The 4-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 6-5 Carolina Panthers will meet on Sunday for a rematch following Carolina's 42-28 victory in Week Nine. That game was played in Charlotte; Sunday the two teams will meet at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, where the Buccaneers are 3-2 in 2018. The Panthers have struggled on the road in 2018, winning just once in their first five tries. The Panthers are also on a three-game losing streak that began after their win over the Buccaneers, a stretch in which they have given up 102 points. Still, Carolina is very much alive in the NFC's Wild Card hunt while the Bucs are on the fringe of the race even after breaking their own losing streak with a win over San Francisco in Week 12.
One thing has not changed since the Bucs met the Panthers in early November: Carolina remains one of the NFL's best running teams, in no small part because their quarterback, MVP candidate Cam Newton, is very much involved in that rushing attack. Second-year RB Christian McCaffrey had 157 yards from scrimmage against Tampa Bay in Week Nine and hasn't slowed down since. Carolina's defense forced two key turnovers in the first meeting with the Buccaneers but has been on a three-game takeaway drought since. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face against Carolina on Sunday:
Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.
Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape. The two choices on offense haven't changed since the last Carolina scouting report, but the defensive picks are new based on what happened against the Buccaneers in Week Nine.
1. QB Cam Newton. Newton's renaissance season under new Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner continues. His 103.7 passer rating on the season is 23 points higher than a year ago and he's headed towards a career-best finish in that category as he gets even hotter down the stretch. Newton had a 133.2 rating in the Panthers' win over Tampa Bay four weeks ago and his game marks since then are 103.0, 114.4 and 110.6. And we haven't yet mentioned Newton's running, but he's definitely still doing that, to the tune of 38 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Even the threat of Newton keeping the ball is a boon to the Carolina offense, which uses misdirection in the ground game as good as any attack in the NFL.
2. RB Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey's 79 rushing yards and 78 receiving yards against the Buccaneers four weeks ago was impressive, but he topped that last Sunday with 125 and 112, plus a touchdown in both ways. McCaffrey is the first player in Panthers franchise history to have a 100-yard rushing and 100-yard receiving game on the same day. The second-year back has elite quickness and good open-field moves, and the Panthers obviously feel comfortable lining him up all over the formation. He almost never comes off the field; he played all but one offensive snap against the Buccaneers in Week Nine and didn't miss a single play last Sunday against Seattle.
3. DE Mario Addison. Addison was already the Panthers' sack leader when the Buccaneers came to Charlotte in Week Nine, but he wasn't highlighted among our Game-Wreckers because his total of 4.5 sacks at the time wasn't particularly eye-opening. Addison changed that by sacking Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick three times in that contest, and one of those takedowns caused a fumble. No other Carolina defender has more than four sacks this season. Addison has two forced fumbles on the season and three of his 10 tackles for loss have come on running plays. The Panthers generally cause a lot of disruption up front against the Buccaneers, and Addison was a big part of that in Week Nine.
4. CB James Bradberry. Bradberry, the Panthers' number-one cornerback, doesn't have an interception yet this season and he's had a few uneven performances, but he saved his best performance for the previous Bucs-Panthers affair. Bradberry was tasked with shadowing Mike Evans, and he helped the Panthers' defense hold the Bucs' star pass-catcher to a season low 16 yards on one catch. It would be no surprise to see the Panthers employ the same sort of scheme against Evans the second time around, and to let the big and physical Bradberry continue to be a personal escort for his counterpart.
The Panthers have been very good in the red zone all season, and they've actually improved their touchdown percentage in that area a bit, to 68.9%, since the last time they faced the Buccaneers. Despite not getting a takeaway in the last three games, as noted above, Carolina is still tied for 10th in the NFL with a plus-four turnover ratio, helped by a fine 1.94% interception rate. Here are some other areas in which the Panthers have excelled so far this season:
· The first Panther strength we noted four weeks ago was that their rushing attack was particularly good on first down, averaging a league-best 5.7 yards per carry. Well, that average is now up to 6.1 yards per carry on first down and, yes, that is still number one in the NFL.
· Carolina created four goal-to-go opportunities against the Buccaneers a month ago and scored touchdowns on all of them. That has been a defensive issue for Tampa Bay all season, but it's hard to blame the Bucs on this one because the Panthers have a league-best 95% touchdown efficiency in goal-to-go situations. They're 19 of 20 in that category, split almost evenly between nine rushing scores and 10 passing touchdowns.
· Carolina's defense definitely gets penetration up front, and that has been particularly evident on rushing plays. Carolina has stopped opposing ballcarriers for a loss on 16.3% of their carries (41 of 258). Tampa Bay's defense has been good at this too, with a negative-play rate of 13.7%, but Carolina is at the very top of the chart in this category.
· Carolina's pass defense only ranks 22nd overall in the NFL as it has surrendered 260.1 yards per game. However, the Panthers have done a good job of limiting pass-catchers after they have the ball in their hands. Carolina has given up 3,015 passing yards, but only 1,286 of that is after the catch. That's the fourth-lowest YAC percentage allowed in the NFL.
Continuing a theme from the "Strengths" above, the Panthers were struggling in red zone defense when the Bucs visited in Week Nine and they have only gotten a tiny bit better in the weeks since. The Buccaneers scored on both of their red zone trips in that first meeting, and Carolina has allowed a 75% touchdown rate in the red zone that was second worst in the NFL then and still is heading into Week 13. Carolina. In addition:
· As good as Newton and Carolina's offense have been, they have not been terribly effective in hurry-up situations. The Panthers have only scored 28 points on drives at the end of halves this season, the sixth-lowest total in the league, and their two-minute offense has generated just six points.
· Another weakness that has held true since the last Bucs-Panthers meeting is Carolina's ability to hit big plays downfield in the passing game. The Panthers definitely generate big plays – and did so often against the Bucs in Week Nine – but not by throwing the ball a long distance in the air. In fact, on passes that travel more than 20 yards downfield in the air, Carolina has a 31.3 passer rating, which ranks last in the NFL.
· Opposing offenses have often gotten off to good starts against the Panthers. Carolina has given up 31 points on the first possessions of their games, which is the sixth-most in the NFL.
· Carolina's red zone woes actually begin a little bit outside of the 20-yard line. The Panthers' defense is giving up 4.4 yards per play when the ball is snapped inside the 30-yard line this season. That's the fourth-worst mark in the league.
NEW FACES IN 2018
The Panthers' offense features a rookie receiver who has picked up his game in the second half of the season. The secondary has been shored up by an in-season addition.
1. WR D.J. Moore. In his first start in Week Eight against Baltimore, the 2018 first-round pick caught five passes for 90 yards. He generated just one 16-yard catch the next week against Tampa Bay and had 20 receiving yards in Week 10. However, over the past two games Moore has caught a total of 15 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown.
2. S Eric Reid. The Panthers signed the former 49ers safety at the end of September after a rash of injuries hit their secondary. Reid stepped directly into the starting lineup and, along with Mike Adams, has brought a veteran presence to Carolina's safety position. Reid had 48 tackles, one sack and one interception.
3. Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner. Carolina made the move this year from Mike Shula to Turner, the long-time NFL coach, and Turner has gotten the most out of Newton and McCaffrey with a very creative raft of plays.
1. CB Donte Jackson. The Panthers' speedy rookie cornerback suffered a quad injury on the first play of last week's game against Seattle and did not return. He also was not practicing at the beginning of this week. The Panthers have brought cornerback Lorenzo Doss up from the practice squad to prepare for the possibility that Jackson is out.
2. WR Devin Funchess. Funchess, the Panthers' leading receiver after McCaffrey, also didn't practice on Wednesday after sustaining a back injury two weeks ago and missing last Sunday's outing.
3. T Matt Kalil. The Panthers put Kalil on injured reserve before the start of the season but it has widely assumed that he would return from that list at some point in the season. He is eligible to do so now but has not yet been activated.