The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take the Monday Night Football stage for the first time in three years when they take on the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte in Week Five. It's a critical game for both teams, as they share a 1-3 record that has them two games behind the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons.
Neither Tampa Bay nor Carolina expected to have just one win after the first quarter of the season. The Panthers, who happen to be the defending NFC champ, are probably still getting the benefit of the doubt but the Buccaneers view Monday's game as a chance to prove they are a team on the rise.
"I think this whole football team is excited to go out there on prime-time TV and play," said tackle Demar Dotson, one of only 13 players on the current roster who were Buccaneers the last time the team played on Monday night. "We don't have a great record right now, and [neither] does Carolina. It's a chance to go out there and show the whole nation that we're a better football team than what our record says. That's going to start with a hard week of practice and preparation and determination so we can go out there and not get ourselves embarrassed on national TV."
Tampa Bay's last MNF appearance was in Week 10 of the 2013 campaign, a 22-19 downing of the Miami Dolphins in Tampa. That started a three-game winning streak after the season had opened with eight straight losses. In the end, that wasn't a particularly meaningful turnaround, but the 2016 season is still far from over. A win for the Buccaneers would make them 2-0 in division play with both wins on the road, and if it was coupled with an Atlanta loss in Denver on Sunday it would also shrink the Falcons' hold on first place to one game.
"It's another division road game," said Dotson. "We beat Atlanta. We always talk about these division road games, it's almost like winning two. It's one we've got to get and I think we've got a good opportunity to get it. I think we're going to put together a good game plan; we've just got to come out here and execute it. If you can't get excited about playing on Monday Night Football, I don't know what to say."
Second-year quarterback Jameis Winston will be getting his first Monday night exposure, and if the Panthers' Cam Newton (concussion) is able to play the game will surely be billed as a matchup between two former number-one-overall draft picks. To Winston, the potential gains of getting another division road victory are more appealing to him than simply playing in prime time.
"It's going to be exciting," he said. "We're playing against the 2015 NFC champions, at their place. You know they're going to be ready. That's what I'm really focusing on. I'm focusing on this game, getting a good team win before our bye week and just changing our whole season around."
- Tampa Bay's first official**injury report**of Week Five is lengthy, as expected, but did contain a couple potentially positive developments.
Six Buccaneers did not practice on Thursday as on-field preparations resumed for the Panthers; however, neither defensive end Robert Ayers nor tight end Luke Stocker was on that list. Ayers and Stockers have each missed the last two games after suffering ankle injuries in Arizona in Week Two. The two starters were limited in practice on Thursday but at least have taken a step toward returning to the field.
The list of non-participants is still significant, however, beginning with the Pro Bowl duo of running back Doug Martin and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Martin (hamstring) was also hurt in that Week Two Cardinals game while McCoy sustained a calf injury on Sunday against Denver. The other four who sat out were wide receiver Cecil Shorts (hamstring), running back Charles Sims (knee), defensive end Noah Spence (shoulder) and safety Keith Tandy (calf). Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (hamstring) and tight end Brandon Myers (hip)
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Panthers.
Spence, who suffered his shoulder injury in the first half of last Sunday's game, wasn't yet sure if he would play on Monday night or even practice this week, but he has noticed improvement during the week.
"I'm feeling pretty good," he said. "It feels a lot better, definitely feels a lot better. I couldn't even move it during the game."
Carolina actually submitted a longer injury report than the Bucs' list, with 13 players included and seven who did not practice Thursday. The biggest name on that list, of course, is quarterback Cam Newton, who suffered a concussion in the Panthers' game against Atlanta on Sunday. Other starters who were held out of Thursday's practice included linebacker Thomas Davis (hamstring), defensive end Charles Johnson (quad), tackle Michael Oher (concussion) and running back Jonathan Stewart (hamstring). Like Martin, Stewart hasn't played since straining a hamstring in Week Two, but the Panthers say he is showing significant improvement.
- Fifth-year punter Bryan Anger is**off to a very good start**in his first season in a Buccaneers uniform.
Anger ranks fifth in the NFL with a net punting average of 43.3 yards per kick and he's downed nine of his 22 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. He has been extremely consistent, notching a net of 42.0 or better in all four games so far. No Buccaneer punter had ever done that in four straight outings before.
Anger's strong work in the field position battle has certainly not escaped the attention of his head coach, who also spread the credit around to some other members of the punting unit.
"He's done fantastic," said Koetter. "It's not often that you're fired up to come up here and talk about your punter doing a good job, because a perfect game is him not being out there except to hold. Bryan has flipped the field multiple times. Our gunners are also doing an excellent job. We've got some young guys in the protection unit [and the Broncos] came after some of our punts and they protected well. The snapper, DePo [Andrew DePaola] and Bryan being able to flip the field, he's been a very pleasant, welcome addition to our football team."
On Monday, the Buccaneers will face a very experienced punt returner in Carolina's Ted Ginn, who has a career average of 10.8 yards per runback as well as four career scores on punt returns. Anger's hang time and the work of such gunners as Russell Shepard have helped the Buccaneers hold opposing punt returners to 7.6 yards per attempt this year, with a long of 13.