Josh Johnson will start at quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, ending a streak of 36 consecutive starts made by Josh Freeman.
Freeman tested his injured right shoulder prior to the game but was not deemed ready to play. As a result, he was named one of the team's seven game day inactives. Rudy Carpenter, just promoted from the practice squad on Saturday, will be the Buccaneers' second active quarterback.
Johnson took virtually all of the first-team snaps on offense during the week of practice leading up to Sunday's game, and the team is confident he is prepared to give a winning effort against Carolina.
"We had a nice week with Josh Johnson and we feel good about it," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "These guys are both very capable of running our offense and doing a great job of it. We've got a fortunate situation. We've got great character guys around each other that pick each other up. These guys all want to see whoever goes out there do well. We've had the ability to coach up Josh Johnson and we're ready to go."
Johnson previously started four games for the Buccaneers in 2009, just prior to the beginning of Freeman's streak. One of those four was against the Carolina Panthers; in that game, Johnson completed 11 of 17 passes (64.7%) for 147 yards and one interception, and he also ran eight times for 45 yards.
Of course, the personnel for both teams has changed in the last two years, and Johnson's understanding of the NFL game and the Bucs' system has matured. Still, he's likely to be more of a rushing threat than the average quarterback, even if he's not necessarily the most likely to run of the QBs in this game.
Indeed, the most significant personnel change for the Panthers since that 2009 game is this year's addition of quarterback Cam Newton, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. Newton has run for 464 yards and 10 touchdowns already this season, and he's obviously one of the Panthers' top options when they get inside the 20. Newton has also defied some doubters by compiling a respectable 81.1 passer rating and throwing for over 280 yards a game.
"I've seen a young man playing with a lot of confidence," said Morris. "When he gets in the red zone, he's really become a threat, a force. He plays with the utmost maturity. He's going through his progressions great and he's doing a nice job of getting the ball to his playmakers. He's really leading that offense and doing a fine job of it."
Both Johnson and Newton are essentially added threats to what their teams hope are power rushing attacks on Sunday. The Bucs' defense is familiar with the Panther duo of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, who have helped Carolina put together the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack. Carolina is less familiar with the Bucs' run-game hammer, LeGarrette Blount, as Blount played in only one of the two meetings between the two teams last year. He was typically productive in that game, though, rushing 19 times for 91 yards and a touchdown.
That's the kind of outing Blount has been enjoying most weeks since returning from his early-season knee injury. He has averaged 5.2 yards per carry over the past four weeks and will bring a streak of two consecutive 100-yard games into Sunday's contest. Morris would like the Bucs' offense to begin and end with Blount today – which would have been true even with Freeman under center – and he would also like to see Blount put up six points a little more often.
"We always want to start with him and we always want to finish with him if we have the ability to do that," said Morris. "That's just how we go. But he won't affect the game plan anymore with what we have planned with Josh Johnson or Josh Freeman. We still would always like to have Blount as the lead dog, and we'd like to end with Blount. That means Blount will be a focal point of our offense on any given day.
"He's done a nice job of getting himself going. He's had a couple games here with 100 yards or more rushing. We've got to get him going where he holds onto the football and absolutely finishes off people. Getting him into the end zone a little bit is important, is key, and something we'd like to see him get activated today and we'll get this thing rolling."
Blount's 107-yard game at Green Bay two weeks ago allowed the passing attack to flourish, getting such playmakers as Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow going. Of course, the Bucs' defense will have to contend with the same chain reaction if it has trouble slowing down Carolina's potent ground attack. Any extra movement towards the line of scrimmage opens up possibilities for one of the league's most dangerous wideouts, Steve Smith. Smith ranks second in the NFL with 1,060 receiving yards this season, averaging 18.0 yards per grab.
"There's no doubt about it," said Morris. "Steve Smith is one of those guys you absolutely love watching 364 days of the year. That one day he's playing against you he's a pain in the neck. It just so happens I get 363 days because I've got to play him twice."
Fortunately, Tampa Bay's secondary has a player who's been just as hot as Smith in cornerback Aqib Talib. Talib is coming off two of his best games of the season and will probably find himself matched up with the Panthers' top pass-catcher quite frequently.
"He's playing some of his finest ball," said Morris of Talib. "He's getting better every week, becoming a smarter football player. He's becoming a leader for us as far as on the football field, what he's able to do and how he's able to lead. He's becoming one of those guys who makes plays, and people want to follow guys who make plays. If he goes out and makes some more plays this week, he's certainly having a great year."
In addition to Freeman, the Bucs' had injury concerns on defense during the week, especially along the front line, but for the most part they've hit game day in good shape. The entire starting defensive line was on the injury report this week, but only left end Michael Bennett (groin) will not play. Right end Adrian Clayborn (back) and defensive tackles Brian Price (ankle) and Albert Haynesworth (knee) have been cleared to play, though Price's eventual amount of playing time will be determined as the game goes on. Rookie Da'Quan Bowers will make his second start in place of Bennett.
"We've had some movement all around the defensive line," said Morris. "We've had a bunch of young guys, a bunch of young players getting opportunities, and Brian Price is one of those guys. We'll get him back in the lineup today and we'll see how long he can go with his little bit of a limiting issue."
In addition to Freeman and Bennett, the Buccaneers declared these five inactives: CB Myron Lewis, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, G Derek Hardman, T James Lee and WR Micheal Spurlock.
The Panthers declared these seven inactives: QB Jimmy Clausen, CB Brandon Hogan, LB Jason Phillips, LB Omar Gaither, G Bryant Browning, WR Kealoha Pilares and WR Darvin Adams. Phillips, Gaither and Pilares were out due to injury. In Gaither's absence, Jordan Senn will start at weakside linebacker for the Panthers.
The Bucs and Panthers kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.