The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:20 kickoff at Bank of America Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Shaquil Barrett. Barrett collected a sack in his first regular-season game as a Buccaneer, taking down Jimmy Garoppolo on an exquisitely-timed burst at the snap. Barrett was untouched on the play and he even barreled through the running back who took a fake handoff before moving on to Garoppolo. That was the Bucs' only sack of the game but Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles said he was satisfied with the pass rush overall because San Francisco was getting rid of the ball quickly. Though Barrett and Carl Nassib rushed from both sides of the line in the opener, that sack for Barrett came around the right edge of the O-Line. To do that again in Week Two, Barrett would have to beat third-year man Taylor Moton, who had an excellent season for the Panthers in 2018.
Mike Evans. Nobody in the Bucs' deep stable of talented pass-catchers had a particularly big day in the season opener against San Francisco, though Chris Godwin got his first touchdown of the season. Jameis Winston spread the ball around and only had 20 total completions. Evans, who was coming off an illness that kept him out of the previous Friday's practice, rarely is held in check for long, so his breakout could come as soon as Thursday night. He will likely have to win some battles against Panthers CB James Bradberry to do so, and the Evans-Bradberry matchup is always hotly contested.
Jordan Whitehead. Second-year safety Jordan Whitehead showcased his tracking and tackling skills in the opener, leading the team with eight tackles, many of them around or behind the line of scrimmage. He was a key factor in holding the 49ers to 3.1 yards per carry. Whitehead could be one of the Bucs' best bets against Christian McCaffrey, who will demand multiple defenders in run defense and tight coverage when he splits out to run routes. A fourth-round draft pick in 2018 who got a lot of playing time as a rookie, Whitehead appears to be a rising player on a much-improved defense.
Matt Gay. So far, so good for the Bucs' rookie kicker, who won his preseason competition with veteran Cairo Santos (through no fault of Santos) and is hopefully the man to calm down the Bucs' recently-tumultuous history at the position. Gay made both of his extra points and a 31-yard field goal in the opener last Sunday. That said, he wasn't called on for any long-distance shots, which he proved quite capable of drilling in the preseason. Eventually the Bucs will ask him to kick another from 50-plus and that will be another step in his integration into the NFL. Perhaps that opportunity will come at Bank of America Stadium.
O.J. Howard. The Buccaneers believe they have the NFL's next tight end star in Howard, and he is definitely one of the team's best options for creating mismatches down the field. Howard had a few bumps in the opener, however, losing a fumble in the red zone and having a pass deflect off his hands for an interception. Head Coach Bruce Arians said that Howard had a great camp and figured those miscues were the result of Howard pressing to make big plays. Arians suggested that Howard should "relax and play" and the big plays will come, as they certainly have in the past and hopefully will again on Thursday night.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 25% red zone efficiency/75% defensive red zone efficiency. The Buccaneers left points on the table in their 31-17 loss to San Francisco, which was much closer than the final score suggests. One trip inside the 20 ended in a fumble, one in a failed fourth-and-goal and one in a field goal. The Bucs obviously need better results near the goal line. Perhaps they can get it against a Carolina team that allowed the Rams to get into the end zone in three of their four red zone trips.
· 61 and 55 plays. Those were the defensive rep shares for outside linebackers Carl Nassib and Shaq Barrett, respectively, in the Bucs' opener, out of a possible 67. Nassib did get a few of his reps on the inside in certain packages, but for the most part Nassib and Barrett soaked up almost all the playing time on the edges. Rookie Anthony Nelson saw his first bit of playing time but Devante Bond did not take a single snap. Will the Bucs continue to ride Nassib and Barrett or trend towards more of a rotation in the weeks to come?
· 4.7 yards per carry/3.1 yards per carry. The battle on the ground was a net positive for the Buccaneers in their season opener, as they outran the 49ers, 121 to 98 yards and were much better on a per carry basis, as noted by those two per-carry marks. The Buccaneers are seeking a more balanced offense in 2019 after rushing offense and rushing defense was a net negative for them in 2018, and Week One was a good start.
· 2 of 38 deep passes. According to the numbers compiled by the NFL's official stat service, Cam Newton and the Panthers threw 38 passes in their game against the Rams and only two of them were classified as "deep." Both went to the deep right, while the Panthers threw 13 passes to the short left, six to the short middle and 16 to the short right. (One pass was apparently unclassified.) Buccaneer defenders should expect to face a good number of quick throws.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Ronald Jones finished the Bucs' opener with more carries than starting tailback Ronald Jones, and he was a bright spot in the loss to San Francisco with 75 yards and an average of 5.8 yards per tote. That strong debut on the heels of an impressive training camp have some wondering if Jones will eventually take the starting spot from Barber, but Arians says the rotation will stay the same this week. If either back gets the hot hand, as Jones did in Week One, he'll get the majority of the work.
· Rookie safety Mike Edwards appeared to have captured one of the two starting spots in the first couple weeks of training camp, but then he missed the back half of the preseason with a hamstring injury. Edwards returned to action to start the regular season but got only four snaps on defense in the opener, with veteran Darian Stewart getting the start next to Jordan Whitehead. Edwards is likely to see his reps gradually increased as he gets back into the flow of the defense.
· With the release of Caleb Benenoch, recently-acquired tackle Jerald Hawkins is likely to be active for the first time as a Buccaneer. Tampa Bay got Hawkins in a trade with Pittsburgh on the same day that NFL rosters were trimmed to 53 players to start the regular season. Hawkins would seem to be in line for the active swing-tackle role on game day over Josh Wells, who is an even more recent acquisition, having been signed on Tuesday.
View pictures of the Buccaneers leaving for their matchup against the Panthers.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE PANTHERS
Carolina's offense is going into its second season under the direction of Norv Turner, and it is a tough one to defend. Bruce Arians says you have to prepare for a traditional "power-O" attack but also a second layer with more "gimmicks," plus the always troublesome threat of Cam Newton tucking the ball and running. The Panthers' defense was already loaded up the middle with players like Kawann Short and Luke Kuechly, but it used the offseason to add some edge talent in first-round pick Brian Burns and veteran Bruce Irvin (currently injured). Here are two specific challenges the Bucs will face in Charlotte Thursday night:
RB Christian McCaffrey does it all. The third-year back played every offensive snap for Carolina in their opener against the Rams and accounted for 19 of their 23 carries and 10 of their 25 receptions. He used those 29 touches to ring up 209 yards from scrimmage, plus a pair of touchdowns. The Panthers ran directly up the middle on 12 of their rushing plays, and McCaffrey is adept at making quick cuts and then powering through tacklers for extra yards. The Bucs will also have to decide how they want to cover McCaffrey when he is split out wide or in the slot. In a base defense, that would likely become the responsibility of a safety or a linebacker, and that could lead to a speed mismatch.
Arians said the Buccaneers are a "tight end to tight end" running team, which means they're going to try to get most of their ground yards up the middle rather than around the edges. That won't be easy against the likes of Short, Kuechly, Dontari Poe, Gerald McCoy and Shaq Thompson. The Rams did manage to run the ball up the middle successfully last Sunday, but in 2018 the Panthers were the second-hardest team to run up the middle against, according to stats compiled by Football Outsiders. Carolina allowed just 3.61 yards per carry behind the center and guards in 2018.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On preparing to play the Carolina Panthers on a Thursday night:
"This is one of the teams I hate having to defend on a short week. This offense is a little bit different, especially the things that Cam [Newton] can do with the option and some of those things. It's hard to defend them on a short week, but I think our guys are getting it down pretty good right now. Defensively, it's just the opposite. We kind of know what their defense does, but their offense is a very hard one to work on without going full speed."