The Tampa Bay Buccaneers left Pittsburgh feeling cold in Week Six but will now return to the warm confines of the NFC South in Week Seven. A trip to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers is next on the docket, and it gives the Buccaneers an opportunity to get a sweep of their first half of divisional play. After defeating the Saints in New Orleans in Week Two and the Falcons in Tampa in Week Five, the Buccaneers will be looking to strengthen their grip on the division lead, while 3-3 Atlanta heads to Cincinnati.
The Buccaneers are also 3-3 and thus tied with Atlanta atop the South, with the head-to-head tiebreaker in hand, but they have lost three of their last four outings and thus are looking to get back on track in their pursuit of a second straight division title. The Panthers, meanwhile, appear to be in a somewhat different pursuit, as their firing of Head Coach Matt Rhule on October 10 and the subsequent trades of running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Robbie Anderson suggest the beginning of a rebuild. After three straight five-win seasons, two under Rhule, the Panthers are off to a 1-5 start in 2022.
Carolina's most notable issue in their recent run of losing campaigns has been finding a solution at quarterback in the post-Cam Newton era. Those efforts have included trades for both Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield and even Newton's own return for a portion of last season. That concern is also at the forefront of this week's storylines, as Darnold is on injured reserve, Mayfield is dealing with a high ankle sprain and even third-stringer and Week Six starter P.J. Walker left last Sunday's game early with a neck injury. More on the Panthers' tenuous quarterback situation below.
The Buccaneers obviously don't have a question at quarterback, but there is definitely a sense that the team could be getting more out of a passing attack that features Tom Brady throwing to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage, Leonard Fournette and others. They certainly expected to get more than 229 net passing yards against a depleted Steelers secondary last Sunday, particularly as a healthier receiving corps had helped Brady pile up 736 yards and four passing touchdowns in his previous two outings. Evans, in particular, was targeted only four times in Pittsburgh, resulting in four catches for 42 yards. The Buccaneers want their Pro Bowl receiver to be more central to the offense.
"We definitely talked about that," said Head Coach Todd Bowles on Monday. "We've got to find a way to get our stars the ball. Move them around, get them off picks, double [teams] – we have to find a way to get them the ball more. Obviously teams are going to try to double him and take him away more; we have to do a better job of getting him the ball."
Carolina's offense, meanwhile, had revolved around running back Christian McCaffrey until he was sent to San Francisco on Thursday for four draft picks. After an All-Pro seasons in 2019, McCaffrey landed a lucrative new contract with the Carolina and then ran into a terrible string of injury misfortune and only played in 10 games over the next two seasons. However, he had played in every game this season and had compiled 670 yards from scrimmage, an average of 111.7 per outing, which ranks fourth in the NFL. If McCaffrey keeps that kind of production up, it won't be for the Panthers, who now will turn to some combination of D'Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard and Raheem Blackshear. That trio has so far combined for 72 yards from scrimmage.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, not much else has worked on offense, as they are currently last in the league in both points scored and total yards. The Panthers invested the sixth-overall pick in North Carolina State tackle Ikem Ekwonu and brought in guard Austin Corbett and center Bradley Bozeman (who subsequently lost a battle for that job with Pat Elflein), but have allowed 19 sacks and are just 26th in rushing even with McCaffrey still in the fold. Tampa Bay's defense currently ranks fifth in points allowed and seventh in yards allowed, which would seem to make this a matchup favoring the visitors on Sunday.
However, it only takes a quick glimpse back at last weekend's results in Pittsburgh to know that the obvious storyline on paper isn't necessarily going to materialize. Bowles doesn't think even needs to look at that particular piece of paper right now.
"You know, when you win the last two years you get nothing but compliments," said Bowles, explaining his postgame comments about players 'living off the Super Bowl.' "And compliments to young guys are pretty telling, so my thing was, you've got to work for everything you want to get in this league. Sometimes even that's not good enough on certain days, but if you put in the work daily and keep your head, you'll have more pluses than minuses, and that's all I was trying to refer to."
GAME AND BROADCAST DETAILS
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-3) at Carolina Panthers (1-5)
Sunday, October 23, 1:00 p.m. ET
Bank of America Stadium (capacity: 73,778)
Charlotte, North Carolina
Television: FOX (Local WTVT Channel 13)
TV Broadcast Team: Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Jonathan Vilma (analyst), Shannon Spake (reporter)
Radio: 98Rock (WXTB, 97.9 FM), Flagship Station
Radio Broadcast Team: Gene Deckerhoff (play-by-play), Dave Moore (analyst), T.J. Rives (reporter)
ALL-TIME HEAD-TO-HEAD SERIES
The Panthers lead the all-time series with the Buccaneers, 24-19, although Tampa Bay is close to evening things up on the road, where the home team's edge is just 12-10. The Buccaneers have shrunk both gaps over the past two seasons, getting consecutive sweeps over Carolina for the first time since the two teams became NFC South mates in 2002. The Buccaneers and Panthers did meet three times before the 2002 realignment put them in the same division, including a contest in Death Valley that the Bucs won, 20-13, in the Panthers' 1995 inaugural season.
Since the two teams started playing each other twice a year, the head-to-head battle has traditionally been one-sided, though that side often flips back and forth. From 2002-17, 13 of the 16 season series between these two teams ended in a sweep, including every one from 2009 through 2017. It went Carolina's way in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017. The Bucs got the sweep in 2002, 2010, 2012 and 2016. Interestingly, the three splits came in years the Buccaneers either made the playoffs (2005, 2007) or really should have (2008…which ended in a four-game losing streak after a 9-3 start). After a pair of splits in 2018 and 2019, the series has gone back into sweep mode, currently in the Bucs' favor.
The Bucs and Panthers met twice in the final three weeks of last season, with Tampa Bay taking both contests by a combined score of 73-23. In the regular season finale, the Buccaneers got 137 receiving yards from Rob Gronkowski and two touchdown receptions from Mike Evans before wideout Scotty Miller capped the scoring by taking an end-around 33 yards for a touchdown. Two weeks earlier, the Buccaneers had prevailed at Bank of America Stadium when the defense sacked quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Cam Newton a total of seven times and allowing just two field goals. Safety Jordan Whitehead had a key interception and three pass break-ups. Ke'Shawn Vaughn's 55-yard touchdown jaunt, the Bucs' longest run of the year, started the scoring and emerging wideout Cyril Grayson accounted for 95 yards of offense, including a 62-yard reception.
In 2020, the Bucs' September win at home against Carolina was the first of 15 they would stack up on their way to a Super Bowl championship, and the first win as a Buccaneer for Tom Brady. Leonard Fournette paced the offense with 116 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns and Carlton Davis and Whitehead each had interceptions off Teddy Bridgewater in a 31-17 decision. The rematch in Charlotte in November was a high-scoring affair that included the longest run in Buccaneers' history, Ronald Jones' 98-yard touchdown dash. Incredibly, the Buccaneers scored on 10 straight possessions to pull away from the Panthers for a 46-23 win.
In 2019, the Buccaneers secured a tight win in Charlotte on a Thursday night in Week Two when Vernon Hargreaves knocked Christian McCaffrey out of bounds two yards shy of the sticks on an all-or-nothing fourth-down run off a direct snap. That 20-14 Bucs win was balanced four weeks later by a 37-26 win for Carolina in a game played in London.
Perhaps the most notable wins for Tampa Bay in the series with Carolina came in 2002 and 2005. At the midpoint of the 2002 Super Bowl campaign, the Buccaneers were coming off a deflating loss in Philadelphia (again) and had to play at Carolina without their quarterback, Brad Johnson, who woke up with the flu. Defense dominated and the Bucs were trailing 9-6 late in the fourth quarter before Martin Gramatica saved the day with two long field goals. In 2005, the Buccaneers were in the middle of a late-season three-game road swing when they went to Bank of America Stadium and won a battle for first place by a 20-10 score. Ronde Barber punctuated that game with a sack and a critical interception, becoming the first cornerback ever to reach 40 interceptions and 25 sacks in his career.
- Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht was a member of the Panthers' scouting staff in 1998.
SENIOR COACHING STAFFS
- Head Coach Todd Bowles
- Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin
- Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich
- Run Game Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers
- Pass Game Coordinator/Inside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote
- Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong
- Interim Head Coach Steve Wilks
- Offensive Coordinator Ben McAdoo
- Interim Defensive Coordinator Al Holcomb
- Special Teams Coordinator Chris Tabor
KEY 2022 ROSTER ADDITIONS
- P Jake Camarda (fourth-round draft pick)
- WR Russell Gage (UFA)
- G Luke Goedeke (second-round draft pick)
- DL Logan Hall (second-round draft pick)
- T Fred Johnson (FA)
- WR Julio Jones (FA)
- TE Ko Kieft (sixth-round draft pick)
- G Shaq Mason (trade–NE)
- CB Zyon McCollum (fifth-round draft pick)
- OLB Carl Nassib (FA)
- S Keanu Neal (UFA)
- TE Cade Otton (fourth-round draft pick)
- TE Kyle Rudolph (FA)
- S Logan Ryan (FA)
- RB Rachaad White (third-round draft pick)
- DE Henry Anderson (FA)
- DE Amaré Barno (sixth-round draft pick)
- C Bradley Bozeman (UFA)
- G Austin Corbett (UFA)
- QB Matt Corral (third-round draft pick…on injured reserve)
- T Ikem Ekwonu (first-round draft pick)
- P Johnny Hekker (FA)
- WR Rashard Higgins (UFA)
- DT Matt Ioannidis (FA)
- LB Cory Littleton (FA)
- QB Baker Mayfield (trade-CLE)
- G Cade Mays (sixth-round draft pick)
- WR Laviska Shenault (trade-JAX)
- LB Brandon Smith (fourth-round draft pick)
- LB Damien Wilson (UFA)
- S Xavier Woods (UFA)
ADDITIONAL 2022 CHANGES OF NOTE
- While the Bucs continue to maintain enviable continuity on their coaching staff, there is a new person in the corner office. In March, Bruce Arians stepped down after three years as the head coach and took on a new role as a senior advisor to the general manager. Todd Bowles was promoted from defensive coordinator to take his place. Bowles previously served as the New York Jets' head coach from 2015-18 before rejoining Arians when the latter came on as the Buccaneers' head coach in 2019.
- With Bowles stepping up the Bucs needed a new defensive coordinator and they essentially named two of them. Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers added the title of Run Game Coordinator while Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote switched to inside linebackers and added the title of Pass Game Coordinator. They are in effect co-defensive coordinators. Bob Sanders joined the staff to take over for Foote in the outside linebackers room. Foote made his switch after Inside Linebackers Coach Mike Caldwell landed the defensive coordinator position in Jacksonville under new Head Coach Doug Pederson.
- The Buccaneers had two key players retire after the 2021 season, but only one of them stayed retired. While quarterback Tom Brady eventually elected to return 40 days after announcing he was stepping away from the game, his long-time buddy Rob Gronkowski walked away for good, leading to big changes in the Bucs' tight end room. While veteran Cam Brate returned, O.J. Howard left in free agency and the Buccaneers subsequently drafted Cade Otton and Ko Kieft and signed veteran Kyle Rudolph.
- Tampa Bay's defense also saw the departure of two front-seven stalwarts from the extremely successful 2020-21 seasons, as neither DL Ndamukong Suh nor OLB Jason Pierre-Paul was re-signed. The team signed veteran standout Akiem Hicks and drafted Houston's Logan Hall 33rd overall to address depth up front and are relying on 2021 first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka to step up on the edge.
- The Panthers made a big change in leadership, not during the offseason but less than two weeks ago when the team elected to fire Head Coach Matt Rhule. Rhule had assumed his post before the 2020 season and had led the team to an 11-27 record, including a 1-4 start to this year. Defensive Pass Game Coordinator Steve Wilks, who was the Arizona Cardinals' head coach in 2018, was promoted to interim head coach.
- On the same day that Rhule was fired, October 11, the team also parted ways with Defensive Coordinator Phil Snow and Assistant Special Teams Coach Ed Foley. Al Holcomb, previously the defensive run game coordinator, has assumed the defensive coordinator duties on an interim basis.
- The Panthers leaned into a rebuild on Thursday by sending running back Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for second, third and fourth-round picks in next year's draft plus a fifth-rounder in 2024. When healthy, McCaffrey had been the clear focus of the Panthers' offense since he was drafted seventh overall in 2017. In 2019 he became just the third running back in NFL history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.
- Carolina's coaching staff had a new look in 2022 even before the recent firings. Rhule made eight changes to the group in February, including the hiring of former Giants Head Coach Ben McAdoo as offensive coordinator. He replaced Joe Brady, who had been fired 12 games into the 2021 campaign. Offensive Line Coach Pat Meyer and his assistant, Tony Sparano Jr., were also let go and replaced by James Campen and Robert Kugler, respectively. Rhule also fired Defensive Line Coach Frank Okam and replaced him with Paul Pasqualoni, and when Secondary Coach Jason Simmons left for a similar position in Las Vegas the Panthers brought back Wilks for that spot. Two other coaches on offense – Brian Angelichio (tight ends) and Frisman Jackson (wide receivers) also left for positions elsewhere in the league – so Carolina hired Joe Dailey to tutor the wideouts and reassigned Kevin M. Gilbride from defensive analyst to tight ends coach. Finally, Rhule brought on a new Special Teams Coordinator in February, replacing Chase Blackburn with former Bears assistant Chris Tabor.
- The Panthers also recently had a temporary change in leadership on the field, though not by choice. Quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold – the first and third-overall picks in the 2018 draft – began training camp in a battle for the starting job, and on August 22 Rhule announced that Mayfield would start the opener. A week later, the point became moot when Darnold suffered an ankle injury in the preseason finale and was placed on injured reserve. Mayfield started the first five games of the season but sustained a high ankle sprain of his own in Week Five and was expected to miss several weeks. That thrusts third-year man P.J. Walker into the top spot; he started against the Rams last Sunday and will likely still have the job when the Buccaneers visit this coming Sunday, assuming he can recover from the neck injury that knocked him out of that contest late.
- Whoever plays quarterback for the Panthers on Sunday will be without one of his top three targets on the season. On Monday, Carolina traded wide receiver Robbie Anderson to the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for two draft picks, a sixth-rounder in 2024 and a seventh-rounder in 2025.
- Carolina's defense saw the departure of three starters in free agency over the offseason, most notably edge rusher Haason Reddick. After leading the Panthers' defense with 11.0 sacks in his one season in the town, Reddick got a lucrative deal from the Eagles. Linebacker Jermaine Carter started all 17 games for the Panthers in 2021 but signed with Kansas City before eventually being released in the final cuts. And cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a midseason trade acquisition last year, signed with the Colts after starting eight of the nine games he appeared in for Carolina.
Uncertainty Under Center in Charlotte – Given what has transpired since March of 2020, the Panthers' decision to cut ties (at least temporarily) with the brightest start in franchise history, Cam Newton, has not looked like a mistake. However, the team's efforts to find a replacement franchise quarterback have not borne much fruit as of yet. The first solution was a sizeable three-year deal for Teddy Bridgewater, but that lasted one year before he was traded to Denver, with Carolina paying a big chunk of his remaining guaranteed salary. Next, Carolina traded for Sam Darnold, the third-overall pick in the 2018 draft, last offseason. That started well in the Panthers' 3-0 start but Darnold ran into some injuries and saw his production decline steeply as the season progressed. Finally, the Panthers traded for Baker Mayfield, the first pick in that 2018 draft, and set up a battle for the starting job between those two draft mates. Mayfield won that battle and, just days later, Darnold suffered an ankle sprain in the preseason finale that put him on injured reserve. Darnold is still on IR and not expected back this week, while Mayfield is dealing with his own ankle injury that had him in walking boot on the sideline last Sunday. The Panthers turned by necessity to P.J. Walker, who had played for Matt Rhule at Temple, but Walker managed just 60 yards on 16 passes before he left the game with a neck strain. Walker seems confident that he will be available on Sunday against the Buccaneers, but Mayfield remains a significant question mark. Interim Head Coach Steve Wilks, asked on Monday if Mayfield would immediately return to his starting spot once he is cleared to play, responded with, "I can't give you that answer." Barring any late roster moves, the Panthers' only other option would appear to be practice squad passer Jacob Eason, who finished up on Sunday when Walker went down. However, that could change a bit by Sunday, as Darnold has been designated to return from injured reserve and could theoretically be cleared at any time.
A Fix for Offensive Woes? – The Tom Brady-led Buccaneers paced the league in scoring over his first two seasons in Tampa with 30.4 points per game. In 2022, that average is down more than 10 points and the Buccaneers rank 20th in the league. As compared to a year ago, the Bucs have had to work through quite a bit of change to their offensive lineup, beginning with a front line that has new starters at all three interior spots. Tight end Rob Gronkowski retired, further changing how the Bucs operate on offense, and the team tried to reload with the likes of Julio Jones, Russell Gage and Kyle Rudolph but have not yet adequately replaced Gronkowski's contributions. Tampa Bay's coaching staff expected the 2022 offense to be a work in progress and felt that it would take a month or so to establish an identity on that side of the ball. They likely expected to be a bit farther along in that process by late October, but there is certainly a prevailing sense that the best days for this offense are still ahead. The Buccaneers have to find a way to be more productive in the red zone, where they have only converted 50% of their chances into touchdowns, and their have been some confounding woes on short third downs. In addition, the Bucs' rushing attack ranks last in the league, and while that was never going to be the driving engine for this offense as currently comprised, a strong ground showing in the season opener in Dallas seemed to hint that it would be more of a force in 2022 than the previous two seasons. The Buccaneers' search for the right mix on offense will continue in Week Seven in Charlotte.
Secondary Shuffling – Compared to its offense, Tampa Bay's defense had been relatively injury-free, apart from Akiem Hicks' foot malady, which helped it get off to a very strong start over the first three weeks of the season. However, a recent rash of mishaps has shaken up the defensive backfield, with safety Logan Ryan now on injured reserve and safety Mike Edwards (elbow) and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (quad) dealing with recent injuries. In Week Six, the Bucs landed on an unexpected solution to the thinned ranks at safety by using cornerback Dee Delaney in that role in sub packages. That allowed the coaches to continue using their top playmaker, Antoine Winfield Jr., in a dual role at safety and slot corner. However, it also thrust an inexperienced player in Delaney into an unfamiliar role, while veteran Keanu Neal also played far more than in previous weeks with Edwards out. That secondary only allowed 211 passing yards to the Steelers' pair of quarterbacks but understandable communication issues may have been largely to blame for Pittsburgh converting four straight third downs of 11 or more yards. Bowles indicated on Monday that it was a different defender on each of those four players that made the critical mistake. Edwards may be able to return from his injury against Carolina, which would return some of the secondary's stability, but Ryan is now out for at least four weeks. Tampa Bay's cohesiveness in the secondary will be tested in the month ahead, beginning Sunday in Charlotte.
Southern Supremacy – The best part about the Buccaneers' underwhelming 3-3 start is that it includes a 2-0 record in divisional play. As noted above, the defending NFC South champions have already logged wins over the Saints and Falcons and now have a chance to go three-for-three against their division foes. The Buccaneers have not started out 3-0 in divisional play in any season since 2007, when they would finish 5-1 against the Falcons, Panthers and Saints and win the NFC South title. Doing so by winning on Sunday in Charlotte would put them in good position to duplicate that feat, particularly since two of their three remaining divisional games will be played in Tampa. The Falcons, also 3-3 but probably exceeding expectations in the minds of most NFL analysts, has a tough draw in Week Seven with a game in Cincinnati. The Buccaneers lost their grip on sole possession of the NFC South lead last Sunday but will have an opportunity to get it back this weekend.
Where Have the Turnovers Gone? – The Buccaneers have not lost the turnover battle in their last two games, but they haven't won it either. Neither team gave it away a single time in Tampa Bay's Week Five win over Atlanta or Week Six loss in Pittsburgh, which is low-key pretty remarkable. This is just the second time in franchise history that the Buccaneers have played two consecutive games without either team committing a turnover. Obviously, that's a very welcome trend on offense, where Brady hasn't thrown an interception since Week One, but the defense usually thrives on takeaways. Even with these last two games included, Tampa Bay's defense ranks fifth over the last three seasons with 63 takeaways and the Bucs are first in that span with a +21 turnover margin. Some of this turnover drought, which also includes a Week Four loss against Kansas City with only one takeaway, has been the luck of the bounce, as the defense has forced two fumbles in the last two weeks but not been able recover either of them. Pittsburgh also put the pigskin on the grass late in last weekend's game on an errant snap but Mitchell Trubisky barely beat Delaney to the ball. Overall, Tampa Bay's defense has come up with nine takeaways in six games, but five of those came in a rush at New Orleans in Week Two, including four in one quarter. As mentioned earlier, Tampa Bay's defensive rankings of fifth in scoring and seventh in yards are good and well-earned, but turnovers often make the difference between winning and losing and the Buccaneers want to get back to forcing a lot of them.
1. Buccaneers T Tristan Wirfs vs. Panthers DE Brian Burns
The Panthers saw their 2021 sack leader, Haason Reddick, depart for Philly in free agency and currently rank 29th in sacks per pass play (4.41%). However, 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns remains as productive and dangerous as ever, leading Carolina with 4.0 sacks, or nearly half the team total of 9.0. Burns has yet to hit double digit sacks in a season but he's put up consecutive totals of 7.5, 9.0 and 9.0 and is well on his way to topping that in 2022. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Burns had the fifth-fastest get-off at the snap among edge rushers, at an average of 0.8 seconds. The Panthers move him from side to side so he'll likely have some one-on-one battles with both of the Bucs' tackles, Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith. In just his second season in 2021, Wirfs was named a first-team Associated Press All-Pro and he's already considered one of the best right tackles in the entire NFL. Wirfs is amazingly nimble and athletic for a man of his size, which allows him to consistently stay between his man and the quarterback.
2. Panthers RB Chuba Hubbard vs. Buccaneers ILB Lavonte David
NOTE: This section originally pitted David against running back Christian McCaffrey, but the Panthers' trade on Thursday renders that matchup moot. Carolina's depth chart lists Chuba Hubbard and D'Onta Foreman as co-number two running backs, and now one of them will be the new starter. Last season, Hubbard started 10 games while McCaffrey missed time due to injury and recorded 612 yards on 175 carries plus 25 receptions for 174 yards. The Panthers aren't likely to revamp their offense in the wake of McCaffrey's departure, which means whoever takes his place should see a large amount of targets. This is particularly true given Carolina's injury woes at quarterback. Tampa Bay's defense had actually dealt with McCaffrey a bit better than most teams, only allowing him to exceed 100 yards from scrimmage in two of seven games against them. One constant in that history is Lavonte David, who has been at the heart of Tampa Bay's defense since 2012. He will be instrumental in slowing down Hubbard, or Foreman if the Panthers go that route. This season, David is second on the team with 47 tackles, just one behind Devin White's 48, and he has also broken up two passes. Twenty-three of David's stops have been on running plays as he has helped the Bucs' defense allow the seventh-lowest yards-per-carry figure in the league so far. Tampa Bay's defense has not allowed an opposing running back to crack 100 rushing yards in a game against it since Chicago's Khalil Herbert in Week Seven of last season. David still has sideline-to-sideline range but he has also been one of the league's best coverage linebackers in his career.
3. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. Panthers CB Jaycee Horn
As discussed earlier, Todd Bowles is adamant about getting the ball to Evans more often than has been the case in recent weeks. Evans has the Bucs only 100-yard receiving game of the season so far, as he caught eight passes for 103 yards and two scores against Kansas City in Week Four. However, in the past two weeks he has four catches in each game and he was only targeted four times in Pittsburgh. Opposing defenses often give safety help to the defenders trying to contain Evans, either with two-high shells or a single safety shading in his direction, which makes it harder to hit big plays downfield. Still, Evans is a master of going up for passes in traffic and the Bucs should be able to get him more involved no matter what style of defense they're facing. In years past, the Panthers liked to shadow Evans with their top cornerback, James Bradberry. Bradberry is now in Philadelphia, but Carolina might try the same tactic with Horn. In Week One, Horn followed Cleveland's Amari Cooper around the formation, so it's a role the Panthers are comfortable giving to their impressive second-year corner. Horn is dealing with a ribs injury that kept him out of Carolina's last game but he returned to practice on Wednesday wearing a green no-contact jersey. After being picked eighth overall in the 2021 draft, Horn suffered a broken foot three games into his career and missed most of his rookie season. He has come on very strong in his second year, however, allowing an opposing passer rating of 23.8 when he is the targeted defender, the best of any cornerback in the league.
4. Panthers C Pat Elflein vs. Buccaneers NT Vita Vea
The Buccaneers did not get a lot of pressure on Steelers quarterbacks Kenny Pickett and Mitchell Trubisky in Week Six, sacking them just twice with no other quarterback hits in the game. Though Tampa Bay's defense does rank third in the NFL with 21 sacks, it's overall pressure rate of 26.1% (according to Next Gen Stats) ranks just 21st in the league. Playing against a Panthers' line that has already allowed 19 sacks, the Bucs will be looking to up that pressure rate, and it could start with Vita Vea in the middle. Vea has 2.5 sacks on the season along with five QB hits, which is just one off Devin White's team lead, and he can also influence the Bucs' overall pass rush without getting the stats by occupying multiple blockers. Carolina signed former Ravens center Bradley Bozeman in free agency but incumbent Pat Elflein held off the challenge to earn the starting job at the pivot. The former Vikings third-round pick has been solid for the Panthers so far this season, taking every offensive snaps and not drawing a single penalty through the first six games. Elflein got the job in part because Bozeman suffered an ankle injury during training camp and was still returning to full health when the regular season started. However, Elflein has held onto the spot ever since, despite a Week One game in which he had a string of bad exchanges with quarterback Baker Mayfield.
DNP: Did not participate in practice
LP: Limited participation in practice
FP: Full participation in practice
NL: Not listed
- TE Cameron Brate (neck) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
- ILB Lavonte David (rest) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
- CB Carlton Davis (hip) – WEDS: LP; THURS: DNP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
- S Mike Edwards (elbow) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Questionable.
- WR Mike Evans (rest) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DL Will Gholston (rest) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DL Logan Hall (abdomen/groin) – WEDS: LP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DL Akiem Hicks (foot) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Out.
- WR Julio Jones (knee) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
- G Shaq Mason (ankle) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
- CB Sean Murphy-Bunting (quad) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
- DE Henry Anderson (elbow) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- RB Raheem Blackshear (knee) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DT Derrick Brown (personal) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- S Sean Chandler (hamstring) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
- C Pat Elflein (hip) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Questionable.
- CB CJ Henderson (concussion) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Questionable.
- CB Jaycee Horn (ribs) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Questionable.
- DT Matt Ioannidis (neck/concussion protocol) – WEDS: LP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Doubtful.
- CB Donte Jackson (ankle) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Questionable.
- LB Cory Littleton (groin) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- LB Frankie Luvu (shoulder) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Questionable.
- QB Baker Mayfield (ankle) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Doubtful.
- T Taylor Moton (knee) – WEDS: NL; THURS: LP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Questionable.
- WR Laviska Shenault (hamstring) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Questionable.
Mostly sunny, high of 73, low of 47, 5% chance of rain, 53% humidity, winds out of the NNE at 8 mph.
Head referee: Craig Wrolstad (20th season, 9th as referee)
· Favorite: Buccaneers (-11.0)
· Over/Under: 39.5
INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS
Points Scored: K Ryan Succop, 41
Touchdowns: WR Mike Evans/Leonard Fournette, 3
Passing Yards: QB Tom Brady, 1,409
Passer Rating: QB Tom Brady, 96.5
Rushing Yards: RB Leonard Fournette, 280
Receptions: RB Leonard Fournette, 26
Receiving Yards: WR Mike Evans, 316
Interceptions: CB Jamel Dean, 2
Sacks: ILB Devin White, 3.0
Tackles: LB Devin White, 40
Points Scored: K Eddy Piñeiro, 43
Touchdowns: RB Christian McCaffrey*, 3
Passing Yards: QB Baker Mayfield, 962
Passer Rating: QB P.J. Walker, 81.6
Rushing Yards: RB Christian McCaffrey, 393
Receptions: RB Christian McCaffrey*, 33
Receiving Yards: RB Christian McCaffrey*, 277
Interceptions: DT Derrick Brown/CB Jaycee Horn/CB Donte Jackson/LB Frankie Luvu, 1
Sacks: DE Brian Burns, 4.0
Tackles: LB Shaq Thompson, 39
(* No longer on the team.)
TEAM STAT RANKINGS
Scoring Offense: 20th (20.2 ppg)
Total Offense: 21st (332.0 ypg)
Passing Offense: 6th (264.5 ypg)
Rushing Offense: 32nd (67.5 ypg)
First Downs Per Game: t-13th (20.5)
Third-Down Pct.: 22nd (37.8%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 2nd (3.64%)
Red Zone TD Pct.: t-20th (50.0%)
Scoring Defense: 5th (17.2 ppg)
Total Defense: 7th (302.5 ypg)
Passing Defense: 7th (193.3 ypg)
Rushing Defense: 14th (109.2 ypg)
First Downs Allowed Per Game: 4th (17.5)
Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 22nd (42.7%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 3rd (10.05%)
Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: t-29th (75.0%)
Turnover Margin: t-4th (+3)
Scoring Offense: 26th (17.2 ppg)
Total Offense: 32nd (260.0 ypg)
Passing Offense: 29th (169.7 ypg)
Rushing Offense: 26th (90.3 ypg)
First Downs Per Game: 32nd (13.2)
Third-Down Pct.: 32nd (23.6%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 30th (10.56%)
Red Zone TD Pct.: 30th (38.5%)
Scoring Defense: t-23rd (24.3 ppg)
Total Defense: 21st (356.8 ypg)
Passing Defense: 17th (223.5 ypg)
Rushing Defense: 26th (133.3 ypg)
First Downs Allowed Per Game: t-21st (20.7)
Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 23rd (43.2%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 29th (4.41%)
Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 14th (54.2%)
Turnover Margin: t-21st (-2)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
- Tight End Cameron Brate has 33 career touchdown catches. His next one will tie him with Ring of Honor member Jimmie Giles for second place in franchise history in receiving TDs and fourth place in overall touchdowns.
- WR Mike Evans scored two touchdowns against the Chiefs in Week Four to increase his career points scored total to 482, in the process passing Connor Barth (477) for third place on the Bucs' all-time list Evans needs three more touchdowns to join former kickers Martin Gramatica (592) and Michael Husted (502) as the only players in team history to reach the 500-point mark.
- Wide receiver Chris Godwin may soon be the most prolific pass-catcher in Buccaneers history not named Mike Evans. With 95 receiving yards last weekend in Pittsburgh he pushed his career total to 4,893, which puts him just 35 behind Kevin House (4,928) in team annals. Godwin could possibly move as high as second place with a big game in Week Seven, as he would need 126 yards to pass both House and second-place holder Mark Carrier (5,108). Evans has built a healthy lead on the rest of the pack, with 9,659 yards.
- RB Leonard Fournette snared his third touchdown reception of the season in Pittsburgh last Sunday. He needs just one more to equal the Buccaneers' record for scoring catches in a season by a running back. Charles Sims set the mark at four in 2015.
- Head Coach Todd Bowles on why the offense has lacked explosive plays so far this season: "I think they've keyed in on some of the things – we may have to change some things up here and there. Sometimes it's the [offensive line], sometimes it's the route progression, sometimes it's the quarterback – but we're changing some things around and we'll adjust to it. It's not about the explosive plays, it's about sustaining drives. You want the explosive plays but you also want longevity of the drive and then finish it off at the end."
- Wide receiver Mike Evans on how he would describe the team's attitude coming off of a loss to the Steelers: "Optimistic. We're still – are we tied first for the division? We're still optimistic. I mean, you can't stop playing. We're all professionals. We've got a division game coming up this week – we've got to win it. It's a must win for us."
- Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett on if it's discouraging to have mental errors and miscommunications on defense as was the case in Pittsburgh: "It sucks – it takes a toll on you. Especially [in] a game like that where we felt like we played well enough to win [for] a majority of the game and to not come out with a victory. It hurts a lot – you get frustrated for sure. As a team and as coaches, we just come back and figure it out and get it together so we won't suffer the same consequences in a game like that again."
- Center Robert Hainsey on the message he got from QB Tom Brady during the game against the Steelers: "Improve, get better. Everyone can call it what they want, but I want nothing else than a quarterback [like] that – a guy who's willing to tell us what we need to do and step up, [as opposed to] just sitting over there and not getting us going and not trying to help us. He wouldn't be who he is today [if not for that]. I love that from him and I know we all love that from him. It might look weird on TV, but that's football – it's a team sport and that's what you want from great teammates and great leaders and he's the best there is.
- Bowles on the team having issues in high-leverage situations like third downs, red zone and short yardage: "I think it's more than that – it's more than third down, red zone, short yardage. I think it's first down – there are plays within that that cause those things, there are penalty setbacks that go along with that on both sides of the ball. Then we're not executing at the end and we're putting ourselves in these situations – we have to get out of these situations, we have to learn to get out of these situations. We have to coach them out, they have to play their way out. We've discussed that going forward and there are things we're doing in practice to try and correct those things."
- Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich on the Bucs' lack of explosive plays compared to last season: "It's not the same team as last year, or the team before. That's the biggest difference – it's not the same team. We're working new people in, we're trying to get to a point where we're playing our better football later in the year. In the process, you still [have] to do enough to win games like that last Sunday. We understand that. We're still working on it, we're going to keep chipping wood and hopefully we get it done. I trust that we'll get it done because I trust the people in that locker room [and] I trust the staff."
- QB Tom Brady on WR Mike Evans getting just four targets in Week Six: "Yeah, they did a good job defending us. They've just done a good job of kind of making sure he's covered. Any time Mike is open, I'm going to try to get him the ball. But the guys have been doing a good job defending it, and we've just got to make other plays. Until they allocate help elsewhere we have to make the plays elsewhere. It's just a matter of keep finding the open guy. My job is to drop back and find the open guy. Mike is usually open when he's got the right matchup, but when they really try to take him away I've got to find other guys. That's my job."