The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will continue their tour of the NFC South in Week Seven as they take on the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. The rivalry contest is a must-win for the Buccaneers after dropping three of their last four games. With wins against the Saints and Falcons already, the Bucs will strive to cement their place atop the pecking order, as the 3-3 Falcons take on the Bengals in Week Seven. Tampa Bay is tied with Atlanta for the division lead in the South, upping the stakes on Sunday. In the quest for another title, the Bucs need a complete game in all phases to build confidence moving into the second stretch of the 2022 slate. Meanwhile, the Panthers are in a rebuild phase. Carolina fired Head Coach Matt Rhule on October 10, with ensuing trades of both Robbie Anderson and Christian McCaffrey to garner draft capital – a microcosm of that aforementioned theme. The Panthers are off to a 1-5 start this season, with hope of revitalization. After a week of preparation, here is what Sunday's clash comes down to:
4 Stats that Matter
- The Panthers rank last in the league in both points scored and total yards. Other than McCaffrey, who is now with the San Francisco 49ers following a trade, Carolina has been anemic on offense. Relying on a short passing game and perimeter based-attack to mitigate pressure, the first deep shot downfield in Week Six for the Panthers came in the third quarter.
- Carolina has allowed 19 sacks through the first six weeks of the season. The Panthers invested heavily in their offensive line during the offseason, taking tackle Ikem Ekwonu with the sixth-overall pick, and bringing in guard Austin Corbett and center Bradley Bozeman (lost starting battle to Pat Elfein) to bolster the front, but the unit has failed to achieve adequate protection for the myriad of players who have stood under center.
- In the red zone, the Buccaneers have converted just 50 percent of their attempts into touchdowns. Tampa Bay has been able to move the ball downfield; however, they have not been able to cash in with seven. Instead, the Bucs have been forced to settle for field goals. This week for Tampa Bay, the red zone woes have been a focal point with one emphasis: execution.
- The Bucs rank last in the league in rushing. Granted, this statistic is often misleading. When playing from behind, the Bucs have been forced to become one-dimensional. When facing a two-high shell, like they did against the Steelers in Week Six - which invites the run and forces everything underneath - the Bucs could not gain significant yardage on the ground to complement the passing game.
3 Lineup Notes
- On Thursday, the Panthers sent McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for second, third and fourth-round picks in next year's draft, plus a fifth rounder in 2024. McCaffrey has been the focal point of the Panthers' offense and has established himself as one of the best dual-threat backs in the NFL. He now joins Kyle Shanahan's system and will thrive in their approach tailored to generating yards after catch. Additionally, the Panthers traded wide receiver Robbie Anderson to the Arizona Cardinals on Monday in exchange for two draft picks, a sixth-rounder in 2024 and a seventh-rounder in 2025.
- The Panthers have had a revolving door at quarterback in 2022, thanks primarily to injuries. Quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold – the first and third-overall picks in the 2018 NFL Draft – began training camp battling for the under-center duties. Mayfield won the starting job and a week later, Darnold suffered an ankle injury in the final preseason game and was placed on injured reserve. Mayfield started the first five games of the season but sustained a high ankle sprain in Week Five, sidelining him for several games. That thrust P.J. Walker into action. He started against the Rams and will get the starting gig on Sunday vs. the Buccaneers. On Friday's final injury report, defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis (neck/concussion protocol) and Baker Mayfield (ankle) were listed as doubtful. A plethora of players were listed as questionable for Carolina including Sean Chandler (hamstring), Pat Elfein (hip), CJ Henderson (concussion), Jaycee Horn (ribs), Donte Jackson (ankle), Frankie Luvu (shoulder), Taylor Moton (knee) and Laviska Shenault Jr. (hamstring).
- For the Buccaneers, tight end Cameron Brate, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, wide receiver Julio Jones and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting are ruled out. Despite being listed as questionable with an elbow injury, safety Mike Edwards is likely to return against the Panthers. Todd Bowles confirmed on Friday that he is "on track to play." Edwards suffered the injury at the end of the Bucs' Week Five win over Atlanta. If Edwards is available to suit up this week, the Bucs can use Keanu Neal in sup packages to replace the contributions of Logan Ryan (injured reserve).
2 Challenges Presented by the Panthers
The Panthers may be ranked in the bottom of the league in most statistical defensive categories, including total defense (21st), rush defense (26th), and sacks (28th); however, it is best not to forget they have Brian Burns off the edge. Through six games, Burns has accounted for nearly half of the team's nine sacks (4.0), with dominance at the line of scrimmage. He wins off the ball and has one of the fastest get-off times in the NFL. Burns can turn the corner with rare bend and possesses devastating freeze-dip and spin moves in his arsenal that overwhelms tackles. Due to his relentless pursuit and game-wrecking speed, the Buccaneers will have to be disciplined up front to try and limit Burns. He is the Panthers' tone-setter, registering consistent timely plays for Carolina. In a one-on-one with Burns, Bucs' right tackle Tristan Wirfs will have to be fundamentally sound and stay square to mitigate Burns' ability to out-leverage with counters.
Following the departure of Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson, the Panthers' offense may be without the star firepower that fans are accustomed to; however, DJ Moore has the capability of causing problems for defenses. In 2021, Moore was third among qualifying receivers in percentage of his team's air yards at 40.2 percent. He will play a significant role on Sunday in the Panthers' passing game as the newfound focal point. Moore can challenge defenses downfield and on intermediate routes. Despite instability at the quarterback position, Moore has eclipsed the 1,100-yard receiving mark over the previous three seasons in Carolina – a telling metric. With the ability to take advantage of soft spots in zone, high-point prowess, suddenness out of breaks and adjustment to the ball, Moore is a viable threat. He is one of the NFL's best at generating run after the catch and the Bucs' defense needs effective pursuit angles in the open field, as well as players to maintain gaps.
1 Key Thought from Todd Bowles
His impression of P.J. Walker:
"P.J. is very athletic, he has a live arm, he's been there for a couple years – he's been in the system, obviously. I've known P.J. for a long time. We're from the same neighborhood, went to the same high school [and] went to the same college. So, we know each other very well. He's a very athletic guy, he's very courageous, he's tough, he's going to bring a lot of energy to the team and he's not afraid of the moment."