The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will return to division play in Week Nine and try to score their second road win against an NFC South foe this season. The road takes them to Charlotte on Sunday, where they will face the 5-2 Carolina Panthers, who have won two in a row and four of their last five. The Panthers are undefeated at home and are one game behind New Orleans in the division standings. A victory for the visitors would get the Buccaneers back to .500 at the season's midway point and keep them within range in the South race.
Carolina is excelling in many of the ways they traditionally have in the past decade, particularly in running the football, where they are second in the league in yards per game (138.9) and in yards per carry (5.12). Those numbers are helped immensely by a quarterback, Cam Newton, who is just as dangerous with his legs as with his arm. The Panthers' defense, with a strong group in the trenches as usual, has also been stingy against the run (95.9 yards per game) and the secondary has picked off nine passes. 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.
1. QB Cam Newton. Newton, the NFL's MVP in 2015, is in the running for that award again in 2018. His passer rating, 97.4, is the highest it has been since he put up a 99.4 mark as the MVP, and he's sporting a stellar 13-4 TD-INT ratio. Of course, Newton is one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league to defend not only because of his powerful arm but because of what he can do as a ballcarrier. Newton has 309 rushing yards and is averaging 5.0 yards per tote, and his four touchdowns on the ground give him 58 in his career, the most ever by an NFL quarterback.
2. LB Luke Kuechly. Similar to Newton and his MVP past, Kuechly is a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2013) who is playing as well as ever in 2018. Kuechly mans the middle in Carolina's 4-3 front and dominates thanks to outstanding range, vision and instincts. He leads the Panthers with 47 tackles, which are split almost exactly down the middle in stops on runs and passes. Kuechly also has two sacks already this season to go with nine tackles for loss, four quarterback hits, an interception and two passes defensed. Kuechly is the only player in the NFL with more tackles (875) than the Buccaneers' Lavonte David (820) since 2012, the year both linebackers were drafted.
3. RB Christian McCaffrey. One thing is for certain: The Buccaneers will see a lot of McCaffrey on Sunday. Amazingly, the second-year back has been on the field for 97% of the Panther's offensive plays this year, missing just one offensive snap in the last three games combined. McCaffrey is the Panthers' leading rusher, with 423 yards and a 4.6-yard per carry average, and also their leading pass-catcher, with 44 grabs for 300 yards. Carolina lines McCaffrey up all over the formation looking to create mismatches with different types of defenders.
4. DT Kawann Short. The Panthers' solid run-defense numbers are the product of a very talented and stout front seven, which is anchored by Short, the 6-3, 315-pound tackle in the middle. Short is hard to move and very good at occupying blockers, which helps Kuechly and Thomas Davis put up huge tackle numbers. He can also put pressure on the quarterback, as evidenced by his two sacks this season and 31.5 over five-and-half campaigns.
As one would expect from a team that employs Cam Newton, who is such a powerful threat around the goal line, the Panthers are very good in the red zone. They have converted exactly two-thirds of red-zone incursions into touchdowns, which is tied for the seventh-best percentage in the league. Carolina also has the sixth-lowest interception percentage on offense, which has helped the team forge a plus-six turnover ratio. Here are some other areas in which the Panthers have excelled so far this season:
· Carolina not only has the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack, but it has been extremely good at using that ground game to get into favorable down-and-distance situations. The Panthers are averaging an impressive 5.7 yards per carry on first down, which is tops in the NFL.
· Veteran K Graham Gano is still going strong. He is a perfect 11-for-11 on field goals, making Carolina one of only three teams that has yet to miss (also Atlanta and Jacksonville). That includes Gano's three-for-three mark on tries of 50 or more yards, including an historic 63-yard game-winner against the Giants in Week Five. In addition, Gano has long been one of the NFL's best kickoff artists, and the Panthers are getting touchbacks on 72.7% of their kicks, sixth-best in the league.
· Newton has done an extremely good job of leading "two-minute drills" so far this season. Carolina has scored 47 points on what are classified as two-minute drives, the most in the NFL. Atlanta has 43 points in that situation but no other team has more than 31.
· Carolina's run defense has been good overall (95.9 yards allowed per game) but particularly good at stopping opposing backs in the backfield. The Panthers have faced 153 rushing attempts and have forced a loss of yardage on 22 of them. That 14.6% rate of negative runs is third best in the NFL. This is not new; Carolina ranked fourth in this category last year, too.
As good as Carolina's offense has been in the red zone, the defense has been nearly as bad. Opposing teams have converted 76.5% of their trips inside the Panthers' 20 into touchdowns, the second-worst mark in the NFL. Carolina also ranks just 22nd in the NFL in passing offense, putting up a net of 227.7 yards per game. In addition:
· Even with Newton's strong arm, the Panthers have not done well this year on downfield throws. On passes thrown more than 20 yards in the air, Carolina has a passer rating of 42.8, third-worst in the NFL. Newton has completed only 17.6 of those passes, with one touchdown and one interception.
· The Panthers' offense may be good at the end of halves but they haven't done much at the beginning of the game. Carolina has no touchdowns and only one field goal on their seven-game opening drives so far.
· Carolina's defense has been pretty good on third downs overall, holding opponents to a 35.4% conversion rate. In the red zone, however, that efficiency goes way down. Opposing teams have converted exactly half of their third-down tries in Carolina's red zone, which is tied for the fifth-worst percentage in the NFL.
· The Panthers' defensive issues on their side of the field actually begin before the red zone. Opposing offenses are averaging 4.80 yards per play when snapping the ball inside Carolina's 30-yard line. That's the second-worst mark in the NFL.
NEW FACES IN 2018
The Panthers are getting a lot of work out of their first two draft picks, and they found a very useful offensive linemen a week into the season.
1. WR D.J. Moore. The 24th overall pick in this year's draft, Moore has stepped right into a big role for the Panthers. McCaffrey, as noted, owns the team lead in receptions but Moore is the second-leading pass-catcher among Carolina wideouts to incumbent starter Devin Funchess. Moore is averaging 15.6 yards per catch to lead the team.
2. CB Donte Jackson. After helping the offense in round one of the 2018 draft, the Panthers gave the secondary a boost by taking Jackson in the second round, and he was a starter from Day One. The LSU product is tied for the team lead with three interceptions already.
3. T Chris Clark. Both of Carolina's anticipated starting tackles, Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams, are on injured reserve, but Clark has proved to be an incredibly fortuitous find for the Panthers. He started eight games for Houston in 2017 but was not re-signed by Houston nor signed by any other team after becoming an unrestricted free agent this spring. The Panthers picked him up in Week Two of this season and he's now starting at left tackle and playing at a very high level.
1. Ts Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams. As noted above, Kalil and Williams are currently on injured reserve, though Kalil could come off that list this week and even play against the Buccaneers. It's debatable whether the Panthers would go back to their veteran left tackle or stick with the hot hand in Clark.
2. WR Torrey Smith. A potential deep threat for Newton, Smith missed Carolina's last game due to a knee injury and wasn't in practice as this week began.
3. CB Ross Cockrell. The Panthers thought Cockrell could start opposite James Bradberry when they brought him in as a free agent, giving Jackson time to develop, but Cockrell suffered a gruesome leg fracture in training camp and is out for the year.