The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Carolina Panthers in Week 18 on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mike Evans. Evans was not available when the Buccaneers played the Panthers two weeks ago thanks to a hamstring injury he had suffered the week before. But Evans made a pleasantly swift recovery from that injury to play against the Jets last week and even see 56 snaps worth of action. The player who did get by far the largest share of Tom Brady's targets in that first Carolina game was Antonio Brown, who of course is no longer on the team. With Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette also out, there is a large void that Evans could fill on Sunday. Evans was excellent in both of his outings against the Panthers last year, catching seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in the first one and six for 77 and a score in the rematch. That 2020 Panthers secondary arguably had a much sounder secondary than the current one, given the rash of injuries and positive COVID tests that have hit that group as the season has progress. For the season finale this Sunday, Carolina is likely to be without cornerbacks Donte Jackson, Jaycee Horn, Stephon Gilmore, A.J. Bouye and Troy Pride. Evans comes into the game needing just 54 receiving yards to secure his eighth straight 1,000-yard season. That's already an NFL record for most such seasons to open a career, but Evans would also join a legendary group of just five other receivers who have had eight straight 1,000-yard campaigns at any point in their careers: Jerry Rice, Tom Brown, Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt.
Will Gholston. In the Week 16 Bucs-Panthers game in Charlotte, Cam Newton and Sam Darnold split the snaps at quarterback for the home team. The player who spent the third-most time in the Carolina backfield was Gholston. The ninth-year player recorded a career-high 2.5 sacks on the afternoon, leading Tampa Bay's seven-sack charge. The Panthers' offensive line, which has also had to adjust to a number of injuries, gave up another seven sacks last Sunday against the Saints and in those two games has had particular trouble stopping the pass rush up the middle. Gholston already has a career-high 4.5 sacks this season but is in a friendly rivalry with fellow interior lineman Ndamukong Suh (6.0) to see who can lead that unit in sacks this season. Matt Rhule has chosen to give the season's final start to Darnold, and while Newton may be the most accomplished running quarterback in league history – at least in terms of touchdowns – Darnold's mobility is underrated as well. He's rushed for five touchdowns this season and had a 66-yard game on the ground versus Atlanta earlier this season. Gholston and company will try to put intense pressure on Darnold again, just as they did two weeks ago, but they will also need to keep him from breaking containment in the pocket. The only long passing play Tampa Bay gave up in the Week 16 game was a 63-yard on a broken play that saw Darnold scramble up and to his right.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Sunday's game should be Vaughn's time to shine. Ronald Jones was ruled out for the contest due to the ankle injury he suffered against the Jets and both Leonard Fournette and Giovani Bernard remain on injured reserve. Vaughn is expected to get his first NFL start and he'll try to top the 70 yards he had against the Panthers two weeks ago. Much of those yards came on a 55-yard touchdown jaunt on his first handoff of the game, the longest run of his career and the longest by a Buccaneer this season. The second-year player out of Vanderbilt has his coaches' confidence as a ballcarrier and has reportedly worked hard to improve his pass-catching and blocking in the backfield. The Buccaneers hope to have Fournette, Jones and Bernard all back for the playoffs at some point, but Vaughn is the only player in that group who is under contract beyond 2021, and thus this outing will offer some strong evidence as to how big of a role he can play in the team's backfield in 2022.
Sean Murphy-Bunting. This is about the time of year that Murphy-Bunting caught fire in 2020. He had six tackles, a pass defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble-recovery in the regular season finale and then set a franchise record with an interception in three straight playoff games on the way to the Super Bowl. The third-year corner didn't play much last week after he and Jamel Dean had travel issues on a private flight to the game in the Meadowlands after they had spent the entire practice week on the COVID list. Murphy-Bunting was then shaken up after only nine snaps against the Jets, but he has been a full participant in practice all week and is expected to return to a large role in the secondary on Sunday. The Panthers' receiving corps has been thinned by injuries and COVID and may be pressing some very inexperienced players into action on Sunday around standout D.J. Moore. While the Buccaneers' secondary remains one of the team's youngest units it has picked up a huge amount of experience over the past three seasons and may be in position to throw a blanket over Carolina's passing game on Sunday. Murphy-Bunting gives the Bucs' defense some flexibility in the personnel packages it can put on the field by being able to play on the outside and in the slot, often in the same game. Tampa Bay has been one of the NFL's most prolific producers of takeaways in the three years that Todd Bowles has been at the helm, but that turnover pipeline has dried up in recent weeks, with just four by the Bucs over their last five games. If the Buccaneers are going to get on another takeaway streak heading into the playoffs, it could be Murphy-Bunting who sparks that run.
Cyril Grayson. It's hard not to include Grayson on any must-watch list right now because he is currently the most entertaining story on the roster. On Thursday, Grayson told a story about a practice field interaction with Tom Brady in 2020 that helped keep him on the path to where he is now, as an emerging standout getting starter-level reps in the Bucs' passing game. Grayson slipped and couldn't catch one pass from Brady in practice and then lost another one in the sun, prompting what he originally thought was a little too harsh of criticism from the quarterback. However, Brady pulled Grayson to the side after practice to tell him that he was being hard on him because he could see the talent that Grayson possessed and believed he could develop it into a real NFL career. Grayson is beginning to prove Brady right, with 176 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown over the last two weeks. That included the stunning 33-yard game-winner with 15 seconds left last Sunday against the Jets, plus a 62-yarder two weeks ago against the Panthers. With Godwin and Brown out of the picture, Grayson is certain to keep getting significant reps and it will be fascinating to see what he can do with them. Even if he doesn't put up big numbers this Sunday he'll still help the offense with his willing blocking, something the team lost a lot of when Godwin landed on injured reserve.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 9.3/8.0/9.7/6.7. Last season, his first as a Buccaneer, Tom Brady averaged 9.3 air yards per pass attempt, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That was the highest average for any qualifying quarterback in the league and it demonstrated that Brady was more than capable of thriving in Bruce Arians' aggressive downfield attacking style. This year, however, Brady is averaging 8.0 air yards per attempt as the Bucs adjusted to a prevalence of two-deep safety coverage by attacking underneath zones with a multitude of quick passes. However, Brady's best weapon in such an attack was Chris Godwin, who is no longer available. We may be seeing another evolution of the Bucs' offense in response. With Godwin in the mix, the Bucs had settled into a groove from Weeks 12-15 that saw him averaging 6.7 air yards per attempt. In the last two games, he has averaged 9.7 air yards per attempt.
· 13.6%/8.0/0.80/3.86. Make no mistake, the Panthers can get pressure on opposing passers off the edge, and they can do it fast. Haason Reddick, who signed with Carolina after a breakout year in Arizona, has a 13.6% pressure rate since 2020, which is 10th-best in the NFL among players with at least 500 pass-rush snap. This year, he has recorded eight sacks in which he got to the quarterback in under four seconds, tied for the most in the NFL. Meanwhile, Brian Burns has averaged a 0.80-second get-off at the snap since he arrived as a first-round pick in 2019, fifth-fastest among edge rushers in that span. Of all the players who have had 10 or more sacks since the start of last year, Burns has the second-fastest average time-to-sack at 3.86 seconds.
· 7/20/38.5%. When the Bucs beat the Panthers in Week 16, Tampa Bay's pass rush was the single most dominant force in the game. The Buccaneers sacked the QB combination of Sam Darnold and Cam Newton seven times, their highest total in a game this season. But the pressure went far beyond those seven snaps. Tampa Bay's pass-rushers generated 20 quarterback pressures, which is also their highest total in any contest this season. Overall, the Bucs pressure rate according to NFL Next Gen Stats was a dominant 38.5%. It was a full team effort, too. Thirteen different Buccaneer defenders had at least one pressure in the game and nine had at least two.
· 67.2. The Panthers tried to find a long-term solution at quarterback this season with their trade for Darnold, the former Jets first-rounder. A midseason shoulder injury put him on injured reserve and caused him to miss five games and six starts, and that prompted Carolina to take another big swing by bringing back Cam Newton. P.J. Walker also got one start immediately after Darnold went on I.R. The Panthers are probably still trying to decide what to do at quarterback moving forward, however, because that trio has not provided the desired results. The three Carolina QBs have combined to produce a 67.2 passer rating. If that holds, it would be the lowest passer rating by a team since Buffalo's 62.6 in 2018.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· As noted above, with Ronald Jones ruled out due to an ankle injury, second-year man Ke'Shawn Vaughn is expected to get the start in Tampa Bay's backfield on Sunday. He will split the RB load with veteran Le'Veon Bell, who was signed to the team on December 22 and could be the team's primary pass-catching back against the Panthers. Bell caught three passes for 30 yards last Sunday against the Jets and also ran in a two-point conversion after the game's final touchdown. Bruce Arians mentioned on Friday that return man Kenjon Barner, who was elevated from the practice squad again on Saturday, could see some action at running back, too.
· Carolina added four players to their reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday and Thursday: wide receivers Terrace Marshall and Shi Smith, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. The return of Brian Burns from that list last Saturday helps ease the loss of Gross-Matos but the Panthers are thin at receiver and cornerback after those COVID list additions. With Donte Jackson, Jaycee Horn, A.J. Bouye and Troy Pride on I.R. and Gilmore unavailable, the Panthers may start rookie fifth-rounder Keith Taylor and well-traveled veteran Rashaan Melvin at cornerback, as they did last week. Meanwhile, Robby Anderson is questionable for the game after missing the whole week of practice with a quad injury; if he can't play, the Panthers' top wideouts would be D.J. Moore, Brandon Zylstra and Alex Erickson, with additional help coming up from the practice squad.
· Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett was already set to miss Sunday's game due to the knee injury he suffered the last time the Bucs and Panthers met, but he also landed on the COVID list on Friday. Fellow starter Jason Pierre-Paul will rest his injured shoulder for the third weekend in a row, meaning rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and third-year man Anthony Nelson will draw the starts at outside linebacker again. Both have 4.0 sacks on the season after Nelson got the Bucs' only QB takedown last Sunday against the Jets.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE PANTHERS
As has remained the case since the Bucs faced them two weeks ago, the Panthers' defense has allowed the second-fewest yards per game (299.5) and yards per play (4.95) and has been particularly stingy against the pass, ranking second with 183.9 yards allowed per contest. Carolina's defense has also allowed the fourth-fewest first downs per game (18.1) and registered the fourth-best sacks-per-pass-play rate (7.98%). D.J. Moore remains one of the most productive receivers in the NFL, catching 86 passes for 1,070 yards and four touchdowns and also rushing seven times for 35 yards. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
The Panthers have a very talented pair of edge rushers in Haason Reddick and Brian Burns, who have combined for 20 sacks this year. However, Carolina has also blitzed well, particularly in terms of disrupting opposing quarterbacks' throws. The Panthers have allowed a completion percentage of just 55.5% when blitzing, the fifth-lowest mark given up by any defense in the league. Second-year standout Jeremy Chinn, a safety who also spent much of last season as a hybrid linebacker, is one of Carolina's key blitzers. He has 60 pass rushes on the season, which is third among all NFL defensive backs, and he has produced eight QB pressures, tied for sixth in that group. Chinn's overall pressure rate of 13.3% is quite good. Fortunately for the Bucs, they've shown an ability to handle blitzes, which is part of the reason they have allowed the league's lowest sack rate. When these two teams met two weeks ago, Carolina blitzed on a whopping 63% of Tom Brady's dropbacks – the highest rate he has faced in a game in the six seasons Next Gen Stats has been tracking this date – but only produced two pressures.
While Carolina's offensive numbers do not suggest one specific challenge that stands out above the rest, there is a one challenge the Buccaneers' defense would like to meet on Sunday: Get some takeaways. Through the first three quarters of the season, the Bucs were among the best in the NFL – as they have been since the arrival of Todd Bowles in 2019 – at forcing turnovers. After Week 12 they were third in the league in takeaways per game. However, in the five games since the Bucs' defense has produced just four turnovers, including the relatively meaningless one on the Jets' final desperation play last Sunday. Tampa Bay hasn't had a game with multiple takeaways in that span and have just three points off turnovers in the last five games. When the Bucs and Panthers met in Week 16, Tampa Bay dominated on the scoreboard but only got one takeaway on defense, leading to a field goal. The Panthers have only turned it over four times over their last three games.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On if the passing game can still thrive going forward while relying on such players as Breshad Perriman, Cyril Grayson and Scotty Miller:
"I have all the confidence in the world. If you look at the guys who stepped up since Buffalo – B.P. wins a game, Cyril wins a game. It's just a great opportunity. Scotty has played big for us. It's just an opportunity for another guy but we have a great roster. Hopefully, we'll have almost everybody back defensively next week, so we'll wait and see how that goes. Let's win this week and set a franchise record for a number of wins because it's a big goal, man. 13 wins is huge."