In 2012, with the Democratic National Convention in full swing in Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers headed to Florida nearly a week before their season opener at Tampa Bay.
It was the first game for defensive-minded coach Greg Schiano, whose Buccaneers held the Panthers to 10 yards rushing in Tampa Bay’s 16-10 win at Raymond James Stadium.
Two years later, the Bucs have another defensive-minded coach making his debut in former Chicago coach Lovie Smith. The big difference for the Panthers is the status of quarterback Cam Newton, whose cracked ribs make establishing a running game that much more important for Carolina.
“We’ve got three of the best running backs in the National Football League,” left tackle Byron Bell said this week. “So you just pick who you want (to have) the ball, then we’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got to get these guys in the open field.”
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The Panthers didn’t have Jonathan Stewart in the 2012 opener against the Bucs. He was inactive with an ankle injury that bothered him most of the season.
But defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and his Bucs teammates stymied the Panthers’ other backs, who ran 13 times for 10 yards, which tied for the worst single-game total in franchise history.
How bad was it for the Panthers?
Wide receiver Kealoha Pilares was their leading rusher with 5 yards on one carry.
DeAngelo Williams ran six times for minus-1 yard, a career low, while the Panthers’ 13 rushing attempts were the fourth-fewest in their history.
Given the turnover among both coaching staffs – Mike Shula replaced Rob Chudzinski as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator before last season – Stewart didn’t see the value in discussing the 2012 game.
“You just said two years ago. We’re living in the moment, man. So we’re practicing what we know about them now,” Stewart said Thursday. “They’ve got a new coaching staff. So I expect them to be an NFL team. They’re all good.”
The Bucs’ defensive front is particularly stout, led by McCoy, a two-time Pro Bowler who is coming off a strong preseason. Bell said Tampa Bay’s front four is doing fewer stunts than they did under Schiano, but Stewart says they still present a challenge.
“Definitely they get upfield and get off the ball really fast,” Stewart said. “The line of scrimmage is going to be key to control.”
While Newton is banged-up with his rib injury and a surgically repaired left ankle, the running backs appear to be in good shape.
Stewart said he feels good after missing 17 games the past two seasons because of ankle and knee problems. Williams and fullback Mike Tolbert also are healthy after coaches limited their carries during the exhibitions.
Williams was not available to the media Thursday after declining all interview requests but one – with former Panthers general manager Marty Hurney – during the preseason.
But Bell said the offensive linemen are motivated by the Panthers’ inability to run the ball in the 2012 game.
“We didn’t run the ball effectively, and that’s one thing we’re going to do,” Bell said. “We’re going to test it out again. The challenge is set. Coaches put it on our backs. Right now I’m getting reminded of it. And I’m pretty sure we’re going to get reminded of it again in the meeting.
“We’ve got to go back out there and change history.”