There were many contributing factors to the 28-point first-half hole the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell into a week ago against the Dallas Cowboys. A fumble on a promising opening drive didn't help, and a few mistimed penalties kept Dallas possessions alive. With the game still well within reach in the second quarter, consecutive sacks of QB Josh Freeman demolished another drive before it could really start.
But if there was one root problem for the Bucs' difficulties in those 30 minutes of play, and one thing that needs to change for Tampa Bay to find greater success in Carolina a week later, it's third-down efficiency. That applies to both the offense and the defense.
"Last week it was disastrous, our third-down production on both sides of the ball," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "In order to win football games in the National Football League, you've got to go out and win third downs on both offense and defense."
The final third-down numbers from that game don't really seem that lopsided. Tampa Bay was five of 12 on third downs; Dallas finished seven of 13. But the first-half statistics tell the story: Dallas converted on six of seven third downs, routinely keeping drives alive, while Tampa Bay moved the chains on just one of five attempts.
That's how QB Josh Freeman ended up with just four passes before halftime and, very tellingly, how RB LeGarrette Blount would carry the ball only nine times in the entire game even though he looked strong early. Several times in the first two quarters, Blount's running put the Bucs into short third downs, but the failure to convert those third downs kept the ball in Dallas' control. Had those drives been sustained, even for a few more sets of downs, Blount likely would have had the opportunity to get into gear.
Morris knows that can't be duplicated on Saturday in Charlotte.
"The most important thing for us is to get off the grass on defense and not allow them to score quickly and take LeGarrette Blount out of the game," he said. "The other thing is for us to get going on offense and maintain possession in order to give him a bunch of carries. He's a guy that does great work when he has the opportunity to get a lot of carries, a guy that can really grind the other team at the end of games. We've got to find a way to get into situations to get him going and win football games."
Of course, Carolina, with the league's sixth-best rushing attack, will almost certainly be following a similar plan, especially against a Buccaneer defense that has had difficulty against the run this year. The Panthers' RB duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart has a history of success against Tampa, and now the Panthers can throw what is essentially a third back into the mix with rookie quarterback Cam Newton. Newton ran for three touchdowns against the Bucs in their Week 13 matchup.
Complicating matters a bit for the Bucs' defense is that it will be playing without its starting defensive tackle duo of Albert Haynesworth and Brian Price. Both Haynesworth and Price have been declared inactive for today's game due to knee and ankle injuries, respectively. The Bucs will start the game with Roy Miller and Frank Okam in the middle, and will call on the just-signed Jovan Haye to provide depth. In addition, DE Michael Bennett can give the team snaps inside, particularly on pass-rushing downs. Bennett himself is fighting through a toe injury but has been cleared to play.
In addition to Haynesworth and Price, the Bucs deactivated QB Rudy Carpenter, S Larry Asante, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, G Derek Hardman and T James Lee.
As is his unwavering approach, Morris is focusing on who will be in action on Saturday as opposed to who will not. When injuries occur, the Buccaneers turn to the "next man up" and expect the same level of production.
"Everybody's going to be banged up at this time of year," said Morris. "We're banged up – last week we were without Arrelious Benn, our starting Z. Hopefully we get a chance to get him out there today and get him productive again. This is the National Football League – there are good players everywhere. There are good players starting and good players as their backups. You've got to go out there that day and be a better football team; hopefully today we are."
Carolina's biggest injury concerns are in the secondary, where starting CB Captain Munnerlyn went to injured reserve earlier in the week. First-year player R.J. Stanford will open the game at right cornerback, opposite left CB Chris Gamble. In addition, starting strong safety Charles Godfrey has been deactivated, pushing second-year player Jordan Pugh into the starting lineup.
The Panthers declared these seven inactives on Saturday: Godfrey, QB Jimmy Clausen, K Adi Kunalic, WR Seyi Ajirotutu, LB Omar Gaither, C Jeff Byers and DE Eric Norwood.
Carolina may be a few men down at defensive back, but it's the Bucs' secondary that will face one of its biggest challenges of the year, and without starting left CB Aqib Talib, who is now on injured reserve. Carolina's rejuvenated running game, and the attention it necessarily draws, has only served to make WR Steve Smith more dangerous. Newton isn't afraid to tuck it and run, obviously, but he's also acutely aware that his best big-play option on every snap is to get the ball in Smith's hands.
"He's really done a great job of getting the ball to Steve," said Morris. "The last couple of years Steve has been a dynamic receiver and he's been doing a great job but they've struggled to get him the ball, so you couldn't see all that dynamic ability he has. Cam has come in here and done a great job of getting this young man the ball and making him as productive as he is, because I believe he's one of the best."
Will the Buccaneers be able to contain Smith without Talib around to help. We'll find out shortly. 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.