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Game Day: Panthers at Buccaneers

Posted Oct 24, 2013

Prepare for Thursday night's game with our preview, including injury reports, key matchups, series history, players to watch and more

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • RB Mike James will have an expanded role as the Bucs try to crack the NFL's fifth-ranked defense
  • DE Adrian Clayborn on T Jordan Gross will be a key matchup for the Buccaneers as they try to mount presure on Cam Newton
  • S Dashon Goldson and WRs Chris Owusu and Mike Williams were all questionable to play heading into game day
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take on the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday evening at Raymond James Stadium in a game to be nationally televised by NFL Network.  The Buccaneers bring an 0-6 record into the game while the Falcons are 3-3. On offense, the obvious concern for the Buccaneers will be dealing with the absence of running back Doug Martin, the NFL’s ninth-leading rusher. With rookie quarterback Mike Glennon already lining up under center for his fourth career start – and his first in prime time – the Bucs will turn to another NFL newcomer, Mike James, in an effort to replace at least some of Martin’s sizeable production.

Despite that lack of experience in the Bucs’ backfield, Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan feels confident that James can take the next-man-up philosophy to heart and perform as expected – in all facets of the game, not just carrying the ball.

“Mike James did a great job stepping in last Sunday, both in execution in the run game as well as pass protection,” Sullivan said. “We don’t get that long touchdown pass to Vincent [Jackson] if not for him picking up the corner blitz. He’s been able to catch the ball well, very versatile, works extremely hard. We’re pleased with where he’s at. Between him and Brian Leonard, moving forward, if Doug is not available for us, those two guys will have to step up.”

Defensively, the Bucs will have their hands full with Carolina’s Cam Newton, one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the league.

Perhaps the biggest difference for Newton in 2013 has been increased consistency, especially in the last month. Newton has improved steadily since the Panthers’ rocky 0-2 start, including impressive quarterback ratings of 143.4 and 136.3 in Carolina’s last two games, both victories.

“He’s definitely better and so is their offense,” said Tampa Bay Defensive Coordinator Bill Sheridan. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. They’re a really good rushing offense and their guys are rolling off the ball and they have a lot of versatility and variety in their running game. Right now they are running the ball on everybody. I think Cam has definitely matured and he’s become a much, much better pocket passer. He can still pull it down and he will, but he’s really looking to throw it. They’ve always had a good receiving corps and they still do. He’s really developed as a pure NFL pocket passer. He’s playing with a lot of confidence now too.”

Carolina’s offense is far from one-dimensional, however. In fact, Newton’s progress as a passer in 2013 has been somewhat overshadowed by the Panthers’ success in the running game. Carolina will bring the NFL’s seventh-ranked rushing offense to Tampa on Thursday, led by running back DeAngelo Williams (72.3 yards per game on average), and – wouldn’t you know it – Newton, who chips in an average of nearly 30 yards per game on the ground himself.  He has also scored two rushing touchdowns, giving him 24 scores on the ground in just 38 career games.

Sheridan says the Bucs must be prepared for the Panthers’ physical style of play and an offensive unit that can give opposing defenses fits due to versatile playmakers at nearly every position – especially quarterback.

-- The Bucs' defense hopes to get to QB Cam Newton, who has been sacked 18 times in six games
“When you watch the film right now, they’re a downhill, handoff, play-action [offense] and then obviously in third-down a more conventional shotgun, pocket-passing stuff,” Sheridan said. “They’re running the ball on everybody, and they’re really impressive-looking on film. Like I said, I think Cam has improved dramatically. He looks like a different guy in my opinion.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Carolina features a stout unit that ranks among the NFL's top five against both the run and the pass.  Combined, Carolina allows the third-fewest total yards per game and the second-fewest points, and Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano says the Bucs will have their work cut out for them on offense on Thursday night.

“They’re playing very well, their front seven is dominant at times,” Schiano said. “Both ends have four sacks. Two linebackers are really playing lights out, I think they’re separated by one tackle. They’re playing well.”

**

SERIES HISTORY

Carolina leads the all-time series with the Buccaneers, 14-11.  Since the two teams joined the NFC South together in 2002, the head-to-head battle has gone to the Panthers, 13-9.  Of the 11 two-game series between the teams in divisional play, eight have ended in sweeps for one team or another.  The Buccaneers took both games in 2002, 2010 and 2012, while the Panthers got their sweeps in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2011.  The teams haven't split a series since 2008, when both teams won at home.  The splits in 2005 and 2007 both were of the opposite variety, with the road team winning each time.

The Buccaneers have a 5-7 record against the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium, including a 16-10 win in last year's season opener.  Though the two teams were not yet division mates, Carolina visited the Bucs in the inaugural season for Raymond James Stadium, with Tampa Bay getting just its third win ever in its new home by a 16-13 score.

The Panthers have outscored the Buccaneers in those 25 games, 523 to 455, meaning the average score of a game between the two teams has been 21-18.  However, only 10 of the 25 games have been decided by a touchdown or loss, and only five have been decided by a field goal or less, non since 2006.  That's partially because the Buccaneers' other win over Carolina last season, despite going into overtime, ended in a 27-21 final in Charlotte as Tampa Bay scored the first overtime touchdown in franchise history.

Click here for more details on the all-time Buccaneers-Panthers series.

**

INJURY REPORT

Buccaneers

Player

Injury

Game Status

CB Michael Adams

Knee

Probable

S Mark Barron

Hip

Probable

DE Da’Quan Bowers

Toe

Probable

TE Tom Crabtree

Ankle

Probable

RB Jeff Demps

Groin

Out

S Dashon Goldson

Knee

Questionable

G Davin Joseph

Knee

Probable

RB Doug Martin

Shoulder

Out

G Carl Nicks

Foot

Out

WR Chris Owusu

Foot

Questionable

DT Akeem Spence

Wrist

Probable

S Keith Tandy

Concussion

Probable

WR Mike Williams

Hamstring

Questionable



Panthers

Player

Injury

Game Status

LB Chase Blackburn

Hamstring

Probable

DT Dwan Edwards

Hamstring

Questionable

S Colin Jones

Not Injury

Probable

WR Brandon LaFell

Knee

Probable

S Robert Lester

Hamstring

Probable

TE Greg Olsen

Foot

Probable

CB Josh Thomas

Illness

Probable


**

BUCCANEER PLAYER TO WATCH: DT GERALD McCOY

In order for the Buccaneers' promising defense to develop into one of the NFL's best, it must continue to improve in one critical area – pressuring the quarterback.

And as one of the captains on the Bucs’ defense, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy knows the onus is on himself, in particular, to lead that charge.

“It needs to be better,” McCoy said. “We’ve got to rush better collectively, as a group, as a unit. You see sprinkles here and there, guys getting there, but as a unit, we need to be better. Me personally, though – me being a leader, one of the leaders of the team, and definitely a leader of the defense – I’m kind of taking it upon myself to get something done. We do have to rush as a unit, and that’s all well and good, but there comes a point in time where you’re 0-5, 0-6 – somebody’s got to do something.

“I take it upon myself, I’ve got to make something happen. I’m getting to the quarterback, definitely getting to the quarterback. I’ve just got to get him on the ground. I’m hitting him, I’m pressuring him, but I’ve got to get him on the ground. It’s good to be able to get to him, but, personally, I just feel that I haven’t done good enough with getting him on the ground. I’m hitting him, but I need him to have the ball in his hand when I do it.”

Of course, McCoy and the Bucs’ goal of pressuring – and sacking – the opposing team’s passer will be all the more difficult on Thursday as they’ll face Carolina's elusive quarterback, Cam Newton.

Measuring in at 6’5” and 245 pounds, with strength and agility to spare, Newton is one of the most difficult quarterbacks in the league to contain.

“I think he’s the best escape artist we’ve got in the league,” McCoy said. “You can hit him full-force with 315-pound D-linemen – we just watched [Minnesota's] Kevin Williams hit him square in the middle of his stomach and he just bounced off and kept on running. He can escape in so many ways. You’ve really got to wrap this guy up, because he’s a big guy – he’s just as big as we are but twice the athlete. We’ve got to get our hands on him and make sure we hold on.”

What makes Newton even more difficult to match up against is that not only does he have the size and strength to shrug off opposing rushers and make plays on the ground, but his passing prowess is quickly growing as well – making him a true “dual threat.”

It needs to be better. We’ve got to rush better collectively, as a group, as a unit.
-- DT Gerald McCoy
“He’s starting to become an NFL quarterback,” McCoy said. “He came in the league on fire, but he still had college-style playing. People didn’t know how to react to it. Last year, he still was more college-style and people knew how to handle it because they had dealt with it the year before. Now, he’s starting to become an NFL quarterback, and that’s scary. With as athletic as he is, as strong an arm as he has, he’s starting to understand the game more. That’s scary to have to deal with that for a long time.”

Regardless, with a nationally televised matchup under the lights in front of the home fans, McCoy says he’s excited for the opportunity and looking forward to showing what he and his defensive teammates can do, even on a short week of rest.

“I hate waiting a week to play another game,” McCoy said. “To lose the way we did in Atlanta, or to lose the way we have lost games in the past, it sucks to sit and wait. You’re like, ‘Ugh. Okay, I want to go make up for it tomorrow, but I’ve got to wait.’ So, I’m a huge fan of this Thursday [night game].”

**

KEY MATCHUP: BUCCANEERS DE ADRIAN CLAYBORN VS. PANTHERS T JORDAN GROSS

While Carolina's offense has posted the seventh-best rushing total in the league and been very efficient in the passing game, especially in recent weeks, the one area in which it might be vulnerable is in the protection of QB Cam Newton.  Despite being one of the NFL's most mobile quarterbacks, Newton has already absorbed 18 sacks over six games and Carolina's offense ranks 28th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play.

Starting right defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who had 7.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011, is one of the Buccaneers' most naturally-gifted pass rushers.  If the Buccaneers are to disrupt a Carolina offense that has been running quite smoothly in 35-10 and 30-15 wins over Minnesota and St. Louis, respectively, it will likely need to pressure Newton, and getting to him from the blind side would be the best way to keep him from scrambling out of trouble.

The trouble is, if there is anywhere that Carolina's line seems most solid, it's on the left edge, where Clayborn will be lining up more often than not.  Left tackle Jordan Gross mans that spot, and he has been a strong pass blocker for the Panthers ever since he was drafted in the first round in 2003.  The 6-4, 305-pound Gross has nimble feet and already this season he has dealt ably with the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul and Jared Allen.  On the other hand, Buffalo DE Mario Williams rang up a stunning 4.5 sacks against Carolina in Week Two, helping create one of the Panthers' three losses in a 24-23 decision.  Gross was not likely responsible for all of those sacks, but Williams' pressure off that edge was undoubtedly key to the Bills racking up six sacks and holding Carolina to 308 yards of offense.  The Panthers are already down two starting guards in Garry Williams and Amini Silatolu, and are currently starting two players in Travelle Wharton and Chris Scott who were not with the team when camp started.  Even if Clayborn doesn't personally get any sacks Thursday night, if he can provide enough pressure to shift the blocking attention in his way, it could open things up for the rest of the Bucs' defensive line to win one-on-one pass-rushing matchups.

Click here to read about other head-to-head matchups that will help determine Sunday’s outcome.

**

TEAM RANKINGS

The Panthers rank in the top five in the NFL on defense against both the run and the pass, but have been susceptible to the sack on offense and have not fared well in the return game. The Bucs' run defense is again one of the league's best but the offense is still struggling to put enough points on the board.

OFFENSE

BUCS RANK

PANTHERS RANK

Points Per Game

31

16

Yards Per Game

31

24

Rushing Yards Per Game

20

7

Average Per Rush

19

17

Passing Yards Per Game

29

28

Sacks Allowed/Pass Play

10

28

Interceptions/Pass Play

19

22

Third-Down Efficiency

21

3

Punt Return Average

9

22

Kickoff Return Average

5

21

 

DEFENSE

BUCS RANK

PANTHERS RANK

Points Per Game

13t

2

Yards Per Game

13

3

Rushing Yards Per Game

5

4

Average Per Rush

4

7

Passing Yards Per Game

18

5

Sacks/Pass Play

24

6

Interceptions/Pass Play

16

2

Third-Down Efficiency

10t

15

Punt Return Average

11

26

Kickoff Return Average

10

12

 

OTHER

BUCS RANK

PANTHERS RANK

Turnover Differential

15t

6t

Gross Punting Average

28

7

Net Punting Average

20

21

Field Goal Percentage

23

1t



**

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

  • LB Lavonte David has four sacks on the season and with one more can become the first Buccaneer linebacker to record five sacks in a season since Lonnie Marts in 1996 (7.0).
  • P Michael Koenen has 55 punts inside the 20 with the Buccaneers and needs one more to pass Tommy Barnhardt (55 from 1996-98) for sixth-most and two more to pass Tom Tupa (56 from 2002-03) for fifth-most in team history.
  • WR Mike Williams has 25 career touchdown catches and with two more will tie WR Mark Carrier (27 touchdown catches from 1987-1992) for fourth-most in franchise history.
  • Williams has 2,927 career receiving yards and needs nine more to pass Michael Clayton (2,936 receiving yards from 2004-09) for ninth and 15 more to pass Bruce Hill (2,942 receiving yards from 1987-91) for eighth on the team's all-time list.
  • With 73 receiving yards, WR Vincent Jackson will have 2,000 yards as a Buccaneer, becoming only the 20th player in franchise history to reach that mark with Tampa Bay.
  • With two or more receiving touchdowns, Jackson can become the first Buccaneer to record three consecutive games with multiple receiving touchdowns.

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