Steve Smith could give the Panthers' offense a boost by returning to the field Sunday in Tampa
Two weeks into the NFL season, it's a bit strong to call any game a "must-win," but this weekend's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers has certainly taken on that feel.
When the final gun sounds at Raymond James Stadium Sunday afternoon, one team will be 0-3 with two division losses. That might not sound the death knell for the losing team, but it will definitely leave it in an uncompromising position in the NFC South where the Atlanta Falcons already are 2-0. And depending on how they handle New Orleans, could be 3-0 with three division wins by the end of September. The Saints, too, could be 3-0 if they knock off the Falcons.
Trailing the division leader by three games is not recommended in a division where the intense competitiveness among all four teams could result in extra losses for everybody, and thus a tougher road to a Wild Card berth. If that wasn't enough, the NFC South this year plays the NFC East, a division believed to be among the strongest in the league.
That's not to say that the Wild Card can't come from the NFC South – anything is possible in the NFL – but neither the Buccaneers nor Panthers want to find out, nor do they want to be fighting an uphill battle the rest of the season.
"Until we play much better in all three phases of our football, we're going to continue to struggle," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I'm counting on our players and our coaches to find a way, okay? With the support of our fans, find a way to get out of this first quarter [of the season] with some momentum, and it's not going to get any easier when you look at our schedule.
"It's a great challenge right now. I don't like to say we've started 0-2 very often, at any level anywhere. But this is a tough league. It's a nasty league right now."
Very nasty, indeed. Throughout the first two weeks of the season, both the Buccaneers and Panthers have run into absolute defensive buzz saws. In week one the Bucs were shut out against the Ravens, who have yet to allow a touchdown. Last week in Atlanta, the Bucs managed three points. Carolina didn't fare much better when they played the Falcons, only scoring six points. And against the new-look Vikings last week, Carolina managed one touchdown in a losing effort. Together, the Buccaneers and the Panthers have totaled 22 points in four games.
So when the Bucs and Cats strap on their helmets this Sunday, the focus uncharacteristically will be on their offenses. Whichever team can score early and buoy its defense by allowing it to play with a lead has that much more opportunity to notch its first win of the season.
The Buccaneers will be looking to get running back Cadillac Williams back on track. Through his first two games this year, Williams has carried 23 times for 59 yards. If the Buccaneers are to find success, Williams has to find the form he showed in 2005 when he gained 1,178 yards and racked up 23 runs of 10 or more yards along the way. This year, he's been the focal point of defenses determined to shut him down. The Panthers will be no exception. That's why quarterback Chris Simms must lead an effective passing attack. The Panthers will be content on stopping Williams and daring the Bucs to beat them through the air. If Simms and the Bucs receivers can get into a rhythm, the Buccaneers have a good chance for success. That passing game showed signs of life last week with 20 of 28 completions going to wide receivers, particularly Joey Galloway who had nine catches for 161 yards. Sunday, it will need to be more efficient and less turnover-prone, especially in the red zone.
The Panthers' offense should get a much-needed boost with the return of star wide receiver Steve Smith. Smith has missed the Panthers' first two games of the season with a pair of sore hamstrings, but if he can play Sunday, he'll bring a new dimension to the Panthers' offense. Already seeing early production from the newly acquired Keyshawn Johnson, who had five catches for 106 yards last week, the Panthers passing game will be that much more dangerous with the deep-threat ability of Smith. In each of his two games last year against the Buccaneers, Smith racked up 100-plus yards, and he'll be itching to start his season Sunday against his division rivals. On the ground, running back DeShaun Foster is still the starter, but it's hard to discount the emergence of rookie running back DeAngelo Williams. The speedy Williams was the Panthers' main rushing threat last week, scoring their lone touchdown. He's tied for second on the team in receptions with six, and he's averaging 21.4 yards per kickoff return.
"Steve Smith, a tremendous player, hasn't played," Gruden said. "They've had some injuries that certainly, I'm sure, set them back, but they're a very good football team, well-coached. They've got a great kicker. This is a great rivalry, and both teams have got to have the win, so it will be a great contest and one we're looking forward to.
"I don't believe they're going to throw in the towel and give up. I think they're going to fight their way out of this hole and we've got to prove we can do that. And so does Carolina – that's why it's going to be a heck of a game Sunday."