Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers face calmer, new-look Bucs

Former Tampa Bay defensive back Ronde Barber isn’t ready to say new coach Lovie Smith will return the Buccaneers to the playoffs, but he said returning the Bucs to some sense of normalcy is a good start.

Barber played his final season in 2012 under Bucs coach Greg Schiano, who was either a disciplinarian or a control freak, although most Tampa Bay players viewed him as the latter.

Schiano was fired in January after going 11-21 in two seasons and replaced by the even-keeled Smith, the former Chicago coach who guided the Bears to three division titles and a Super Bowl appearance in nine seasons.

“It’s like it went from Pluto to Mars or something. It was so far out in right field before,” Barber said. “Lovie has brought some calm and a different demeanor. It doesn’t even seem like the same building, and some of that has to do with all the turnover.”

In addition to Schiano, the Glazer family that owns the Bucs also fired general manager Mark Dominik. Tampa Bay hired former Arizona personnel director Jason Licht as GM, and he made sweeping changes in the front office.

Several significant roster changes were also made, beginning with the addition of former Panthers and Bears quarterback Josh McCown, who will start ahead of ex-N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon.

The Bucs brought in several established players in the secondary and along the defensive line.

Barber, the Fox analyst who will call Sunday’s Panthers-Bucs game, said the biggest factor in the Week 1 matchup will involve a returning Pro Bowl defensive tackle for Tampa Bay.

“The storyline will be whoever’s facing Gerald McCoy. He has been completely dominant in preseason so far,” Barber said in a phone interview.

McCoy, the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, aligns mostly over the guard in the Bucs’ 4-3 base. In the Panthers’ two wins against Tampa Bay last season, McCoy usually was lined up against the right guard – Chris Scott in the first meeting and Nate Chandler in the second game.

Though McCoy finished with only one tackle in the two games against Carolina, Barber said he looks like he’s playing with purpose this year.

“From the first snap of the Jacksonville game, he’s in the backfield (for) a 4-yard tackle for loss (on running back Jordan Todman). And it’s been that way all preseason,” Barber said. “He looks like he’s angling for a new contract.”

McCoy, who is in a contract year, is part of a stout defensive front for the Bucs, who gave former Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson a guaranteed $24 million contract and added defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who had 5.5 sacks last season as a pass-rush specialist for Seattle.

McCoy figures to be matched mostly against Panthers rookie right guard Trai Turner, who was slowed by a groin injury near the end of training camp. With all the stunts the Bucs employ, center Ryan Kalil and Chandler, who has shifted to right tackle, will also get a shot at McCoy.

Tampa Bay reshaped its secondary after releasing five-time Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis in a money-saving move. The Bucs signed ex-Tennessee corner Alterraun Verner to a four-year deal.

Verner dealt with a hamstring injury during the preseason, but Barber believes he will play well in the Tampa-2 zone scheme.

“You see the movement, you see the quickness, you see the hand placement,” Barber said. “He’s a very fluid athlete, and I think he helps them immediately.”

Offensively, Barber said the key will be the play of McCown under coordinator Jeff Tedford, the former Cal coach who has never called plays in the NFL. Tedford, who is expected to return this week after undergoing a medical procedure a week ago, kept his offense under wraps while employing vanilla looks during the preseason.

So Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will have to be ready to adjust on the fly.

Barber isn’t sure what to expect. He said McCown told him the Bucs will employ an innovative scheme, while Tedford told Barber he’s not doing “anything groundbreaking.”

Barber said the players will know what to expect from Smith, which should be a welcome change in the locker room.

“He won’t ride the emotional roller-coaster, which is very good for any team, but especially a team that’s going through what the Bucs are going through right now,” Barber said of Smith. “When he talks to you, you feel like he’s telling you the truth. That makes a difference. He’s a nice return to normalcy.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer