NFL PREVIEW: CAROLINA PANTHERS AT TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Head coach Lovie Smith and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers first test for the 2014 season Sunday is a lofty one, the reigning NFC South Champion Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers visit Raymond James Stadium with a defense ranked second last year to the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. The stifling defense surrendered an average of 86.9 rushing yards a game (2nd in the league) and 214.3 passing yards (ranked 6th). The unit is lead by Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy with 15 sacks and Charles Johnson, who’s coming off an 11-sack season. It also helps the unit’s anchored by the 2013 Defensive Player of the year in linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Here’s a few keys the Bucs need to win the game.
Keep It Close
Fans are buying into the idea that Smith will return the Bucs to the old glory days of Tony Dungy. With the defensive credibility of Smith and coordinator Leslie Frazier, the unit should at least keep Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in check.
The running attack of Newton, running backs DeAngelo Williams, and Mike Tolbert accounted for a combined 1,789 of the 2,026 yards in 2013. The unit is even more dangerous with the return of Jonathan Stewart. If the Bucs are successful keeping the rushing contained, they should also contest Newton on every throw bringing in pressure from the front four led by two-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy. The secondary should help contain the unproven new receiving corps.
In the end it may come down to which defense can come up with the big play to turn the game in their favor. The Dungy-led Bucs excelled at providing short fields for the offense to score. Maybe it will take 1-2 big plays with scoring conversions to help put the Panthers away.
Control the short game
The Bucs offense (with or without coordinator Jeff Tedford) will be predicated on how successful Doug Martin is used. If Martin struggles on the ground or through the air, the Bucs defense will be getting a lot of work, which may wreak havoc on the new unit still gaining its regular season legs.
If quarterback Josh McCown can at least prove to be an effective game manager, he can help the defense a lot by maximizing the time of possession and keeping it out of Newton’s hands. If rookies Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins can contribute in the passing game, it will definitely make Martin’s job easier. The Panthers’ defense will no doubt load eight men in the box to make McCown beat them.
Spread the defense out
While the Tedford offense does heavily utilize the running back, the Bucs need to keep the Panthers honest or else they’ll isolate the short and medium routes. A few big gains with deep routes is all it will take for the Panthers to keep themselves from isolate on Martin. If those gains are not made by Jackson, it should take some pressure off of him in coverage as well.