The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will finish off their 2021 regular season and try to build momentum for the playoffs with a home game on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, a team they beat by 26 points just two weeks ago in Charlotte. The Panthers have actually lost six games in a row to fall to 5-11, but as the Buccaneers found out just last Sunday it is not difficult for an NFL team to find motivation even after being eliminated from playoff contention. The Buccaneers needed a Tom Brady miracle to escape from New York with a 28-24 win over a very competitive four-win Jets squad, and the Panthers will surely be eager to avenge that last meeting with the Bucs and hurt their division rivals' chance at a better playoff spot.
Not that things have been easy for the Panthers in 2021. They've played most of the season without their offensive centerpiece, running back Christian McCaffrey, and they've alternated between Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker at quarterback without seemingly finding a long-term answer. Head Coach Matt Rhule said on Monday that he anticipates Darnold starting against the Buccaneers on Sunday as the team seeks more evidence as to what direction it should go at the position in 2022 and beyond.
With injury issues plaguing the offensive line in recent weeks, the protection for whomever is under center has slipped considerably, making it more difficult to evaluate the passers. The Buccaneers got to Darnold and Cam Newton for a season-high seven sacks in Week 16, and the Saints duplicated that feat last Sunday, dropping Darnold seven more times. Making his first start after returning from a shoulder injury, Darnold completed his first nine throws against the Saints but ended up with just 132 yards and an interception on 17 of 26 passing.
Overall, Carolina has dropped to last in the league in yards per pass play (32) and 29th in passing yards per game (189.5). Rookie Chuba Hubbard has taken over as the lead back, with midseason addition Ameer Abdullah in more of a pass-catching role, but without McCaffrey the Panthers have fallen to 21st in rushing (108.3 yards per game) and 30th in overall offense (297.8 yards per game). The Panthers have one of the league's best receivers in D.J. Moore, who is very good after the catch, though the team's quarterback situation has hurt his production in recent weeks. When the Panthers came out of the gate hot, winning three of their first four games, Moore led the way on offense with 30 catches for 398 yards and three touchdowns.
Carolina's defense has also had some injury and COVID challenges, particularly at the cornerback position (more on that below) but has remained strong, still ranking second in the NFL in yards allowed per game (299.5) as they did when the Bucs came to Charlotte two weeks ago. Carolina has also allowed the second-fewest yards per play (4.95) and has top 10 rankings in yards allowed per rush, passing yards allowed per game and per play, sack percentage, first downs allowed and third-down conversion rate allowed.
The strength of that defense for much of the season has been its edge rushers, with Haason Reddick and Brian Burns combining for 20 sacks. Second-year man Yetur Gross-Matos had a 2.5-sack game against Buffalo in Week 15 and has had to step up recently with both Burns and Reddick spending time on the COVID list. Burns didn't miss a game but spent all of last week on the list and was limited against the Saints; Reddick did miss the game and was still on the COVID list to start this week but could be activated in time to face the Buccaneers.
The Panthers are nearing the second year of Rhule's time at the helm and will be finishing below .500 for the fourth season in a row, something the franchise (founded in 1995) has never done before. After the Buccaneers' 32-6 win in Charlotte in Week 16, Rhule insisted that the team is headed in the right direction, even if he understands that it is hard for Panthers fans to recognize that at the moment.
"We have some key areas that we want to fix," said Rhule in his postgame press conference on December 26. "Whether that is to coach them better, to do better organizationally. But I believe it is 1,000 percent working. I just know no one can see it, and I apologize."
Carolina has a young roster and has only gotten younger and less experienced with some of the veterans they've lost to injured reserve. However, they also have some veteran leaders, such as linebacker Shaq Thompson, who are making sure the team continues to play as hard as ever despite the possibility of a postseason berth.
"Each and every day we are going to come out here and we are going to work," said Thompson. "Regardless of the outcome – win, lose or draw. We are going to go out there and fight for 60 minutes."
The Buccaneers, who are seeking to sweep Carolina in consecutive seasons for the first time ever, certainly will be expecting a fight. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities they will face when they face the Panthers for the second time in three weeks on Sunday:
As noted, these two teams met just two weeks ago, and in our Difference-Makers section for that week's scouting report we focused on Reddick, Moore, versatile and safety Jeremy Chinn and right tackle Taylor Moton. Those would be our top four picks again this week, but for the sake of variety we will shift our attention to four other strong Panther contributors. Obviously, the Panthers' defensive results indicate a talented lineup beyond Reddick and Chinn, and that's particularly true if cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, can return in Week 18 from the groin injury he suffered the last time the Bucs and Panthers squared off. Here are four more Panthers who could play key roles in a potential upset on Sunday:
1. DE Brian Burns
As noted above, Burns was given a lighter work load after missing all of last week's practices while on the COVID list. He didn't start and only played on passing downs but did register two tackles and one QB hit. Burns recently made a more pleasurable list, as he was named to his first Pro Bowl earlier this month. A first-round pick in 2019, Burns has been on a steady ascent over three years, although he was quite good as a rookie to start with. After a 7.5-sack debut campaign he's had back-to-back 9.0-sack seasons (with one game to go this year) and has 55 quarterback hits in just 47 games and 34 starts. Earlier this season, after Burns started his season with a sack in each of Carolina's first three games, NFL Next Gen stats noted that, at the time, Burns had an average get-off of 0.77 seconds after the snap, the fifth highest by any NFL defender since the start of 2019. That number is now at 0.85 seconds, which remains quite impressive and will pose a challenge for Buccaneer tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs. Burns has split his time between left and right end pretty evenly this year so will get a crack at both Smiths and Wirfs. In addition to his nine sacks, Burns has also been credited by NGS with 42 QB pressures and 34 hurries.
2. RB Chuba Hubbard
Selected in the fourth round of the 2021 draft with the 126th overall pick, and as the eighth running back off the board overall, the former Oklahoma State standout wasn't drafted to be the lead back in the Panthers' backfield, at least not as a rookie. But he has been pressed into that role with McCaffrey playing in just seven games. Hubbard hasn't been sensational, with a per-carry average of 4.5 yards, but he has gotten the job done in a majority of his starts, topping 50 yards in six out of the nine games he's opened. Last week, the 6-1, 210-pound rookie scored the Panthers' only touchdown against an elite Saints defense while rushing 17 times for 55 yards and catching three passes for 13 more yards. In the draft scouting process, Hubbard was seen as a potential workhorse who could carry a heavy load, and also a runner with good instincts and timing in finding creases, particularly on outside zone runs. He was also effective as a receiver on screens with Oklahoma State and he has 26 catches for 133 yards for the Panthers this season. Overall, Hubbard has contributed 730 yards from scrimmage and scored five touchdowns in his debut campaign.
3. LB Shaq Thompson
Thompson is the leader of the Panthers' defense in the post-Luke Kuechly/Thomas Davis era, and he clearly takes that role to heart. In addition to urging his teammates to continue fighting, as noted above, the seventh-year linebacker is also willing to point out the things that need to be corrected. After the Carolina defense had a relatively strong showing against the Saints, but one that ultimately wasn't good enough in an 18-10 loss, Thompson spoke forcefully about unacceptable defensive miscues. "It's tough because we keep talking about the same thing each and every day, each and every week," he said. "Do your job, man. How much more do we have to keep saying that for people to actually click in? It's okay to have a missed assignment once, but not repeatedly." On the field, Thompson is second on the Panthers' defense with 98 tackles and he has further filled out his stat line with 2.0 sacks, six QB hits, nine tackles for loss, two interceptions and five passes defensed. A first-round pick in 2015, Thompson is fast and instinctive and moves fluidly around the middle of the field.
4. T Brady Christensen
This is not to say that the third-round rookie is an above-average blocker; that is still yet to be determined. But with Cameron Erving sidelined by a calf injury that has kept him out of the last two games, Christensen is suddenly in position to be a big-time difference-maker for the Panthers, one way or another. According to Rhule, Christensen has explosiveness and power, as well as a future as a long-term starter in the NFL. Rhule also said that Christensen improved from his first start at left tackle against the Bucs in Week 16 to his second start last Sunday against the Saints. Pro Football Focus agreed, giving the rookie a solid grade for that contest while noting that the protection issues that led to seven sacks of Sam Darnold were mostly in the middle of the line. The 25-year-old rookie was a first-team All-American at BYU while blocking for current Jets starter Zach Wilson. The barrel-chested Christensen has good balance in pass protection and drives through his blocks in the running game.
The various strengths of the Panthers' defense were covered above, but in particular Carolina has been able to get after the passer. The signing of Haason Reddick, who was considered something of a boom-or-bust candidate in free agency after his relative brief run as a top edge rusher in Arizona, has proved to be one of Carolina's best moves of 2021. Reddick pairs with Pro Bowler Brian Burns to give the Panthers one of the toughest outside rushing duos to defend in the NFL. The Panthers' offense has struggled in 2021, obviously, but still has the receiver duo of D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson that combined for 2,289 yards in 2020. And though they've had to employ three different placekickers – Lirim Hajrullahu is currently handling the job – the Panthers have made 25 of 28 field goals and 24 of 26 extra points. Here are some more specific ways in which the Panthers have performed well in 2021:
· We noted this before the Bucs' Week 16 game at Carolina but it remains true after two more contests and bears repeating: The Panthers are the only team in the NFL that has not allowed a touchdown on an opponent's first drive this season. That's 16 first drives, which have resulted in a grand total of three field goals. Those nine points allowed is the lowest in the league, of course, and the scoring percentage of 18.8% on those 16 drives is tied for lowest in the NFL as well.
· Carolina's passing game may rank last in yards gained per pass play (5.45) but it has found some success throwing short passes to the left side of the field. According to NFLGSIS, the Panthers have thrown 201 passes in that direction (fifth most in the league), which have resulted in an average gain of 6.91 yards (fifth in the league) and a completion percentage of 78.1% (third in the league).
· The Panthers' defense ranks 10th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate allowed (37.9%) in part because it has kept the opposition from routinely picking up yards on first down. Carolina has faced 422 first down plays on defense and has allowed the opposition to gain four or more yards 185 times, for a success rate of 43.8% that ranks first in the NFL. The Panthers are also second in terms of success rate allowed on first down on passing plays, at 47.8%.
· Carolina has mostly avoided giving up big plays this season. The Panthers have allowed 48 plays of 20 or more yards this season, an average of exactly three per game, which is tied with Green Bay for the fifth fewest in the NFL. Forty of those have been pass plays, but only five have resulted in touchdowns. Carolina has allowed only six TDs that covered 20-plus yards this year, tied for fourth fewest in the league.
Here's what we noted as Carolina's main struggles two weeks ago but with the numbers updated, because it all remains true, starting on offense: "…where it ranks 30th in total yards per game (297.8), 31st in yards per play (4.60), 29th in passing yards per game (189.5), 32nd in yards per pass play (5.45) and 31st in interception percentage (3.60%). On defense one of the Panthers' few shortcomings has been a high red zone touchdown rate allowed. Carolina has given up touchdowns on 65.3% of the red zone drives they've faced and on 81.0% of the goal-to-go situations they've allowed." Those last two numbers rank 26th and 27th in the league, respectively. In addition:
· The Buccaneers' defense will strive to get the Panthers into third-and-long situations because they have had a lot of trouble keeping drives alive when faced with a third down needing more than six yards. Carolina has only converted 19 of 109 third downs of seven or more yards this season, a success rate of 17.4% that ranks last in the league. The NFL average by team is 25.3%. Four of those 19 conversions have actually been runs (on 14 tries), so Carolina actually has a 15.8% conversion rate on long third downs when passing. That is also last in the league.
· Carolina has had field position problems in 2021. For example, when the Bucs beat the Panthers two weeks ago they started four of their 11 drives within 59 yards of the opposite end zone and had a good average drive start of their own 33-yard line. Overall this season, Carolina has allowed their opponents to start their drives on an average of the 33.2-yard line, which is the biggest such advantage allowed by any team this year.
· The Panthers' aforementioned protection issues on offense have led to 50 sacks, the fourth most allowed by any team this year. Carolina has particularly struggled to provide protection on third downs, when the opposition is expecting a pass. Twenty-one of those 50 sacks have occurred on third down, which is the second most against any team in the NFL this season. In addition, Panthers' quarterbacks have somehow been sacked five times on fourth downs.
· Carolina's two-minute offense has been unproductive this year and is one of just four that has yet to produce a touchdown. This is defined as drives that begin with two minutes or less left on the clock in either half. The Panthers have had 15 such drives in 2021 and have netted two field goals out of them. Those six points on two-minute drives are tied for the fewest in the league.
NEW FACES IN 2021
The Panthers have two quarterbacks who didn't play for them in 2020, but Cam Newton is hardly a new face in Charlotte. The Panthers traded for the other one, getting Sam Darnold from the Jets for a package of draft picks. After the season had begun, the Panthers also traded with the Patriots to get cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Though injuries have caused some recent shuffling, the Panthers have been starting Cameron Erving, Pat Elflein and Brian Jordan, all newcomers to Carolina in 2021, on the offensive line. Rookie tackle Brady Christensen has also started the last two weeks. Here are some additional new Panthers in 2021:
1. OLB Haason Reddick. A former first-round pick, Reddick had 20 sacks over four seasons in Arizona but 7.5 of them came in the final month of the 2020 campaign. That was his last year with the Cardinals, who had not picked up his fifth-year option, so he hit free agency and Carolina came calling. The Panthers bet that Reddick's sudden emergence was due to him finally being used as an edge rusher after three seasons of trying to learn to play an off-ball linebacker position. It appears they were right, as Reddick leads the team with 11.0 sacks.
2. RBs Chuba Hubbard/Ameer Abdullah. Just like the Buccaneers can't replace Chris Godwin, now on injured reserve, with another player who can do all the things Godwin does, the Panthers can't hope to fill Christian McCaffrey's shoes with one or even several players. The men trying to do the job are both new to the Panthers in 2021, beginning with fourth-round draft pick Hubbard, who has taken over as the starter. The Panthers signed former and Lion and Viking Abdullah after he was let go by Minnesota in October. Hubbard and Abdullah have combined for 674 rushing yards, 49 receptions and six touchdowns.
3. DT DaQuan Jones. Jones wasn't one of the Panthers' flashier additions in the offseason, but he has filled an important role, starting all but one game next to Derrick Brown on the team's interior defensive line. A former fourth-round pick who turned into a long-term starter in Tennessee, Jones has contributed 35 tackles and one sack and helped Carolina rank seventh with an average of 4.07 yards allowed per carry.
1. CBs Stephon Gilmore/A.J. Bouye/Donte Jackson/Jaycee Horn/Troy Pride. The Buccaneers and Panthers certainly have one thing in common in 2021: A seemingly endless number of injuries to the cornerback position. However, while all of the Bucs' corners eventually got back on the field, injured reserve has claimed Horn, Jackson and Bouye for the remainder of the season. Jackson and Horn began the season as Carolina's starters but were eventually replaced by Bouye and Gilmore. Now Bouye is out and Gilmore missed last week's game with a groin injury that could keep him from playing this Sunday as well.
2. C Matt Paradis. Paradis was one of the Panthers' few holdovers on the offensive line in 2021, but he was lost to injured reserve, too, after nine games. Last week, Carolina only had one offensive lineman playing in the same position as he did in Week One: right tackle Taylor Moton. Pat Elflein, who started the season as the Panthers' starting left guard, has taken over for Paradis at center.
3.T Cameron Erving. Erving, who joined the Panthers in the offseason as a free agent signing from Dallas, has missed time to injuries on multiple occasions this season. Currently he is dealing with a calf injury that has kept him out of action the past two weeks. Rookie Brady Christensen has started in his place.