The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have to test their defensive line depth once again this weekend.
The Buccaneers' Friday injury report – the first of the week that includes game-status designations – includes three defensive linemen who are considered questionable for Saturday's game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Field. Defensive end Michael Bennett (toe) and defensive tackles Albert Haynesworth (knee) and Brian Price (ankle) were all question marks as the Buccaneers prepared to fly to Charlotte on Friday afternoon.
In addition, linebackers Geno Hayes (knee) and Adam Hayward (foot) are listed as questionable, as is wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (knee). Haynesworth, Price and Hayes are all starters in Tampa Bay's defensive front seven.
There is, of course, the possibility that all six of those players will suit up on Saturday afternoon. Bennett, Haynesworth and Price have all been playing through their current injuries for several weeks, and Bennett was a full participant in practice on Thursday. Hayes also practiced Thursday, though Hayward – the Bucs' special teams captain and a valuable reserve at all three linebacker spots – did not.
There are three other players on Tampa Bay's Friday injury report, but all are listed as probable: wide receiver Arrelious Benn (concussion), quarterback Josh Freeman (right shoulder) and defensive tackle Roy Miller (back). Benn appears on track to return to action after missing one game due to the concussion he sustained in Jacksonville in Week 14.
Whoever suits up for the Buccaneers' defense on Saturday, they will be facing a Panther offense that looks nothing like the one that struggled through the entire 2010 season.
Last year, the Panthers possessed the worst red zone offense in the NFL, scoring touchdowns on just 30.3% of their incursions inside the opposing 20. On top of that, Carolina ranked 30th among the 32 offense in third-down conversions, converting on only 30.4% of their opportunities.
With two games remaining in 2011, the turnaround for the Panthers in those two areas has been dramatic. Carolina is now sixth in red zone offense, getting TDs on 58.0% of such drives, and eighth in third-down conversions, with a success rate of 43.1%.
The catalyst for that stark improvement is pretty obvious. Cam Newton, the first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year, has changed everything in Carolina.
"He just finds a way to extend plays, whether it's taking it upon himself or making that pass," said Miller. "That whole offense is just set up so that he can make everything run so smoothly. You've got to give a lot of credit to a guy like that. Without him, that offense would have to change up a lot."
Obviously, Newton has given the Panthers attractive new options in short-yardage and goal-line situations simply with his ability to run the ball. When the Bucs and Panthers faced off in Tampa on December 4, Carolina's first touchdown came on a maddeningly simple play – on second-and-goal from the one, Newton caught a shotgun snap, took a step towards the line to build momentum and then simply leaped about five yards, right over both lines.
Newton has already set an NFL record for quarterbacks by scoring 13 rushing touchdowns this season. The Buccaneers don't expect Carolina to be any less assertive about using their talented quarterback in the red zone this Saturday.
"You've got to take advantage of those unique skills and those unique talents," said Bucs Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It's certainly increased the Carolina Panthers red zone offense and their third down-and-one-through-four. They've certainly become a more difficult team to defend with that type of dynamic back there. You take your opportunity with their offensive line blocking the way they can block and doing some of those things that they do."
Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake said he overhead Newton's name being thrown about by Buccaneer players when they formulated their Pro Bowl ballots earlier in the week. Still, that could be a tough honor for Newton to pull down in his rookie season, considering his in the same conference as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Michael Vick. The Buccaneers' defense has had good days against most of those quarterbacks in the past, and even some good moments this year during a tougher-than-usual season. While recognizing Newton's outsized talents, the Bucs do believe they can stop him this time around.
"He's a big athlete who makes a lot of plays for his team," said rookie linebacker Mason Foster. "Having him run the ball creates big problems. You've got to have a lot of guys around him, rally to the ball and get him down. He's a talent, but we've faced him once already so we're going to be more prepared this time."
Added cornerback E.J. Biggers: "He's dynamic. He does some great things when he gets in the red zone. We've just got to go out there and execute a game plan, do exactly what we're supposed to do and everything will work itself out."
In the end, it won't necessarily be a tricky game plan that helps the Bucs stop Newton this time, but rather a better execution of the fundamentals of Tampa Bay's defense.
"You've got to be disciplined," said defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. "Every guy out there is dependent on the other guy doing his job. When that guy doesn't do his job one time, it reflects on the whole defense and the whole team. We've got to keep each other accountable. You've just got to play sound football. You've got to play your fundamentals and keep your eyes where they need to be."