Last season, quarterback Matt Moore started the last five games for the Carolina Panthers and was sacked only nine times in that span. That helped the former undrafted free agent put together a rather impressive stretch run, as he completed 61.6% of his passes, threw for eight touchdowns against just two interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 98.5.
That performance helped the Panthers make the decision to cut ties with their long-time starter, Jake Delhomme, and even with the drafting of Jimmy Claussen the job was Moore's to start the season. Moore is expected to start Carolina's 2010 home opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday despite sustaining a mild concussion in Week One against the New York Giants.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they carry an 0-1 record into that divisional showdown with the Buccaneers because they lost their opener in New York, 31-18. That's partially because Moore didn't receive the same sort of strong protection against the Giants that he enjoyed down the stretch in 2009. New York sacked the Carolina starter four times, leading to a completion rate of 42.4%, three interceptions and a final passer rating of 32.6.
The Buccaneers, who have lost twice to Carolina with Moore at the helm, know that the young passer's 2009 stats are legitimate and that his opening-day performance in 2010 doesn't invalidate them. Rather, it's an indication that any passer can be forced into a mistake-filled afternoon if his pocket is constantly collapsing on him. That's what the Buccaneers hope to accomplish on Sunday in Charlotte.
"They were able to get after Matt early," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris of the Giants' defensive front. "We got to see them up close and personal last year and they caused a lot of problems for us. They did the same thing last week to Carolina and hopefully we can create something that's similar to the disruption they created. Hopefully we can get after him, but Matt Moore is a good quarterback. He's 2-0 against us and he's played well when he's played against us. We've got to find a way to get out there and win."
The Bucs found a way to win their opener against Cleveland despite falling behind 14-3 before halftime. They key to the team's two-touchdown comeback was stifling defense in the second half, set up by the pass-rushers up front. Tampa Bay did not actually record a sack on Delhomme, now the Browns' starter, but they pressured him into quite a few mistakes, including a pair of key interceptions.
"I was really fired up last week with the pressure we were able to put on Delhomme," said Morris. "We got to him a bunch of times, we got a couple quarterback hits. Stylez White was a big catalyst for that; he had four pressures and two quarterback hits. Our coaches were really fired up with his effort and how he played. I was a little leery to call it his best game he's played as a Buc but it was his most productive hustle game. I'm talking about not getting 'loafs,' playing every snap, playing hard each snap. He was able to bring those things to the table."
After film review, the Buccaneers staff credited their defenders with 10 quarterback pressures, four belonging to White and almost all of them coming after halftime. Rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, was credited with two pressures and was a dynamic presence in the second half. McCoy rushed out of several different positions and formations, including some three-down-linemen sets in which linebacker Quincy Black set up outside the offensive tackle.
"The other thing I was fired up about last week was Quincy Black rushing the quarterback a little bit in that four-down package where he stands up on the edge," said Morris. "He's able to come off the edge and really create some problems for people with quickness and all the things he can do for us, his strength and power. Then [we had] the inside two guys that we drafted in the first two rounds, Gerald McCoy and [Brian] Price, their quickness and their agility and ability to get to the quarterback. They didn't get the actual stat for it as far as the quarterback sacks, but they were able to get in there and cause a bunch of problems for people. They caused a bunch of problems for Delhomme last week to make him throw a bunch of incompletions and that really got the win for us at the end of the game."
At one point late in the fourth quarter, the Browns drew a costly holding call deep in their own end when tackle John St. Clair grabbed defensive end Tim Crowder so he couldn't pursue Delhomme in the end zone. The flag helped the Buccaneers, but obviously Crowder would have preferred to get the sack, and maybe even a safety. The Buccaneers know that if they can continue to apply the sort of pressure they put on Delhomme, the sacks will come, perhaps as early as this week against Moore.
Special Teams to Be Tested Again
In their season-opening win over the Cleveland Browns, the Buccaneers' kick coverage squads did an outstanding job of containing the intensely dangerous Josh Cribbs.
Cribbs, who returned four kicks for touchdowns last year and has 10 such scores in just five seasons, had all of 75 yards on six combined punt and kickoff returns against Tampa Bay. Most notably, while the Buccaneers were in the process of turning a 14-10 halftime deficit into a 17-14 victory, Cribbs was given two chances to return kickoffs in the second half and was stopped at the Cleveland 18 both times, once by Elbert Mack and once by Niko Koutouvides.
The Buccaneers have a lot of young players in their special teams mix – Cody Grimm, Corey Lynch and Kareem Huggins, to name a few – but containing Cribbs was like acing a tough midterm on the first day of freshman year.
Unfortunately, the tests aren't going to get easier as the fall semester progresses. One might think that it can't get any tougher than facing Cribbs, but Grimm insists that it can.
"Nowadays the way football is, whoever is back there returning the ball is obviously going to be a great athlete," said Grimm, who had two kick-coverage tackles in the opener. "There are so many good returners out there nowadays. It's definitely a good starting point for us but we've got to get better. We made a couple mistakes last week that we can definitely improve on."
Indeed, Carolina's returners may not have the same name recognition as Cribbs (except, of course, on the occasions that Steve Smith goes back to field a punt) but they proved quite dangerous on their own right against the Giants last weekend. Punt returner Captain Munnerlyn gained 38 yards on two runbacks, including a 28-yarder, and kickoff return Mike Goodson provided 117 yards of field position on five tries. The Panthers also got a 23-yard kickoff return from Munnerlyn and a 32-yarder from Jordan Pugh for a total of 210 return yards overall.
"Definitely, on kickoff and punt teams both they're very dangerous," said Grimm. "They had a couple good returns last week, but we're used to that. We went up against Josh Cribbs last week and we've just got to stick to our game plan and everything will take care of itself."
Game Status Added to Injury Report
The Buccaneers released their final injury report of the week on Friday, and as is the weekly NFL procedure, this one included such game-status designations as out, doubtful, questionable and probable.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay does have one player, Koutouvides, who has already been ruled out for Sunday's game in Charlotte. Koutouvides sustained an ankle injury in practice on Thursday, has not practiced since and won't play against the Panthers.
Two other Buccaneers are considered questionable for Sunday's game: running back Kareem Huggins (groin) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee). On Friday, Morris referred to both of them as game-time decisions. Huggins did not practice on Thursday or Friday; Winslow was limited on Friday after sitting out the week's first two practices.
"He's experiencing some pain," said Morris of Winslow. "We'll get him to the game and he'll be a game-time decision. It's the same battle he fights; it's nothing new. It's the same battle he's been fighting his whole career and we'll just deal with it. He was like that all 16 weeks last season. He did everything he could do to get out there and play for us. It worked out well for us."
With defensive tackle Roy Miller (illness) and guard Davin Joseph (quad) removed from the report as the week progressed, the only other Bucs on the team's Friday injury list were quarterback Josh Freeman (thumb) and fullback Chris Pressley (knee). Both practiced without limitations on Friday and are considered probable for the game.
The Panthers' final injury report is actually a bit more extensive than the Buccaneers. It was reduced by one player on Friday, but not in a helpful way, as wide receiver Charly Martin (hamstring) was placed on injured reserve. In addition, Jeff Otah (knee), slated to be the team's starter at right tackle, will miss his second consecutive 2010 game after being ruled out on Friday.
Defensive tackle Louis Leonard (elbow), also listed as a starter on the Panthers' depth chart, is considered doubtful to suit up against the Buccaneers. Carolina also has three players in the questionable category, all due to ankle injuries: defensive end Tyler Brayton, cornerback Chris Gamble and linebacker Jordan Senn. Brayton and Gamble, two more starters on the depth chart, did not practice on Friday after both were limited on Thursday. Senn practiced in a limited capacity.
As mentioned above, quarterback Matt Moore is expected to play after practicing without limitations on Thursday and Friday. He is considered probable for Sunday's game, as are wide receiver Brandon LaFell (hamstring) and running back Tyrell Sutton (shoulder).