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.
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.
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.