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Scouting Report: Carolina Panthers

Posted Oct 23, 2013

Taking a closer look at the Bucs' opponent in Week Eight, as the Panthers bring a red-hot quarterback and a defense that ranks second in the NFL in points allowed into Tampa Thursday night

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carolina's recent surge has coincided with a significant rise in QB Cam Newton's passing accuracy
  • The Panthers' defense has been strong against both the run and the pass and is much more stout up the middle than in recent seasons
  • Carolina hasn't yet seen a lot of big plays in the return game from Ted Ginn Jr., but Ginn is still a significant threat on special teams
On Thursday, the 0-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 3-3 Carolina Panthers in a nationally-televised prime time game at Raymond James Stadium.  It will be the 26th meeting between the two teams in the regular season, and the first of two intra-divisional matchups this fall (more on the Bucs-Panthers series history here).  The Buccaneers will be looking to follow up on their season sweep of Carolina from last year.

To record their first win of the season, the Buccaneers will have to deal with the NFL's second-ranked scoring defense and an offense that is gathering steam behind the improved play of third-year QB Cam Newton.

HEAD COACH: Ron Rivera was a linebacker on the famous 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team, and he began his NFL coaching career in Chicago as well, in 1997. In subsequent stops in Philadelphia, Chicago again and San Diego, Rivera became known as one of the NFL's top defensive coordinators, and that eventually led to his first head coaching opportunity in Carolina.  The Panthers named Rivera the fourth head coach in their history in January of 2011; since then, Carolina has a 16-22 record, with wins in seven of their last 10 outings dating back to last season.  Rivera has a reputation as a "players' coach" and he obviously brought a wealth of defensive knowledge with him to Charlotte.  Recently, he purposely adopted a more aggressive approach to play-calling on game day, choosing to gamble more often on short fourth downs and similar situations.  Rivera's job had reportedly been in jeopardy following last year's 7-9 campaign, particularly with the team bringing in a new general manager, Dave Gettleman.  However, Panthers Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson made the decision to retain Rivera before bringing on Gettleman, and now Rivera has the team poised to make its first playoff run since 2008.

-- Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera has led his team to seven wins in its last 10 games
OFFENSE: Carolina's 2013 offense is succeeding the same way it has for years, by running the football, an effort that even involves the quarterback.  Carolina currently ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 130.2 after finishing in the top 10 in that category in four of the five previous seasons.  Since the start of the 2008 campaign, no team has run for more yards than the Panthers' 12,058. They're doing so without one of their top running backs, Jonathan Stewart, who has been on the physically unable to perform list since the start of the season due to preseason surgery on both ankles.  Without his usual running mate, DeAngelo Williams has taken the lead, running for 334 yards and averaging 4.1 per carry, with frequent running plays for Newton sprinkled in.  Newton is the team's second-leading rusher with 179 yards and he has also found the end zone twice.  Big back Mike Tolbert, who can also serve as a lead blocker, is a red zone threat, scoring a team-high three rushing touchdowns.  In addition, Stewart is close to returning to the active roster and has not yet been ruled out for Thursday's game.

-- QB Cam Newton has completed over 80% of his passes the last two games
Where the Panthers' offense has really made great strides in their past two games – victories over Minnesota and St. Louis by a combiend 65-25 score – is in Newton's accuracy in the passing game.  Newton completed 56% or fewer of his passes in the previous three games but was a combiend 35 of 43 (81.4%) against the Vikings and Rams.  Putting the football on the money to 13th-year receiver Steve Smith is always a good idea; while Smith is on pace for just 781 yards after averaging 1,284 yards in his first two years of collaboration with Newton he has scored in each of the past two games.  While Smith's numbers are down, the Panthers have fielded their most balanced passing attack in years, with Smith, TE Greg Olsen and WRs Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. all recording at least 250 yards already.  Those four have combined for nine of the Panthers' 10 touchdown catches.

With former Buccaneers' Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula at the helm of Carolina's attack (last year's coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, left to take over the head job in Cleveland), the Panthers have played excellent situational football.  The team ranks ninth in the NFL in red zone TD percentage (61.1%) and third in third-down conversion rate (45.9%).  Both of those numbers, again, have much to do with the array of talents possessed by the man running the offense.  Newton's passing on third downs has been excellent this season, headlined by a 114.3 passer rating in that situation that is second only to Peyton Manning's 125.7, and he's just as much of a threat in the red zone to take it in himself.  Two weeks ago against the Vikings, Newton threw three touchdown passes and ran for a fourth, already the third time he has achieved that feat in his NFL career.  One of those outings came against the Buccaneers in 2011.  Newton accounted for eight total touchdowns against the Bucs in two games that season, both Carolina victories.  Last year, Newton had just two touchdowns against Tampa Bay, both through the air, equally the number of interceptions he threw in those two games.  Not coincidentally, both of those outings ended in "Ws" for the Buccaneers.

DEFENSE: Arguably, the Panthers' 3-1 run after an 0-2 start could be pinned more on a very strong stretch for the team's defense.  After giving up an average of more than 400 yards in season-opening losses to Seattle (12-7) and Buffalo (24-23), the Panthers have surrendered an average of 252 yards per outing over the last four.  Carolina has also been on a turnover tear, producing 14 takeaways (against six giveaways) in the last four games, in the process rising all the way to a tie for sixth in the NFL's turnover ratio ranking, at +5.

-- S Mike Mitchell leads the Panthers with three interceptions
Carolina is led by a front seven that is fast establishing itself as one of the league's best.  Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are well-established pass-rushers in the NFL and each already has three sacks this season.  Nine different players have combined to produce the Panthers' 19 sacks on defense, and the team is sixth in the NFL in QB takedowns per pass play.  Between Johnson and Hardy is where the Panthers have made their biggest improvement on defense.  Carolina drafted Star Lotulelei in the first round and Kawann Short in the second round in April; those two combined with seventh-year man Colin Cole have given the Panthers a very stout defensive front against the run, where the Panthers rank fourth in the league.

The linebacking corps is led by 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly.  Kuechly is again the Panthers' leading tackler in 2013 and he's also added two interceptions and a reputation as one of the league's fastest-rising stars.  The strong play of outside linebackers Thomas Davis and Chase Blackburn also made Carolina comfortable enough to trade away long-time Panther linebacker Jon Beason; Davis, in particular, has been productive with 50 tackles, three sacks and four passes defensed.

Carolina's secondary was supposed to be its weak link this season, but the Panthers find themselves ranked fifth in the league against the pass nearly halfway into the season.  While the aggressive and disruptive play of Carolina's front seven obviously is a big factor in that strong pass defense, the backfield has endured a rash of injuries and still played well.  Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is off to the best start of his career, punctuated by a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage last Sunday against the Rams.  The Panthers made a number of lower-profile additions to their secondary over the offseason and the one paying the biggest dividends is former Oakland Raiders safety Mike Mitchell.  Mitchell leads the team with three interceptions and has brought a hard-hitting style to the Carolina secondary.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Bucs might be able to find an advantage over Carolina in the third phase of the game, where the Panthers are ranked in the lower half of the league in most return and coverage categories.  Despite adding Ginn, who had done his best NFL work in the return game during six years in Miami and San Francisco, Carolina ranks 21st in punt return average and 22nd in kickoff return average.  Ginn is picking up 7.7 yards per punt runback and 25.3 yards per kickoff return.

-- WR Ted Ginn handles all of the punt and kickoff returns
On the other hand, K Graham Gano has been perfect so far in his second season with the Panthers, making 16 extra point tries and all nine of his field goal attempts.  Gano's good work this year includes three blasts from 50 yards or beyond.  Perhaps just as importantly, Gano leads the entire NFL in touchback percentage on his kickoffs, with only three of his 30 kickoffs being returned so far.  Punter Brad Nortman, a sixth-round pick in 2012, is averaging 47.3 gross yards per punt, with a net of 39.5 that ranks 21st in the NFL.