The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Carolina Panthers in Week 16 on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Antonio Brown. All eyes are on Brown as he returns from an eight-game absence and potentially steps right into the role of number-one receiver. Brown may not immediately play a full complement of snaps but he is the team's most accomplished wideout with Chris Godwin now out for the season and Mike Evans unavailable for at least this contest. Brown was actually leading the Buccaneers with 83.6 receiving yards per game before he suffered an ankle injury in Week Six. He has also scored four touchdowns in just five games played and has a very high yards-per-target figure of 10.0. Brown originally joined the Bucs at midseason last year and gradually took on a larger and larger role. He had four touchdowns over the team's final three games of the regular season and also scored twice in two playoff appearances. When Evans went down with a knee injury just before halftime in the season finale against Atlanta, Brown became a focal point in the passing attack and finished with 11 catches for 138 yards and two scores. The Bucs will be looking for increased contributions from the likes of Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller, but Tom Brady may look most frequent to his trusted veteran pass-catcher.
Mike Edwards. Edwards, like Brown, missed the last three games due to an NFL suspension, and it proved to be particularly poor timing because safety Jordan Whitehead missed the first of those two contests with a calf injury and safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. sat out the last one with a foot ailment. Steady veteran Andrew Adams stepped up to start those three games and is still available to fill in this week wit Winfield ruled out again, but the Buccaneers will likely get Edwards heavily involved on defense right away. Early-season playing time was hard to come by for Edwards when Whitehead and Winfield were both healthy, but he still leads the team with three interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns. Before his suspension, Edwards had also taken over a big portion of the team's snaps at slot corner, though that was while cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Dean were on injured reserve. Edwards has proved to be quite a ball hawk throughout his young career and the Bucs are facing a Carolina team this week that has thrown 18 picks overall and is 30th in interception percentage (3.71%).
Rob Gronkowski. The veteran tight end missed all but a few snaps over a six-game midseason stretch, but returned in Week 10 and over the next four games put up 22 receptions on 34 targets for 314 yards and two touchdowns. Gronkowski and Brady, former long-time teammates in New England, were clearly taking advantage of the strong connection they have built over the years, but that connection had a bit of a short last week in the shutout loss to the Saints. Brady still tried to get the ball to his trusted tight end but only two of his 11 targets were caught, for a total of 29 yards. As noted above, the Buccaneers will be trying to restructure their offense on the fly with the current absences of Godwin and Evans, not to mention prolific pass-catching back Leonard Fournette. While they'll be trying to incorporate their younger receivers into the mix, they might also rely on more contributions from Gronkowski, who already has three multi-touchdown games this season. When he and Brady are in synch, as they often have been this season, Gronkowski is one of the Buccaneers' most effective weapons over the middle of the field, in the red zone and stretching the seams.
Jamel Dean. Dean was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report but he got in three full practices during the week and the Bucs are hoping he can get back in the lineup. Tampa Bay has only occasionally had its original starting cornerback trio of Dean, Carlton Davis and Murphy-Bunting on the field at the same time this season but that's a welcome possibility in Week 16. Dean has missed most of the last two games due to illness, possibly the result of a concussion he suffered in Week 13. When he has played, Dean has been very effective in 2021; he is second on the team in both interceptions (two) and passes defensed (eight). According to NFL Next Gen Stats, as the nearest defender on a targeted player (minimum of 50 targets), Dean has allowed a 49.1% completion percentage, which ranks fourth in the NFL. The Panthers passing game has struggled to the NFL's 29th ranking but does feature one of the NFL's best receivers in D.J. Moore (though he is questionable due to a hamstring injury). The Buccaneers hope to stifle the Panthers' offense the same way they did against New Orleans last weekend, and having Dean in the lineup would definitely help with that.
Donovan Smith. Three of the Bucs' starting offensive linemen – right tackle Tristan Wirfs, center Ryan Jensen and left guard Ali Marpet – got Pro Bowl invitations on Wednesday and they all agreed that it was a humbling and emotional experience. They also all agreed that Smith was deserving of the same honor considering the outstanding season he has had in 2021. Of course, those four plus right guard Alex Cappa hope to be otherwise occupied with a more important game when the actual Pro Bowl is played, and that crew could be what leads the way in the pursuit of another Super Bowl title. They will certainly be tested this Sunday by a Panthers' defense that ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks per pass play and is especially dangerous on the edges. Edge rushers Haason Reddick and Brian Burns have combined for 20 sacks and 35 quarterback pressures so far. Both Reddick and Burns take plentiful snaps on both ends of the line, so Smith should get a workout from each of them on Sunday. So far, he has been a key cog in giving Tom Brady the best protection in the NFL, as the Bucs' offense has the lowest sacks-allowed-per-pass-play rate in the league.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 58.6%/56.2%/51.9%. The Buccaneers will be without leading receiver Chris Godwin for the rest of the season, including the playoffs, and running back Leonard Fournette will miss at least three games after being placed on injured reserve. Wide receiver Mike Evans is also expected to miss this Sunday's game, if not a bit more time. Godwin, Fournette and Evans are the team's three top producers on offense, having so far combined to account for 58.6% of the team's total yardage, 56.2% of its receptions and 51.9% of its touchdowns. As multiple Buccaneers players and coaches have noted this week, no one else in the league is going to feel sorry for them following those injuries, and many other contenders are also dealing with the absence of key players. Still, the numbers above underline how much work the rest of the Bucs' skill position players have to do to come close to replacing what they are missing without Godwin, Evans and Fournette. Sunday's game in Charlotte will be our first look at how Tom Brady and the offense moves ahead with a different cast of runners and pass-catchers.
- 39.6%/13.9%/23.9%/6.3. As mentioned above, the Panthers have definitely had one of the NFL's most effective pass rush units this season, most obviously signaled by their 8.63% sacks-per-pass-play rate, which is fourth-best in the league. However, that effectiveness has diminished somewhat after a very hot start. Through the first three weeks of the season, Carolina led the entire NFL with a pressure rate of 39.6% and a sack rate of 13.9%. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Panthers were also 3-0 at that point. Carolina has won just two games since, however, and their pressure and sack rates have dropped to 23.9% and 6.3%. The Panthers have only put up a pressure rate of 25% or better in three of their last 11 contests. On the other hand, perhaps the Panthers are preparing to heat up against down the stretch, as they produced a 34.2 pressure rate against the Bills last weekend.
- 17/10. Carolina's quarterbacks have combined to produce a 68.5 passer rating this season, but they have been undeniably dangerous on the ground. That's obviously the case with the return of Cam Newton, who leads all NFL quarterbacks with 17 rushing touchdowns since 2020, despite not playing in the first nine games of the season. He has five in five games (four starts) since returning to the Panthers. However, Carolina was already getting that kind of ground-game production from Sam Darnold, who started the first nine games. He and Newton have combined for 10 rushing touchdowns this season, with each one finding the end zone five times. Head Coach Matt Rhule may choose to use both of those quarterbacks against the Bucs on Sunday, but whichever one is in the game will pose a rushing threat to which the defense must pay attention.
- +13/-6/87/7. The Buccaneers are tied for seventh in the NFL in turnover differential at +7. However, they are +13 in their 10 wins and -6 in their four losses. Tampa Bay's defense has just one takeaway in those four defeats, and just seven points off turnovers overall. The Bucs have 87 points off turnovers in their 10 wins, or an average of more than a touchdown per game.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- Safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. will miss a second consecutive game due to a foot injury but safety Mike Edwards is back on the active roster and will likely start alongside Jordan Whitehead, who himself just returned from a two-game injury absence (calf) last week. Andrew Adams, who has started the last three games, provides depth at the position and cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Richard Sherman have also cross-trained at safety.
- The Panthers had to put starting center Pat Elflein on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday, which means they will be starting their 11th different unique O-Line lineup in 15 games this season. Carolina will be turning to its third center of the season, as Elflein – a day-one starter at left guard, moved to that spot after Matt Paradis landed on injured reserve. Sam Tecklenburg, a 2020 undrafted free agent, is the only player listed as a center on the Panthers' roster and would presumably get the start. Carolina also designated left tackle Cameron Erving as questionable on Friday's injury report, so there could be additional shuffling of the O-Line.
- Buccaneers outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul was listed as doubtful on Friday's injury report, so it is likely he will sit out a game for the third time this season due to a lingering and painful shoulder injury. When he was sidelined in Weeks Three and Four, rookie first-rounder Joe Tryon-Shoyinka got the start in his place opposite Shaq Barrett.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE PANTHERS
Carolina's defense has allowed the second-fewest yards per game (294.4) and yards per play (4.86) and has been particularly stingy against the pass, ranking second with 178.8 yards allowed per contest and third with 6.00 yards allowed per pass play. The Panthers have allowed a low third-down conversion rate of 36.9%. As noted above, Carolina will have an added running threat in the backfield whether it's Cam Newton or Sam Darnold under center. The Panthers' offense has actually been quite good when it gets near the goal line with a 78.3% touchdown rate on goal-to-go drives that is tied for sixth in the league. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Tom Brady has excelled on quick passes (less than 2.5 seconds from snap to release) this season, and Carolina might seem susceptible to that as their passer rating allowed on such passes is 105.8, fifth worst in the NFL. However, the Panthers' pass defense does do one thing very well that could make it tough for the Bucs to turn quick hits into longer gains: They stop pass-catchers quickly after the catch is made. Of Tampa Bay's 4,415 passing yards this season, 52.9% of them have been added on after the ball was caught. However, Carolina's defense has allowed 16 fewer yards after the catch than expected this season according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the best mark in that category in the NFL. In fact, the Panthers are the only team in the entire league with a negative YAC Over Expected number. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the Bucs are now without Godwin, who is second only to Cooper Kupp in total YAC in 2021.
The Buccaneers' defense will need to make sure Carolina doesn't get off to a fast start in the first quarter, as they have often this season. The Panthers have played 14 games, which means they've had 14 initial drives, and they've scored four touchdowns and two field goals on those possessions. That adds up to 34 first-possession points, which is tied for eighth-best in the NFL. Tampa Bay's defense may have to prevent that offense from scoring at the beginning of the game if the Bucs want to get an early lead because the Carolina defense has been even better in that situation. The Panthers have only allowed two field goals on 14 opponent first drives, for a league-low six points surrendered. They are the only team in the NFL that has yet to allow a first-possession touchdown.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On how the team will handle the sudden absence of multiple key contributors, particularly on offense:
"It's just next man up and some young players' roles [have] changed. Some are now starting, and others are immediate backups. This time of year, you shouldn't be a young player anymore. You should embrace your role and your opportunity."