With only two divisional opponents to go on the 2022-23 gauntlet, Sunday marks a high-stakes matchup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on their home turf. The Buccaneers will host the visiting Carolina Panthers on New Year's Day. Both teams will vie for a stranglehold on the NFC South. A win for the Buccaneers would mean a clinched playoff berth and a loss for the Panthers would mean elimination from playoff contention. The stage is set. The Panthers have revived their playoff hopes by winning three of their last four outings, including a 37-23 trouncing of the Lions last weekend. Carolina ran for a franchise-record 320 yards and the Bucs will have to match its physicality on Sunday. The Bucs are coming off a comeback win over the Cardinals on Christmas night and will look to capitalize against the Panthers. There are many matchups and individual performances that could weigh heavily on the outcome of the Bucs-Panthers showdown in Week 17. Here is an in-depth look at five Buccaneers to observe on Sunday.
An opportunity arose for Nick Leverett in Week Seven – the first meeting between the two clubs in 2022 – and he has taken advantage. The Buccaneers began alternating Leverett and Luke Goedeke at left guard against Carolina. Goedeke was injured and Leverett stepped in. He has since taken full ownership of the role, helping to bolster the entire unit as injuries have hindered continuity. Leverett will face a tall task in going up against Derrick Brown, the Panthers' stout defensive tackle. He is a monster at the point of attack, with the strength to work off blocks. Brown possesses a rare combination of size, speed, power and technique. He can push the pocket with a lethal bull rush. Brown can swiftly toss blockers to the side in pursuit of the quarterback. He has devestating speed with burst to close/fire by blockers. He is a heavy load for any lineman to contend with. This will be an intense matchup on Sunday.
The Panthers' 2019 first-round pick, Brian Burns, leads Carolina with 12.5 sacks, emboldening the unit. With explosion out of his stance, Burns disrupts with a lethal spin move as tackles commit to his speed rush. He consistently gains leverage and has entrenched himself among the league's elite edge rushers. The Panthers move Burns along the line to keep offenses off balance, so Tristan Wirfs will see a heavy dose of Burns. Wirfs has missed time due to an ankle injury but emphatically told local media he will be available against the Panthers. His inclusion will help anchor the unit. Wirfs has established himself as one of the premier right tackles in the NFL and is only in his third season. With quick feet, a well-timed punch and a powerful upper body, Wirfs can get push in the ground game and makes traps and pulls look effortless. The technician will need a solid outing against Burns in Week 17.
The Panthers' offense is centered on running the football and it is no secret they will strive to establish their ground attack early on. Carolina's workhorse, D'Onta Foreman, averaged 7.9 yards per carry against the Lions last Sunday en route to eclipsing the 100-yard marker. Foreman possesses speed and shiftiness to make defenders miss. The physically imposing, one-cut runner runs behind his pads with stellar vision and balance. Foreman wears down defenses with his ability to generate yards after contact and Bucs' inside linebacker Devin White will face-off with the back. 66 of White's 115 stops have come on rushing downs. He is a force against the run and if Tampa Bay's defensive front can win their matchups at the line of scrimmage, that will free up linebackers in pursuit. White's ability to move from gap to gap to neutralize bouncing runners will come into play. With a quick trigger off the snap and rare burst to close, White has opportunities to reach Foreman before he hits the jets at the second level. If Foreman is placed at the line to chip, he could come face-to-face with White on a blitz. This will be a competitive battle on Sunday.
Due to injuries, outside linebackers Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Anthony Nelson have played every snap over the previous two games. During that span, Tryon-Shoyinka registered five quarterback hits. Setting the edge and not leaving a crease for Hubbard to exploit on a perimeter run or Darnold using his legs will be crucial in Sunday's matchup. With rare bend and the ability to gain inside leverage, Tryon-Shoyinka has played a key role for the Buccaneers this season and he will be relied upon come Sunday. Over-setting or crashing in by outside linebackers can leave vacated gaps for the Panthers to take advantage. Tryon-Shoyinka has made a myriad of splash plays throughout the 2022 season and Sunday provides a fresh slate to catapult forward.
With the athleticism of Carolina's front, Tom Brady will likely have to utilize a quick passing game to try and mitigate pressure in Week 17. Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay's dynamic slot weapon, has continued to progress and grow stronger from last December's ACL/MCL tear. Godwin leads the Bucs in receptions with 89 (eighth in the NFL) and has emerged as Brady's go-to target over the middle of the field. For the past six games, Godwin has averaged over seven yards per reception, consistently picking up yards after the catch. Godwin is physical at the catch point and uses his frame to box out defenders. He is effective in the run game on crack blocks and bolsters the Bucs' offense. With a blitz-heavy (38.7% of dropbacks) Panthers' team coming to town, Godwin could emerge as the catalyst in the short-to-intermediate area as Brady seeks to quickly get rid of the ball.