The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have already beaten Atlanta twice and dropped two decisions to the Saints, but there's still one NFC South opponent they haven't seen up close yet in 2021. On Sunday in Charlotte, the Buccaneers will play the first half of a home-and-away double dip with the Carolina Panthers, with the follow-up coming at Raymond James Stadium in Week 18. That makes the overall competitiveness of the 5-9 Panthers a very significant factor in Tampa Bay's attempt to nail down the division title.
On one hand, Carolina has lost four in a row and is 2-9 after an intriguing 3-0 start to the season. On the other hand, the Panthers' most recent victory was a rather convincing 34-10 downing of the 10-4 Arizona Cardinals and they do have the league's second-ranked defense featuring a ferocious pass rush. That latter point is of particular concern for a Buccaneers offense that just lost Tom Brady's three most productive targets for the foreseeable future.
Homegrown star Brian Burns and astute 2021 signee Haason Reddick have combined for 20 of the Panthers' 36 snaps for a defense that ranks fourth in sacks-per-pass play at 8.63%. That has driven what has been a particularly strong pass defense, with Carolina ranking second in passing yards per game (178.8) and third in yards per pass play (6.00). Overall, the Panthers are only giving up 4.86 yards per play, and only Buffalo's stingy defense has been better in that regard.
The Panthers have been able to maintain that strength in pass defense despite losing both of their original starting corners, Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn, to season-ending injuries, in part because they were able to import tested veterans Stephon Gilmore and A.J. Bouye. The secondary also features a budding star in second-year safety Jeremy Chinn, a very versatile defender who primarily played linebacker as a rookie and finished second in the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. More on him below in the Difference-Makers section.
Carolina's offense hasn't matched that same level of success, though that's unsurprising given the loss of star running back Christian McCaffrey and the struggles and upheaval at quarterback. The Panthers have gone from offseason trade acquisition Sam Darnold to undrafted second-year man P.J. Walker and finally back to their former franchise cornerstone, Cam Newton. Actually, 'finally' may be an inaccurate word there, as a return to Darnold over the last three weeks, potentially as soon as this Sunday, is possible. Darnold has missed five games while on injured reserve due to a shoulder ailment but has returned to practice and could be activated soon.
All of those quarterbacks have combined to produce a 68.5 passer rating and a 12-18 TD-INT ratio. That's the worst team passer rating in the NFL to this point, while the dozen touchdown passes is the second-lowest team total and the 18 interceptions are the second highest. D.J. Moore remains one of the NFL's most productive receivers but Robby Anderson has not followed up his breakout 1,096-yard campaign in 2020, his first season with the Panthers, with the same sort of production in 2021. Carolina has reworked much of its offensive line (see New Faces below) but ranks 23rd in both yards per carry (4.06) sacks allowed per pass play (7.42%).
However, the Panthers are committed to running the ball even without McCaffrey, and that philosophy may have been a key factor in the team's surprise decision to move on from Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady during their bye week earlier this month. Jeff Nixon, who used to call plays under Panthers Head Coach Matt Rhule at Baylor, has taken over those duties again for Carolina. The lead back in Carolina's rushing attack is now fourth-round rookie Chuba Hubbard (140 carries for 500 yards and four touchdowns), but the Panthers have also gotten helpful contributions on the ground from the quarterback position. And that's not just due to the return of Newton, who has quickly racked up 41 carries for 183 yards and five scores in about a month of action; Darnold had also run 37 times for 185 yards and five touchdowns before he got hurt.
On special teams, the Panthers have gone through three regular punters this season, currently landing on another former Jet, Lachlan Edwards. Edwards has held the job for seven games and has fine gross (48.0) and net (39.4) averages. Kicker Zane Gonzalez even filled in for one punt in Philadelphia in Week Four, but now the more pressing question is if he can continue with his normal job. Gonzalez suffered a quad injury in pregame warmups in Buffalo last Sunday and was unable to play. The Panthers subsequently did not try a placekick in the 31-14 loss and wide receiver Brandon Zylstra handled their three kickoffs fairly capably. On Monday Rhule said that Gonzalez's injury looked pretty severe and that General Manager Scott Fitterer was searching for potential replacement options.
The Buccaneers will head to Charlotte this weekend with a suddenly depleted offense but a defense that is getting close to full strength and was mostly dominant in the team's 9-0 loss to the Saints last Sunday night. Given how strong the Panthers have been on defense this season, as well, this Week 16 matchup could be a grind-it-out, low-scoring battle. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they draw the Panthers for the first time in 2021 on Sunday:
Carolina's strong defensive numbers are no surprise because that unit features a lot of very good players, starting up front with Burns, the 16th-overall pick in 2019 who had 7.5 sacks as a rookie and 9.0 last year, and is now on the verge of his first double-digit season with another 9.0 in 2021. Shaq Thompson has become the new do-it-all linebacker in the middle of that defense in the post-Luke Kuechly/Thomas Davis era; Thompson has 83 tackles and two sacks and six tackles for loss and six QB hits along with two interceptions and five passes defensed. On offense, Hubbard has filled in admirably for McCaffrey, with 653 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns and Anderson is still capable of making big plays downfield. Here are four more Panthers who could give the Bucs problems on Sunday:
1. S Jeremy Chinn
As noted above, the Panthers used Chinn largely as a linebacker in his rookie season, and it went well as he had 117 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, five QB hits, one interception and five passes defensed. He also returned two fumbles for touchdowns; incredibly those two scores occurred just 10 seconds of game play apart in a Week 12 loss at Minnesota. When the Panthers made it clear that they were going to move Chinn to safety, what he considers his "natural" position in 2021, Chinn was very pleased, saying the position would give him more freedom to make plays. What Rhule wanted was the freedom to move his defensive chess piece all over the board – in the box, on the back end, in man coverage, rushing the passer, etc. Chinn has just continued to produce, with a team-high 98 tackles, including five tackles for loss, along with three quarterback hits, an interception, five passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Already a hard-hitter, Chinn has been fairly good in coverage, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Passes thrown to targets with him as the nearest defender have had an expected completion rate of 67.8% but have actually been completed just 60.5% of the time. That -7.4% difference is quite good, as is Chinn's expected points added of -17.5 when targeted.
2. WR D.J. Moore
Last season, the free agency addition of Robby Anderson gave the Panthers an explosive tandem of receivers, with Moore racking up 1,193 yards and Anderson adding 1,096 of his own. This season, Anderson's receiving yards per game has dropped precipitously to 28.6, down from 68.5 in 2020. Moore, on the other hand, has nearly duplicated last year's per-game rate of 79.5 with 70.4 this season and he needs just 14 more yards to top 1,000 again. The biggest difference in Moore's production in 2021 is that he's averaging 12.6 yards per catch after finishing third among qualifying receivers with 18.1 yards per grab last year, but Moore is still capable of producing chunk plays, including ones that involve a bit of running after the catch. His 383 yards after the catch ranks 13th in the NFL this season among wide receivers. Since entering the league as the 24th-overall pick in 2018, Moore has racked up 5,142 receiving yards, 10th-most among all players in that span. Of the top 20 players on that list, only Mike Evans (16.0) and Julio Jones (14.6) have averaged more than Moore's 14.6 yards per reception. A solidly-built 6-0 and 210 pounds, Moore ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the Combine and has excellent short-area quickness and open-field moves.
3. OLB Haason Reddick
Reddick was interesting figure heading into free agency this past offseason. The 13th-overall pick in the 2017 draft, Reddick had his fifth-year option declined and thus hit the market after four years in Arizona. His production in the first three years was disappointing, with just 7.5 sacks combined from 2017-19, but that appears to be due to the fact that the Cardinals largely played him as an off-ball linebacker in those seasons. He got to fill a more focused pass-rush role last year, but even so had just five sacks through the first 12 games of the season. Then he exploded for five sacks in one game against the Giants and had 7.5 over a three-week span to finish the season with 12.5 QB takedowns. A 12.5-sack player is always going to be coveted on the market, but teams had to decide if Reddick had finally unlocked his pass-rushing tools or if he simply had one great month out of four years. The Panthers bet on the former and haven't been disappointed, as Reddick has racked up another 11.0 sacks plus 18 quarterback hits in 14 games this year playing right outside linebacker. NFL Next Gen Stats has also credited Reddick with 43 pressures and 31 hurries and has tracked his average get-off at the snap at a blazingly-fast 0.87 seconds.
4. T Taylor Moton
If the Panthers have had to cycle through a number of different O-Line lineups and deal with a host of injuries to that crew in recent years, they've at least had one rock at right tackle. The last pick in the second round back in 2017, Moton didn't start as a rookie but has since opened 62 straight games for the Panthers. And he has played at a high enough level that the Panthers first placed the franchise tag on him this past offseason and then gave him a very lucrative new four-year contract in the summer. The 6-5, 325-pound Moton was the highest-graded right tackle in the league Pro Football Focus last season and the Panthers value him highly for his intelligence, his toughness and his work ethic. As a pass-blocker Moton is very good at steering opposing pass-rushers in the direction he wants to go, and he also brings quite a bit of power to the running game.
Carolina's defense has been quite stout on third downs, allowing just a 36.9% conversion rate to rank eighth in the NFL and allowing just 18.1 first downs per game (fourth). Carolina's defense has 36 sacks and features five players with at least two, led by Reddick (11.0) and Burns (9.0). Those two have also combined for 35 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles. The Carolina offense has nine players with more than 100 receiving yards and five players with four or more touchdowns. The Panthers have made 22 of their field goal tries this year, including all 19 from closer than 50 yards, but may have to turn to a new placekicker after the pregame injury suffered by Zane Gonzalez last Sunday. Here are some more specific ways in which the Panthers have performed well in 2021:
· After getting shut out for the first time in nine years last Sunday night, the Buccaneers would like to get off to a quick start on offense this weekend in Charlotte. That won't be an easy task, however, as no team has been tougher to score on at the beginning of games than Carolina. The Panthers have played 14 games, which means they've faced 14 first drives by their opponents, and only two of those have resulted in points. None have ended in touchdowns, and thus Carolina has allowed a league-low six points this year on opening drives. No other team has allowed fewer than 13 and the league average per team is 29.
· Carolina's offense is just 25th in scoring at 19.4 points per game but has done a good job of finishing off drives that get inside the 10. This is perhaps not surprising given that the Carolina offense currently includes one of the great goal-line weapons of his generation in Cam Newton. The Panthers are tied for sixth in the NFL with a touchdown rate of 78.3% in goal-to-go situations and they are also one of only three teams that has scored a touchdown or a field goal on every one of their goal-to-go drives so far.
· One of the reasons the Panthers have the NFL's second-ranked pass defense, giving up just 178.8 yards per game, is that their defenders do a good job of staying close to opposing targets and getting them on the ground quickly after the catch. Carolina's defense has allowed 1,298 yards after the catch (YAC) this season, which is the least allowed surrendered by any team. It's also 335 yards fewer than the league average.
· Carolina has cracked down on big plays in the second half of the season. Overall, the Panthers defense has given up 40 plays of 20 or more yards, including six runs and 34 completions, and that is the fifth-lowest total in the league. Over the last eight games, however, Carolina has surrendered only 16 such plays, including two runs and 14 completions. That's tied with the Giants for the fewest plays of 20-plus yards allowed in that span. Only one has gone for a touchdown.
Carolina's troubles have mostly been on offense, where it ranks 29th in total yards per game (308.1), 31st in yards per play (4.74), 29th in passing yards per game (195.4), 31st in yards per pass play (5.64) and 30th in interception percentage (3.71%). On defense one of the Panthers' few shortcomings has been a high red zone touchdown rate allowed. Carolina has given up touchdowns on 69.1% of the red zone drives they've faced and on 83.3% of the goal-to-go situations they've allowed. Both are tied for 28th in the NFL. In addition:
· Carolina's offense has had a little bit of trouble with dropped passes. According to STATSPASS, the Panthers have thrown 485 passes, of which 302 were deemed catchable. Of those 302 catchable balls, 22 have been dropped. That drop rate of 7.3% is the highest by any team in the NFL.
· The 99 penalties accepted against Carolina this year are the fourth most against any team so far. Part of the issue is their robust pass rush, which has produced a high sack rate but has also led to more penalties in the backfield than most defenses incur. In fact, Carolina has been flagged for roughing the passer eight times this year, the most by any team in the NFL. The Panthers are also sixth-worst in drawing neutral-zone infraction penalties.
· Part of the reason the Panthers have that aforementioned high touchdown rate allowed in the red zone despite otherwise very good defensive numbers is they have had trouble getting off the field on third downs and forcing field goals. Overall, Carolina has the NFL's eighth-best third-down defense, allowing conversions just 36.9% of the time. In the red zone, however, that number goes up to 58.3%, giving the Panthers the fifth worst third-down defense in that part of the field.
· The Carolina defense may be doing a very good job over the last eight games of restricting big plays, as noted above, but those 20-plus yard plays have been equally lacking with the Panthers' offense on the field. In their last eight outings, the Panthers have produced only 15 plays of 20 or more yards to rank 31st, just one more than the Titans in last place. The Carolina passing attack has produced just 11 plays of 20 or more yards in that span.
NEW FACES IN 2021
Carolina used a fourth-round draft pick on Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard and have had to turn to him as their lead runner after losing Christian McCaffrey to injured reserve once again. The Panthers also picked up running back Ameer Abdullah after the Vikings let him go in October. Hubbard leads the team with exactly 500 rushing yards. Those two are running behind a starting offensive line that has had 60% turnover since last year (more on that below) and taking handoffs from Cam Newton in Newton's second go-around in Charlotte. The signing of outside linebacker Haason Reddick as an unrestricted free agent in March has proved to be one of the team's best moves of the year, as Reddick leads the defense with 11.0 sacks. Most notably, the Panthers turned to a pair of AFC East teams to swing trades for key players on both sides of the ball.
1. QB Sam Darnold. We can't really call Newton a "new face" since he previously played for the Panthers from 2011-19 and won an NFL MVP award in 2015. But before Carolina called Newton back home they tried a different solution at quarterback, trading three picks (most notably a 2022 second-rounder) to the Jets to get Darnold, the third-overall pick in the 2018 draft. Darnold started nine games, during which the Panthers went 4-5, before landing on injured reserve with a shoulder injury on November 12. Darnold's season may not be over, however. He recently was designated to return from injured reserve and the Panthers could turn back to him as their starter after winning one game with P.J. Walker at the helm and losing the last four with Newton under center.
2. CB Stephon Gilmore. After choosing the trade route to address the quarterback position rather than trying to land one with the eighth-overall pick in the 2021 draft, the Panthers used that pick to nab South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn. Horn got off to a fine start, nabbing his first NFL interception in just his second game, but then suffered a fractured foot in Game Three and landed on season-ending injured reserve. Nine days later, the Patriots sent a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Patriots for Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. At the time of the trade, Gilmore had not yet played in 2021 after finishing the previous season with a quad injury. Since joining the Panthers, he has played in seven games with two starts and contributed 13 tackles and two interceptions.
3. OL Cameron Erving/Pat Elflein/Michael Jordan. After struggling up front in recent seasons with a constantly shifting lineup, the Panthers reworked much of their O-Line depth chart in 2021. The team did not try to retain free agents Russell Okung, Chris Reed or Michael Schofield and instead signed former Cowboy Erving and former Viking and Jet Elflein as unrestricted free agents. Erving now starts at left tackle with Elflein at center, though both have had short stints on injured reserve this season. Elflein actually opened the season as the Panthers' starting left guard but has taken over at the pivot after Matt Paradis was lost for the season. Now manning left guard is Jordan, who was claimed off waivers from the Bengals just before the season. Jordan went to the practice squad in early October but was quickly promoted back to the active roster a couple weeks later and has started seven of the last eight games.
1. RB Christian McCaffrey. The Panthers signed McCaffrey to a lucrative long-term deal in April of 2020 after an incredible 2019 season that included 2,392 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns. After three dominant seasons in which he never missed a game, McCaffrey appeared to be one of the few running backs who could command such a deal in today's NFL. Unfortunately for the Panthers, the two seasons since have not seen much return on that investment, though McCaffrey has still been brilliant when on the field. The problem is that he missed all but three games due to injury in 2020 and will now top out at seven appearances in 2021 after an ankle injury ended his season.
2. CBs Donte Jackson/Jaycee Horn. The Panthers started the season with a potentially dominant starting cornerback duo. After the departure of James Bradberry, Jackson had stepped up as the team's number-one corner in 2020, and then Carolina gave him a talented running mate with South Carolina's Horn at the eighth-overall pick in the 2021 draft. However, Horn was lost to a season-ending foot injury in Week Three and Jackson joined him on that list due to a groin injury in Week 12.
3. QB Sam Darnold. Darnold's status will be one of the big storylines leading up to Sunday's matchup in Charlotte. Darnold, currently on I.R. due to a shoulder injury, was designated to return to practice last week, and on Monday of this week Matt Rhule cleared Darnold for contact reps in practice (not that quarterbacks get hit often in practice). Rhule said that he would see how Darnold performed in practice this week before deciding on a starter for this coming Sunday.