To continue their own three-game winning streak and snap Carolina's seven-game skein, the Buccaneers will need to slow down Carolina's multi-faceted rushing attack and avoid turning the ball over against a defense that ranks second in taking it away.
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. 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, and the topic was raised again when Carolina began this season with a 1-3 record. However, Rivera's defense has hit its stride in 2013, ranking first in the league in points allowed and third in yards allowed, and his tweaked offensive staff has found a way to turn QB Cam Newton's outsized skills into victory. Rivera has the Panthers on a seven-game winning streak that is the longest active run in the NFL and Carolina is in very good position to make their first playoff appearance since 2008. One more win will definitely give the Panthers their first winning season since '08. Rivera's overall record as head coach of the Panthers is 21-21.
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. In addition to the aforementioned third-down success (46.9%), the team ranks second in the NFL in red zone TD percentage (66.7%), having moved up seven spots in those rankings since the last time it faced the Buccaneers. It helps to have a dual threat like Newton at their disposal; the former Auburn star already has 57 passing touchdowns and 27 rushing touchdowns in his career, the first player in league history to top 50 and 25 in those two categories in any three-year span. Newton also already has 19 games with at least one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown in his career, including several against the Buccaneers in 2011. When he chooses to pass it, Newton still looks most often to the still-excellent Steve Smith (51 catches for 581 yards and three touchdowns), but has found three very good complementary targets this year in tight end Greg Olsen (45-526-5), wide receiver Brandon LaFell (40-495-4) and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (27-422-3). With a team-high 15.6-yard average per catch, Ginn has emerged as a new deep threat for Newton, catching two of the three 40+-yard completions the Panthers have this year.
DEFENSE: As well as Newton has played, the Panthers' defense is probably most responsible for the team's 8-1 run after an 0-2 start. 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 274 yards per outing over the last nine. Carolina's defense has also been opportunistic, creating 24 turnovers, tied for the second-highest total in the league. With the offense doing a good job of protecting the ball (14 giveaways), Carolina is tied with the Buccaneers for fourth in the league with a +10 turnover ratio.
The linebacking corps is led by 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is again the Panthers' leading tackler in 2013 (93, tied for ninth in the NFL) and he's also added three 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 89 tackles, four sacks, an interception and four passes defensed. Thomas and the Buccaneers'
Carolina's secondary was supposed to be its weak link this season, but the Panthers find themselves ranked seventh in the league against the pass, giving up 215.9 yards per game. 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 having the best season of his career, ranking third on the team in tackles and first with nine passes defense, including a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage against St. Louis in Week Seven. 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 is tied for the team lead with three interceptions and has brought a hard-hitting style to the Carolina secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Carolina's special teams have improved markedly in two areas since the last time they played the Buccaneers: punt returns and net punting. The Panthers have risen to 10th in the former category with Ginn leading the way. Ginn now ranks fifth in the league with a 12.9-yard punt return average, a category in which he stands fourth among active players in the NFL in terms of career numbers. Rookie punter Brad Nortman, who broke off a 72-yard punt last week in Miami, has been strong in the season's second half and is now sixth in the NFL in gross punting (47.6) and 11th in net (40.3).