1. LB Lavonte David
Linebacker Lavonte David is officially listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, but should he play, the defense will get a major boost at just the right time. He’ll be part of a unit that will be charged with containing the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey, who saw quite a bit of success against the Bucs when the two teams played last in Charlotte. McCaffrey had 157 all-purpose yards in the Panthers’ Week Nine win. It was an almost even split, gaining 79 yards on the ground with 78 receiving. That’s what makes McCaffrey so dangerous. He’s one of those pass-catching hybrid backs that needs to be kept on a short leash. David specializes in open-field tackles, with the Bucs’ 4-3 defense placing an emphasis on athletic linebackers to contain the run.
While Tampa Bay’s pass defense has been on the rise, their run defense that had been as good as third in league at one point during the season, had been feeling the effect of injuries to the likes of David and earlier in the season, Kwon Alexander. Getting David back is the first step to restoring the Bucs’ rushing defense and stopping the Panthers’ ground attack.
2. WR Adam Humphries
With wide receiver DeSean Jackson ruled out for Sunday, the Bucs’ receiving corps will get a little bit of a shuffle against the Panthers. Luckily for Tampa Bay, it’s one of the deepest units on the team. The Bucs’ fourth wideout, Adam Humphries, is having a career year so far this season, getting into the end zone four times through the team’s 12 games. He’s become a reliable target that “is always where you need him to be.”
In the Bucs’ Week 12 win over the 49ers, there was a play where not even Humphries himself realized how wide open he had gotten himself. Quarterback Jameis Winston hit him on a short pass over the middle as Humphries ran a dig out of the slot. He took the catch nearly 20 more yards into the end zone to put the Buccaneers up 27-9 in the fourth quarter, all but sealing the victory. Humphries has been getting more targets and opportunities, seemingly connecting well with Winston and provides a reliable target who can move underneath. He’s fast enough to run after a short pass or even an around that we’ve seen given to Jackson out of the backfield. With Jackson out, he could be called on a little bit more in those situations this week.
The Bucs also brought up wide receiver Bobo Wilson from the practice squad for depth. Wide receiver Justin Watson, who has seen most of his action on special teams as a rookie, could see some increased work as well.
3. DE Carl Nassib and/or Jason Pierre-Paul
The ‘bookends,’ as Scott Smith called them, have been doing a good job on getting edge pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. They have a combined 16.0 sacks between the two of them through 12 games. It’s a complementary effort by both and it seems to be sparking the entire line.
“I think everything starts with JPP and Nassib, the two ends," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "I think [it's] those two, from a disruption standpoint. Gerald is still a handful when he gets singled inside. Teams haven’t been able to focus quite as much on Gerald, but I think the penetration of Carl and just the overall doggedness of JPP – that he just won’t quit – I think that’s pushed the entire group to bigger heights."
The two will need to help make Carolina quarterback Cam Newton uncomfortable for the Bucs to be effective on Sunday. Newton has completed just 45 of his 95 pass attempts when under pressure this season for a 47.4 completion percentage and giving him a dismal 46.3 passer rating. He’s also thrown five of his seven picks when facing pressure. Moral of the story: get to Cam Newton.
4. CB Ryan Smith
The third-year cornerback will be making the start with rookie Carlton Davis out with a knee injury for this Sunday’s game. The secondary especially has had to do a tremendous amount of shuffling this season and the full extent for the game against the Panthers won’t be known until the morning of. Veteran cornerback Brent Grimes is listed as questionable, as is safety Justin Evans. Either way, Smith will have to step up. He nabbed his first career interception last week against the 49ers. His fourth quarter pick snapped a takeaway drought that had lasted more games than I actually care to revisit. The good news is that Carolina could be doing some shuffling of their own in their receiving corps, with wide receiver Devin Funchess listed as the only questionable player on Friday’s injury report.
5. QB Jameis Winston
The fourth-year quarterback put together his complete game this season against the 49ers last week. He was efficient, decisive and protected the football both on the ground and through the air, committing exactly zero turnovers. He passed for 312 yards and two touchdowns with a 117.4 passer rating. He will have to see if he can continue his streak of good decision-making against a rival defense that’s familiar with him. You know Carolina Linebacker Kuechly is going be calling out plays that the Bucs are likely about to run at the line of scrimmage, so Winston and the rest of the offense will have to do a good job of disguising their intentions. It also means that they’ll have to execute especially well and just take what the defense gives them. Even if that defense knows exactly what they’re trying to do at the time.