The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Lavonte David. Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and William Gholston get a lot of credit for making the Bucs' run defense the best in the league, but Sunday's opener in New Orleans was a very visible example of the second part of that equation. With the big men up front eating up blockers, inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White were often able to roam free and be the ones actually making most of the tackles on opposing backs. David and White each finished that game with 11 tackles, including three combined stops behind the line of scrimmage. Of course, TFLs have been a David specialty since he entered the league in 2012; since that season, only J.J. Watt has racked up more of them. Earlier this week, White emphasized that he would be the one trying to contain Christian McCaffrey when the Panthers' versatile back splits wide and runs routes, but it's likely David will be providing some important coverage on McCaffrey at times, too. David showed in New Orleans that he has not even begun to slow down as he enters his ninth season, and the Buccaneers will need him at the top of his game in order to keep McCaffrey in check as well as they did in both Carolina games last year.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53-man roster.
Mike Evans. It did not look as if Evans was going to be able to join his teammates for the 2020 opener after he was limited to very little practice last week by a hamstring injury. But he improved significantly over the weekend and was able to not only play but to stay on the field for all but five offensive snaps. His actual numbers were limited to just one two-yard touchdown catch, but he got open deep several times, leading to nearly 70 yards of pass-interference calls that were just as useful as long completions. Evans said he feels closer to 100 percent heading into the Bucs' Week Two game, and he'll be going against a cornerback crew that has not had too much time to gain cohesion. With Eli Apple on injured reserve, fourth-round rookie Troy Pride is already in the starting lineup, and with Donte Jackson limited to 11 plays last week by an ankle injury Rasul Douglas was heavily involved only a few days after signing with the team. The Buccaneers may well be without Chris Godwin, which will make it easier for the Panthers to focus on Evans, perhaps shadowing him with Jackson. If Evans can still provide big plays while in the spotlight, that will open up opportunities for a bunch of other Buccaneer weapons.
Carlton Davis. In his first game since being labeled a "top-10" cornerback by Bruce Arians in training camp, Davis looked like…well, a top-10 cornerback in the opener. He was tremendous in holding high-volume receiver Michael Thomas to just 17 yards on three catches, which in turn meant just 160 passing yards for Drew Brees. With Robby Anderson now opposite D.J. Moore and providing a very real big-play threat on the outside, the Buccaneers may not chose to use Davis as a one-man shadow like they did in New Orleans, but either way he'll be matched up against a very good receiver throughout the game on Sunday. Anderson and Moore combined for 169 receiving yards against the Raiders, including a 75-yard touchdown catch by Anderson. If the Buccaneers can get a bit more pressure on Teddy Bridgewater than they did on Brees in Week One, Davis's all-day tight coverage might put him in position to get an interception on a pass that isn't thrown perfectly on target.
Tristan Wirfs. Wirfs got welcomed to the NFL by one of the league's best in Saints end Cameron Jordan, but it wasn't a particularly painful introduction to the pros. Despite being thrown into the fire with no preseason games or joint practices, Wirfs more than held his own in his first NFL action, providing good protection for Drew Brees and some movement in the rushing attack. Since this is the NFL, the assignments don't usually get much easier from week to week for those men trying to contain opposing edge rushers. This week, the biggest threat is second-year man Brian Burns, who had 7.5 sacks as a rookie and has one of the quickest first steps in the league. Left tackle Donovan Smith might actually get a larger dose of Burns on the other side, but the Panthers do move their young quarterback-seeker from side to side. Wirfs' quick feet will help in his efforts to stay in front of Burns, but he also needs to be careful with his hand work. Burns is very good at getting low but staying on his feet and quickly twisting his back and shoulders away from contact when linemen or tight ends try to stop him with hand punches.
Antoine Winfield, Jr. The other rookie in the Bucs' Week One lineup, Winfield also looked like he belonged despite no real preview to his first NFL game action. He stayed on the field for every defensive snap and helped the Bucs' defense hold the Saints to 270 total yards. His first game statistical markers suggest he was doing a little bit of everything at all levels of the defense: six tackles, a quarterback hit and a pass defensed. Winfield also made a valiant effort at a diving interception in the end zone. The pass was just a bit out of his reach but the play displayed the kind of instincts that made him such a big playmaker at the University of Minnesota. Perhaps he stepped into the NFL so game ready because he continues to get advice from his father, Antoine Winfield, Sr., who played 14 seasons at cornerback in the league. Winfield will be one of the key defenders tasked with keeping the Panthers from breaking off game-changing big gains both on the ground and through the air. With a player like Anderson who can quickly get behind the first man trying to cover him, Winfield's efforts in deep centerfield may be critical at certain points in the game.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 11.3. Teddy Bridgewater, in his first season as the Panthers' starting quarterback, played five-plus games last season in New Orleans in place of an injured Drew Brees. During that stint, in which the Saints won all five of his starts, Bridgewater averaged 11.3 yards per pass after play-action fakes. That was the fourth-highest average on such plays for any quarterback in the NFL who threw at least 35 passes. With the Bucs needing to swarm Christian McCaffrey any time the ball is handed to him, the play-action strategy could be particularly useful for the Panthers on Sunday.
· +5/-16. Those two numbers indicate the Buccaneers combined turnover differential in the seven games they have won and the 10 games they have lost, respectively, under Bruce Arians. Nowhere was that divide more evident than in the season series with the Panthers. In the Buccaneers' Week Two win at Carolina, they had a plus-one ratio, with one takeaway and no giveaways. In the Panthers' Week Six victory in London, the Bucs had a negative-six ratio, giving it away an insurmountable seven times.
· 5-5/0-10. In their Week One game at new Orleans, the Buccaneers faced five third-and-one chances on offense and successfully converted all five of them, including three impressive power runs by Ronald Jones. That was encouraging given that short-yardage plays have occasionally been troublesome for Tampa Bay in recent years. Unfortunately, the Bucs' offense had 10 other third downs to try to convert against the Saints and didn't succeed on any of them. Tom Brady and the Buccaneers are still trying to figure out what works best with him at the helm, and that includes what players and what plays to rely on to convert critical third downs.
· 3.3/2.1/2.0/2.4. All of those numbers refer to yards allowed per carry by the Buccaneers'' defense. The first one is what the Bucs allowed during the entire 2019 season, which was best in NFL along with their league-low 73.8 yards rushing yards surrendered per game. The next two averages are what Tampa Bay gave up in their two games facing the Panthers last year, a particularly remarkable feat given the presence of Christian McCaffrey. The fourth number is an early indication that the Buccaneers' run defense is going to be just as strong in 2020. Even with Alvin Kamara leading the way and the Saints running the ball 34 times in Week One, the Bucs held their Week One foe to 2.4 yards per carry.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· The Bucs could be without their leading receiver from 2019 and the 2020 season opener, as Chris Godwin did not practice until Friday due to concussion symptoms. If Godwin is unable to play on Sunday, that would likely mean more playing time for third-year wide receiver Justin Watson. Second-year wideout Scotty Miller is already drawing significant playing time as the third receiver in the prevalent "11" personnel package, and rookie Tyler Johnson might not yet be ready to contribute. Johnson was inactive last week.
· In Week One, the Panthers were without lineman Dennis Daley, who is listed as the starting left guard on their depth chart. Daley was replaced by veteran blocker Michael Schofield, the former Bronco and Charger who started 67 games over the previous five seasons. Schofield will likely be in the lineup again as Daley's ankle injury kept him out of practice again this week.
· Last week, Carolina's defense started six players who were not with the team last year, as the unit is in transition after the end of the Luke Kuechly era. Those six new starters included three rookies: defensive tackle Derrick Brown, linebacker Jeremy Chinn (who was listed as a safety on draft day) and cornerback Troy Pride. Pride, a fourth-round pick, has been pressed into service due to the ankle injury that sent Eli Apple to injured reserve.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE PANTHERS
In their season-opening loss to Las Vegas, the Panthers started 10 players who were not with the team last year, all of it directed by first-year Head Coach Matt Rhule and his two new coordinators, Joe Brady and Phil Snow. That makes the 2020 Panthers difficult for an opponent to scout this early in the season. As Head Coach Bruce Arians said: "We had one game [of film] on these guys and a bunch of college film. There's probably more unknown this week. We knew what the Saints were going to do."
Of course, the Bucs will certainly recognize Christian McCaffrey and can be fairly certain that the versatile running back will be on the field for every defensive snap and will be soaking up a lot of touches. Carolina's defense still features rangy linebacker Shaq Thompson at the middle level, though Thompson will be shouldering a more important role, including in terms of leadership, with Luke Kuechly now in retirement. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
We'll stipulate that McCaffrey is the biggest challenge the Buccaneers face but that doesn't necessarily mean he will be the one to hurt the Bucs, if anyone does. Last week, Michael Thomas stood out as the Saints player who is hardest to contain…and then Carlton Davis shut him down to the tune of 17 yards on three catches. The Saints still won with two touchdowns from Alvin Kamara, 80 yards from tight end Jared Cook and some timely trick plays involving Taysom Hill. Last year, Tampa Bay's defense stunningly held McCaffrey to 110 yards from scrimmage in their two meetings combined but only came away with a split. The Panthers can also attack the Bucs with wide receiver D.J. Moore, who had a breakout 1,187-yard campaign last year, or another versatile weapon in Curtis Samuel. But new to that arsenal this year is the one player who could change Sunday's game on a single play: former Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson. The speedy big-play receiver almost did that in Week One, when his 75-yard touchdown catch temporarily gave the Panthers a 30-27 lead in the fourth quarter.
For years, the Panthers have spent a significant amount of draft capital and some free agency assets on maintaining a stout middle to their defensive front. That continued in 2002 even with a new coaching staff, as the team used the ninth-overall pick in the draft to land Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Brown is now paired with two-time Pro Bowler Kawann Short to give the Panthers nearly 650 pounds of elite big-man athleticism up front. Carolina's run defense was not particularly good in 2019 and it gave up 133 yards to the Raiders, but putting Brown and Short together in the middle should lead to more difficulty for opponents running up the middle.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On what the team focused on in the week of practice after a season-opening loss in New Orleans:
"I think when you look back and you correct mistakes – you correct them now on Tuesdays, it used to be Mondays – and then you get ready for the next game and making sure those things don't show up on the practice field. Everything got corrected. There's been great communication all week and again, [with] no crowd noise, communication shouldn't be a problem this week as we grow together and keep working and learning each other."