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Panthers' Sack-Happy Defense Has Been Tough to Pass Against

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't be playing on their usual home field this Sunday, but they will have a chance to get the home half of a season sweep against division rival Carolina. A win on Sunday at London's Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where the Bucs will be considered the home team, would give them their first 2-0 season against the Panthers since 2016, not to mention much better footing in the NFC South standings.

The Buccaneers defeated the Panthers in a Thursday night thriller in Week Two, just holding onto a 20-14 victory when Vernon Hargreaves stopped Christian McCaffrey on a fourth-and-one carry from Tampa Bay's two-yard line with 90 seconds left. Since then, quarterback Cam Newton has been shelved by a foot injury he aggravated against the Buccaneers while McCaffrey has sprinted into the green room for potential NFL MVP candidates.

That critical Hargreaves stop was part of an impressive effort against the Panthers' do-everything third-year running back, who was held to 53 yards from scrimmage and no touchdowns that evening. In Carolina's other four games, McCaffrey has averaged 202.3 yards from scrimmage and has scored a total of seven touchdowns. That's obviously a big reason why Carolina has won three straight since Kyle Allen replaced Newton under center, but Allen deserves plenty of credit as well. The 2018 undrafted free agent out of Houston has thrown five touchdown passes without a pick while completing two-thirds of his passes and compiling a 107.4 passer rating.

On defense, the Panthers are led by a fierce pass rush that ranks second in the league with 20 sacks, including 6.5 by Mario Addison and 3.5 by rookie first-rounder Brian Burns. Carolina has given up more than 400 yards in two of their last three games, but in between they shut down Deshaun Watson and the Houston offense in a 16-10 win in Week Four. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will confront against Carolina in London on Sunday:

PANTHERS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

McCaffrey is Carolina's number-one difference-maker so far this year, and the Buccaneers will have a difficult time keeping him to the same low output he had in Week Two. On defense, the Panthers have a young cornerback in James Bradberry who has shown he can put up a good fight against Buccaneers WR Mike Evans, though Evans had the Bucs' longest catch in the Week Two meeting. Both McCaffrey and Bradberry were featured among the Panthers' difference-makers in our Week Two scouting report, so here are four other Panthers who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:

1. DE Mario Addison. Addison, a former undrafted free agent who came to Carolina in 2013 after bouncing around to four different teams in his first two NFL years, has often been overshadowed by bigger names in the Panthers' front. That's kept him a bit under the radar as he has quietly turned into one of the NFL's most productive pass-rushers. Since the start of the 2014 season, Addison ranks 11th in the NFL with 48.5 sacks, and most of the names above him are of the Miller-Watt-Donald-Mack category. He's in that group despite the fact that he wasn't even a starter his first three years in Carolina. That's true no more; Addison has started the Panthers' last 37 games and has 26.5 sacks in that span, including a team-leading 6.5 sacks this year, as noted above. Addison has the explosiveness needed to be a good pass-rusher in the NFL, but opponents sometimes underestimate how strong he is, given his smaller stature (relatively speaking) for a defensive end. Addison had a three-sack game against the Buccaneers last season.

2. TE Greg Olsen. Olsen's days as the rare 1,000-yard tight end may be behind him after two seasons continuously marred by injuries, but he's proving to still be a weapon for which opposing defenses have to account. That was certainly true in Week Two when Olsen racked up 110 yards on six catches against the Buccaneers, proving to be the Panthers' most effective offensive option. The Bucs have many, many memories of Olsen recording big games against them; he has 907 career yards at Tampa Bay's expense, an average of 53.4 per game. Because Olsen always has been and remains a strong blocker, he rarely comes off the field; he played in all but one of the Panthers' offensive snaps last week and was the fourth most used tight end in the NFL coming into Week Five, by snap percentage. In devising a game plan for Sunday's rematch, Carolina coaches are likely to notice that the Buccaneers' defense has allowed opposing tight ends to catch 36 passes for 442 yards – roughly seven for 88 per game – this year. A tight end has found the end zone against the Bucs each of the past three weeks.

3. G Greg Van Roten. McCaffrey exploded for 237 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in last week's win over Jacksonville, but first-year player Reggie Bonnafon also had 80 yards on five carries as the Panthers' rushing attack was good for 285 yards on the day. Head Coach Ron Rivera was so impressed with his offensive line's performance that he gave a game ball to its position coach, John Matsko. That line has had to deal with some shuffling due to injuries lately, with stud right guard Trai Turner and rookie second-rounder Greg Little missing time. One constant has been Van Roten, the left guard who had to fight to keep his starting job in training camp after opening all 16 games last year. He was the only Panther lineman to play 100% of the team's offensive snaps in 2018 as the team also dealt with a number of injuries last fall. He is a talented pass blocker with good feet but has been particularly strong in the rushing game this season. He's helped put a souvenir on his coach's mantel.

4. LB Luke Kuechly. Last time around we highlighted Shaq Thompson as the Panthers' rising-star linebacker ready to form the new power duo with Luke Kuechly in the middle of the Carolina defense. This time, we're going with the established star, who only recorded 18 tackles, two tackles for loss and a pass defensed the last time the Bucs and Panthers met. To no one's surprise, Kuechly is the NFL's leading tackler through five weeks, with 56 stops, but he's also an elite pass defender. Close to half of his tackles this year have been in the passing game, and he's also broken up three passes. Kuechly doesn't have an interception yet this year but he had 16 over the previous seven seasons and he's a player that quarterbacks have to keep track of when trying to throw the ball in the short and intermediate range.

STRENGTHS

As has been the case for most of the current decade, the Panthers are one of the NFL's best running teams. In fact, with McCaffrey averaging 5.6 yards per carry and 117.4 rushing yards per game Carolina as a team ranks first in that former category and fourth in the latter. As mentioned above, the Panthers' defense is doing a good job of getting to the quarterback, ranking fourth in the league in sacks per pass play (10.81%). Eleven different Panther defenders have at least half a sack already. Here are some more specific areas in which the Panthers have excelled through the first five games of the 2019 season:

· Buccaneers fans who recall that game-saving stop by Hargreaves in Week Two might picture it as a goal-to-go situation for the Panthers, but it was actually fourth-and-one from the two-yard line. Hargreaves not only had to keep McCaffrey out of the end zone, he couldn't even let him get to the one. When Carolina has reached goal-to-go situations this season, it has been perfect, as one of only four teams in the NFL who has scored a touchdown each time it's gained a first-down from the 10-yard line in. The Panthers have had eight such drives, five ending in rushing touchdowns and three in passing scores.

· We've noted the high sack total recorded so far by the Panthers' defense but that crew has done a good job of creating negative yardage overall. Including runs and complete passes that were stopped behind the line of scrimmage, Carolina's defense has been responsible for 34 negative-yardage plays, which is tied for third-most in the NFL.

· McCaffrey's 84-yard touchdown run against Jacksonville last Sunday came on Carolina's first play from scrimmage in the second half. That obviously helped the Panthers' first-down rushing average, which has risen to second-best in the NFL. Carolina is averaging 5.7 yards per tote on first downs, second only to Jacksonville's 5.9. Of the 76 runs the Panthers have called on first down, 24 have gone for six or more yards, including 10 that have picked up 10 or more (and one that got 80 or more). That one-play drive was also the fifth time this year the Panthers have scored on a drive of four or fewer plays, which is tied for the most in the NFL.

· Carolina's pass defense has been stingy overall but it has been particularly hard to throw the ball deep on that crew (notwithstanding Evans' 41-yarder in Week Two). On passes that travel more than 20 yards downfield in the air, the Panthers' defense has allowed an opposing passer rating of just 53.2, sixth-lowest in the league. Evans' catch is the longest one the Panthers have allowed this year, and opponents have as many touchdowns (one) as interceptions on such passes.

WEAKNESSES

Despite its strong rushing attack, Carolina has not controlled the clock as much as one might expect, ranking 28th with an average time of possession of 27:52 per game. The Panthers' productive rushing attack has been paired with a passing game ranked 24th in yards per play and 23rd in yards per game. On the other side of the ball it's been the opposite, as Carolina's third-ranked pass defense has been balanced by a 25th-ranked run defense giving up 134.4 yards per game. In addition:

· It may be fluky, but the Panthers have had a bit of trouble with ball security through the first five games. Their seven lost fumbles are the most by any team in the league, and they've put the ball on the ground 11 times. Carolina fumbled three times against the Bucs in Week Two, losing one of them. Six of those seven lost fumbles have been committed by the quarterbacks, including four by current starter Kyle Allen in just three games.

· Carolina's red zone defense has had its struggles. The Panthers' defense has allowed 60.0% of drives inside their 20 to end in touchdowns, which is tied for 19th in the NFL. That ranking isn't horrendous, but more detailed numbers paint a grimmer picture. The Carolina defense has allowed 63.6% of red zone plays against it to be successful, which is the worst mark in the NFL. The Panthers also rank 29th in red zone third-down conversion rate (57.1%) and has given up 3.6 yards per play in that part of the field, which ranks 25th.

· The Panthers' offense has not thrown the ball downfield terribly often (18 passes for 21+ yards in the air, 19th in the league), though perhaps it doesn't have to with McCaffrey's penchant for explosive plays. Those 18 downfield passes have resulted in just four completions, for a 22.2% completion rate that is third-lowest in the league and the Panthers have yet to score on such a play.

· We noted in the "Strengths" category above that Carolina's offense has been very good at quick-strike scoring drives. In contrast, they have not often ground out long, time-consuming marches. The Panthers have mustered only four drives that lasted 10 or more plays, and only one of those resulted in a score. Only the winless Jets have had fewer 10-play drives and fewer points off such drives than the Panthers.

NEW FACES IN 2018

In response to the offensive line injuries noted above, the Panthers have added two depth pieces to that unit in the last two weeks, first guard Bryan Witzmann and more recently former Buccaneer tackle Caleb Benenoch. The Panthers have also lost stalwart defensive lineman Kawann Short to injured reserve since the season began, which led to the promotion of Bryan Cox Jr. from the practice squad. Prior to that Carolina made some key additions in the offseason.

1. OLB/DE's Brian Burns and Bruce Irvin. The Panthers used a first-round pick on former Florida State star Brian Burns and brought in Irvin as an unrestricted free agent. Both are good fits in the 3-4 as stand-up edge rushers. Irvin missed the first three games with a hamstring injury but he had a sack in his first game as a Panther in Week Four. Burns already has 3.5 sacks.

2. K Joey Slye. The Virginia Tech product originally signed with the New York Giants after this year's draft but ended up in Carolina at the beginning of August. He would go on to handle all of the Panthers' placekicking duties in the preseason after Graham Gano sustained a left leg injury in training camp, and he was nearly perfect, making seven of eight field goal tries and all four PATs, including several 50-plus blasts. Gano ended up on injured reserve and Slye got the job. He's 10 of 13 on field goals so far and 13 of 14 on extra point tries.

3. C Matt Paradis. The Panthers found themselves in need of a new center in 2019 when Ryan Kalil, a five-time Pro Bowler, announced his retirement on December 31. (The retirement didn't stick; he's now the Jets' starting center.) Carolina found their man in former Bronco Matt Paradis, who had started 57 games he'd played for the Broncos.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. Cam Newton. It's unusual to get this far into a Panthers scouting report without paying much attention to Newton, but he's out indefinitely while dealing with the aforementioned foot injury. Allen will try to stay hot in his absence; his only backup is rookie Will Grier.

2. G Trai Turner. The Panthers had their huge rushing day against the Jaguars without Turner but are undoubtedly better with him in the lineup. He was replaced by sixth-round rookie Dennis Daley. Turner has missed the last two games due to an ankle injury.

3. DT Kawann Short/WR Chris Hogan. Both Short and Hogan have landed on injured reserve since the season began. Short, who went to the Pro Bowl last year and had 27.5 sacks over the past four seasons, is the more significant loss as Hogan had just three catches through his first four games before being shelved by a knee injury.

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