The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head to Charlotte in Week 10 to take on a Carolina Panthers team that by win-loss record is fourth from the bottom in the NFC, by league offensive and defensive rankings is essentially middle of the NFL pack and by the eye test is a very formidable opponent.
Five of Carolina's six losses have come by a single score, including all of them in their current four-game losing streak, and they've only been outscored by 16 points all season, or less than two per game. In addition, five of their six losses have come against teams that currently have winning records – including the Buccaneers in Week Two – with the most recent one being a down-to-the-wire 33-31 loss in Kansas City to the defending-champion Chiefs.
Following a disheartening loss to New Orleans on Sunday night, the Buccaneers badly want to add another intra-division win to their ledger, but they know it will be a significant challenge against Carolina.
"We've got another divisional opponent coming [up] with the Carolina Panthers, who [are] a great football time, even though the record shows otherwise," said Bucs linebacker Lavonte David. "We honestly feel that they present a challenge to us, so we've got to be able to get better and be able to play a full four quarters of fundamentally sound, smart football on Sunday."
The Panthers' offense, which ranks 15th in overall yards and 11th in passing yards, is diverse and loaded with playmakers. That list starts with Christian McCaffrey, who returned to action on Sunday after missing six games but now may be a question mark again due to a late-game shoulder injury. While McCaffrey was out, Mike Davis stepped up as a very competent replacement, both running and catching the ball (more on him below). The array of pass-catchers includes wideouts Robby Anders, Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore, all of whom have 35-plus receptions.
Anderson (60 receptions for 751 yards and one touchdown) is the Panthers' leading receiver and is proving to be an astute pick-up in unrestricted free agency. However, Carolina's best move on the open market was to bring in former Drew Brees back-up Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater has led the Panthers' offense with efficiency (71.9% completion rate, 98.7 passer rating) and has proved to be something of a threat with his legs, as well, running for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Under first-year Head Coach Matt Rhule and Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady, the former LSU mastermind, the Panthers' offense uses a lot of motion to try to confuse defenses and get favorable matchups. Carolina uses motion on more than 50% of its snaps and, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, is more successful when it does. Through the first eight weeks, the Panthers had been picking up 6.8 yards per play when using motion (second in the NFL) and 5.4 per play when not using motion.
Carolina's defense is probably a bit more of a work in progress, unsurprising given that it includes a lot of young players and newcomers in 2020. The Panthers list three rookies as starters on defense, including first and second-round picks Derrick Brown and Jeremy Chinn and undrafted cornerback Sam Franklin. Carolina ranks 17th in overall defense – 20th against the pass and 13th against the run – and has, in particular, had difficulties on getting off the field on third downs and in applying pressure on the quarterback.
The Panthers have done a good job in the turnover department. Bridgewater's 11-6 TD-INT ratio isn't scintillating but overall Carolina has turned it over nine times while taking it away 12 times on defense. That +3 turnover ratio is tied for ninth in the NFL and Carolina is the only team in the top 12 in that category that does not currently have a winning record. Again, that's another indication that the Panthers are a more formidable opponent than their 3-6 record suggests.
The Buccaneers downed the Panthers, 31-17, in Week Two but the game wasn't over until Leonard Fournette broke off a 46-yard touchdown run with two minutes to play. The Buccaneers handled McCaffrey reasonably well – as they have in each of their last three meetings – but both Anderson and Moore topped 100 receiving yards as Bridgewater threw for 367. Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead made the difference with one interception each, but Bridgewater has been picked off just four more times in the seven games since. The Panthers are primed to give the Buccaneers a serious challenge – and vice versa – as Tampa Bay tries to keep pace in the division race and Carolina tries to snap its hard-luck losing streak. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when they return to early-afternoon action and face another division foe on Sunday:
As is obviously the case with most teams and their quarterbacks, Bridgewater is one of the Panthers' key difference-makers, and he's been a very positive addition in 2020. McCaffrey is the team's biggest stars and one of the hardest players to contain in the entire NFL, but his status for Sunday's game could remain in doubt well into the week. Prior to the Week Two Panthers-Bucs game, we identified Anderson and defensive end Brian Burns as two of Carolina's top difference-makers, and both have lived up to the billing so far. Anderson is tied for third in the NFL in receptions and ranks fourth in receiving yards, while Burns is tied for the team lead with 3.0 sacks and has 11 quarterback hits. In addition to those players, here are four other Panthers who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon:
1. RB Mike Davis. Just how much of a problem Davis is for the Bucs' defense will depend upon whether McCaffrey is in action or not, but either way the Panthers know they have an effective second option in their backfield. McCaffrey sprained his ankle late in the loss to Tampa Bay in Week Two and Davis immediately stepped in and kept the offense running smoothly. He has rushed for 353 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 4.2 yards per carry, and has added 43 catches for 278 yards and two more scores. The only NFL running back with more receptions this season is Saints superstar Alvin Kamara. At 5-9 and 220 pounds, Davis is more of a compact and solid back than the 5-11, 205 McCaffrey but he has the same sort of versatility and is very good at breaking tackles in the open field. The Panthers picked up Davis in the middle of last season when he was dropped by the Bears after barely playing in seven games and it's paying off now as his presence allows the offense to continue using the same plays even when McCaffrey is unavailable. A former fourth-round pick in 2015, Davis is already on his fourth team but he showed a glimpse of what he could do with Seattle in 2018 when he ran for 514 yards and 4.6 yards per carry and caught 34 passes.
2. CB Donte Jackson. Jackson knew he would be stepping into the role of the Panthers' top cornerback after the free agency departure of James Bradberry, and so he made a point of drilling down on his techniques during the offseason and training camp. Jackson has always been a ball-hawk, with seven interceptions and 17 passes defensed during his first two seasons (2018-19) but he wanted to become more of a complete shut-down corner in his third year. The results have been good, even though he's had to battle through a couple foot injuries to stay on the field for all nine games. His three interceptions and six passes defensed, both of which lead the team, are even more impressive given that he's only been on the field for 57% of the Panthers' defensive snaps. One of Jackson's three interceptions this season came off the Bucs' Tom Brady in Week Two and it sparked a second-half comeback after the Panthers had fallen behind 21-0 by halftime. Jackson's 10 interceptions since the start of 2019 are tied for the fifth-most in the NFL in that span. The Panthers have had some upheaval at cornerback this year, starting with the absence of Bradberry and then with the injury and later release of Eli Apple. Fourth-round rookie Troy Pride has been pressed into four starts and the team is now starting veteran Rasul Douglas, who was claimed off waiver from Philadelphia in September and who was recently on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Amid all of that, Jackson has given the position stability and production and has made an effort to be more of a leader, as well.
3. WR D.J. Moore. Prior to joining the Panthers, wide receiver Robby Anderson averaged nearly 15 yards per catch and scored a touchdown on roughly one out of every 10 receptions. Meanwhile, Moore had a breakout campaign in his second season in 2019, catching 87 passes for 1,175, though his per-catch average was just 13.5 and he scored only four touchdowns. As such, it was reasonable to see the addition of Anderson as a big-play complement to the high-volume Moore, but instead their roles have reversed, at least statistically. It's now Anderson who is getting by far the most targets and has 22 more catches than any other Carolina wideout, though his per-catch average has dropped to 12.5 and he has scored just once in 60 grabs. At the same time, Moore has been more of a big-play maker, with an average of 18.3 yards per catch and a team-high three touchdown receptions. The Panthers often use Moore as the isolated receiver on one side of the formation with a bunch on the other side, and they want to get the ball in space because he's an excellent runner after the catch. According to Next Gen Stats, from the beginning of his 2018 rookie year through the midway point of this season, Moore gained 307 yards after the catch more than what was expected, which was third most by any player in that span.
4. S/LB Jeremy Chinn. After Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. won the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month award in September, the 2020 second-round pick became a prominent part of the Defensive Rookie of the Year award discussion. Well, Chinn, who was drafted 19 spots after Winfield in April, followed Winfield by winning that same award in October and building some buzz of his own. Like Winfield, Chinn is a versatile player who can be used all over the field, and the Panthers haven't hesitated to do exactly that. Chinn has already drawn a significant number of snaps as an edge rusher, an in-the-box linebacker, a slot corner, an outside corner and a free safety. The results have been a robust stat line that includes 66 tackles (second on the team), one tackle for loss, two quarterback hits, one interception and five passes defensed. We've identified him here as a "safety/linebacker" because the Panthers' official website lists him as a safety on the roster but puts him as the starting right outside linebacker on the depth chart. Essentially, Chinn is playing the type of role the Cardinals imagined for Clemson superstar Isaiah Simmons, who was drafted eighth overall, right after Carolina took defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Many pundits had expected Carolina to go with Simmons, particularly given the retirement of Luke Kuechly, but the Panthers managed to get Brown and then their own versatile chess piece at the end of the next round. Chinn missed last Sunday's game with a knee injury but was close to being cleared to play, according to Mat Rhule.
With a variety of players who can haul in Bridgewater's passes down the field – many of whom did so in spectacular fashion against Kansas City in Week Nine – the Panthers' passing attack is averaging 7.50 yards per play, eighth-best in the NFL. Bridgewater and company have also been able to hold onto the ball for a little over 31 minutes per game, ranking 12th in time of possession. The Carolina defense has been above average in the red zone, ranking 14th in TD percentage allowed, and has forced 11 fumbles, recovering 11 of them. Here are some more specific areas in which the Panthers have excelled in 2020:
· The Buccaneers had been perfect in 2020 in terms of turning red zone incursions into scores, but they lost their 100% mark when they failed on four tries from the one against New Orleans. Tampa Bay still leads the NFL with a red zone scoring percentage of 96.9%, but the Panthers are just a hair behind at 96.7%. Carolina only ranks 20th in red zone touchdown rate, at 60.0%, but they've recorded 18 TDs and 11 field goals in 30 trips inside the 20.
· The Carolina defense has been pretty good at defending short passes over the middle, which may be a testament to the pass defense skills of LB Shaq Thompson. According to NFLGSIS, the Panthers have seen 48 passes thrown over the short middle against them and have allowed an average of 5.50 yards per play on those snaps. That's the third-best mark in the NFL.
· Bridgewater and the Panthers have done a good job of scoring in the waning moments of either half. Overall, Carolina has scored 43 points during the last two minutes of the two halves, which is tied with Green Bay for ninth-most in the NFL. This is not the same thing as scoring on two-minute possessions, which must start within the last two minutes of a half, but Carolina is also tied for ninth in the NFL in that category, with 13.
· Only one player in the NFL has a better percentage of touchbacks on kickoffs in 2020 than Buccaneers punter Bradley Pinion, and that's Carolina placekicker Joey Slye. Slye leads the NFL with a touchback rate of 88.9%, with Pinion a bit behind at 84.9%. That obviously indicates a strong leg for Slye, but the results have been different on his field goals this season. Slye has made 19 of his 20 attempts from less than 50 yards but is 0-for-4 from 50 and beyond. Of course, two of those four 50-plus tries were from 65 and 67 yards.
While the Panthers are tied for third in the NFL with seven fumble recoveries on defense, the team's interception rate of 1.50% is just 25th in the league. As noted above, Donte Jackson has three picks but the rest of the team has combined for just two more. Carolina's offense is tied for the third-worst goal-to-go touchdown percentage (62.5%) and the team's 5.3-yard average on punt returns is tied for 28th. In addition:
· Carolina's defense has struggled on third down. Opposing teams have converted on a whopping 54.2% of their third-down tries, with only Tennessee (55.4%) faring worse. The Panthers are giving up 6.93 yards per play on the make-or-break down, which is the third-highest mark any team has surrendered so far.
· Matt Rhule's team committed 12 penalties in the narrow loss to Kansas City and is now tied for the fifth-most infractions in 2020 with 58. While it's true that the Panthers have played one more game than 22 of the other 21 clubs, they are still tied for sixth in penalties per game (6.4). The defense has been more at fault, with 32 of those 58 penalties, though the team's most common infraction is the false start (10).
· The Panthers' defense saw a lot of turnover on their defensive front after the arrival of a new coaching staff, and while second-year defensive end Brian Burns is a star in the making the front line as a whole has had trouble getting to the quarterback. Carolina's sack rate of 2.70% is the lowest in the NFL, and only the Panthers and Jaguars (2.99%) are below 3%. Carolina's 39 quarterback hits are tied for 21st in the league.
· Carolina's offense is just 19th in the league in red zone touchdown rate, at 60.0%. Some of that may be due to a failure to convert first downs between the 11 and the 19 into goal-to-go situations. The Panthers rank 11th in third-down conversion rate overall but only 26th when inside the red zone, at 38.1%. That also includes some goal-to-go failures, as touchdowns of any length on third downs are also considered third-down conversions.
NEW FACES IN 2020
The Panthers have a new leader in Matt Rhule and a mostly new coaching staff in 2020, of course, though we're now past the season's midway point and that transition is obviously well underway. A number of 2020 newcomers have settled into big roles, from left tackle Russell Okung to middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead, plus the three rookies noted above. Here are three other prominent Panthers who are in their first year with the team.
1. CB Troy Pride. Pride was pressed into a starting role in the season opener with Eli Apple sidelined, and he recently started in Weeks 6-8 in part because Rasul Douglas had landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Even when Pride hasn't started, he's been involved in the defense, playing between 13% and 97% of the snaps in the other five games. Pride has 28 tackles and one pass defensed.
2. G John Miller. The Panthers had to give up Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner in order to get Okung, and their solution at the vacated position was to sign Miller, who started 13 games for Cincinnati in 2019 and 15 for Buffalo in 2018. Miller has played every offensive snap through the first nine weeks and has helped Carolina rank 15th in sacks allowed per pass play.
3. LB Tahir Whitehead. Whitehead had even bigger shoes to fill than Miller, as he was signed to take over at middle linebacker after Kuechly's retirement. It hasn't gone particularly well so far, with Whitehead seeing his snaps steadily diminish before he was finally replaced in the starting lineup in Week Nine by Jermaine Carter.
1. T Russell Okung. Okung has missed the Panthers' last two games due to a calf injury and he did not practice last week leading up to the Chiefs game. Greg Little started the team's Week Eight contest but ended up splitting snaps pretty evenly with Trent Scott. Backup guard Dennis Daley started at left tackle against the Chiefs, though he Little and Scott all ended up getting some snaps. Daley started nine games at guard for Carolina last year.
2. RB Christian McCaffrey. The Panthers' star back injured his right shoulder very late in last Sunday's game in Kansas City, and on Monday Rhule referred to McCaffrey's situation as "day-to-day." McCaffrey had just returned from missing six games due to an ankle injury he suffered in Tampa and he made a big impact with 151 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns.
3. DT Kawann Short. The Buccaneers won't have to face Short at all in 2020. The Panthers' two-time Pro Bowl lane-plugger was out in Week Two with a foot ailment, and he played only two more games upon his return before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury for the second year in a row. Zach Kerr, a 6-2, 335-pound nose tackle with 83 career games and 16 starts has stepped into a starting role with Short out.