the case against Los Angeles — and Samuel especially should run a go route every few possessions, even if Carolina never completes one.
When the Panthers run the ball ...
Christian McCaffrey didn’t have anything left to prove in Week 1, but he again showed why he’s among the NFL’s rising stars. He recorded over 200 total yards, with 128 of those coming on the ground. And it’s not like he was fighting for 2 or 3 yards at a time — he averaged 6.7 yards per carry. Gerald McCoy is gone from the interior of Tampa’s defensive line, but free agent signee Ndamukong Suh can be just as disruptive in spurts, and linebacker Lavonte David is an athletic fit for the middle of the Bucs defense. The trouble is, Carolina’s offensive line is gelling more by the day, meaning McCaffrey could again have a standout performance.
When the Buccaneers pass the ball ...
The Panthers’ secondary better keep their hands at the ready. Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston hasn’t lived up to his potential as a No. 1 overall draft pick and even was benched for spurts last season. In Tampa’s Week 1 loss, he threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and was probably lucky not to have a third ball picked off. Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said this week that Bucs receiver Mike Evans is one of the NFL’s more underrated players at his positions, and his matchup with cornerback James Bradberry will be one of the most fun of the evening. Tampa’s athletic tight end combo of Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard could also present problems in coverage ... but only if Winston can get them the ball, which is far from a given.
When the Buccaneers run the ball ...
Carolina needs to be more stout in its gaps. Multiple defensive linemen said this week that missed assignments against the Rams were key to Todd Gurley getting going, and his running proficiency proved to be the momentum swing Los Angeles needed to pull out a win. The Bucs, however, don’t have a back of Gurley’s caliber. Coach Ron Rivera will continue adjusting the Panthers’ defensive line rotation to get Kawann Short and McCoy on the field together more often, as those two can wreck a run game on their own. Add in that this is McCoy’s first game against his old team, and Tampa’s combination of Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones appears in for tough running.
Joey Slye made his first regular-season kick last weekend, but he also missed his first attempt, which was the fear when the team first placed veteran Graham Gano on season-ending injured reserve. But Slye’s leg strength is an asset, especially in two-minute situations, and that can come in handy. Meanwhile, this game will be a homecoming of sorts for Bucs kicker Bradley Pinion, who is originally from Concord and played collegiately at Clemson. He’s solid, but not spectacular. As for the return game, both Ray-Ray McCloud for Carolina and T.J. Logan for Tampa are unknown-but-promising commodities.
Rivera admitted that he let Rams coach Sean McVay get the better of him at times in Week 1, and while that sort of honesty is appreciated in the locker room, you have to bet it also gets Rivera a little fired up. Tampa coach Bruce Arians was out of coaching last season, but the offensive guru with an affinity for deep passing was hired this offseason to help salvage Winston’s career. It’s not often that you get two former AP Coach of the Year winners against one another, and Rivera’s defensive inclination will be fun to monitor against Arians’ offense. If anything, Rivera knows his players more thoroughly than Arians does, which may help with in-game adjustments.
This is the sort of game the Panthers need to win if they want to make it back to the playoffs in 2019. Most in the locker room felt they let one get away against the Rams, and doing so for the second week in a row — and against a divisional opponent — sets a bad precedent for the rest of the season. Expect Carolina’s defense to come out aggressive and looking for takeaways, and although Winston the potential to throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns in any game, it doesn’t happen often. Playing turnover-free football should be enough to get a win on Thursday, and if Newton can complete a deep pass or two? Even better. Regardless, McCaffrey presents too much of a matchup nightmare for Tampa to realistically contain this offense.
Panthers 33, Buccaneers 23