Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Kuechly, Davis Do it All for the Panthers

Scouting Report: Pro Bowl LBs Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis drive Carolina's turnover-generating defense….TE Greg Olsen is Cam Newton's favorite target on offense.

A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Panthers.

On Monday night, the 1-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 1-3 Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. It will be the 32nd meeting between the two teams in the regular season, with the Bucs trying to remain undefeated in division play in 2016 (more on the Bucs-Panthers series history).

Like the Buccaneers, the three-time defending division champion Panthers are trying to catch up to the 3-1 Falcons. To set the division standings more to their own liking, the Bucs will need to keep the Panthers from finding that playmaking touch that made them the NFL's leaders in forcing turnovers last year. Tampa Bay's defense may or may not have to face reigning MVP Cam Newton but will certainly need to find a way to slow down prolific tight end Greg Olsen. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face when they play in prime time on Monday in Charlotte.

HEAD COACH

rivera.jpg

Ron Rivera has done something no other head coach has done since the NFC South was formed in 2002: He has led his team to three straight first-place finishes in that division. Prior to the Panthers' current run, no team had ever repeated as NFC South champs. The last of those three title-winning squads also set another high-water mark for the division with a 15-1 season on their way to an appearance in Super Bowl 50. As a result, Rivera won  his second Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year award in the last three seasons.

Carolina's second chance at the Lombardi Trophy (the Panthers lost Super Bowl XXXVIII to New England after the 2003 season) did not produce a title either, but Rivera has clearly helped mold the team into an annual contender. The defending NFC champs are off to a surprising 1-3 start in 2016, but they rebounded from the same record to 12-4 under Rivera in 2013. The Panthers also won their last four games in 2014 to steal the division title before last year's nearly perfect record, which set a franchise record for wins.

Pictures of the Top 10 Panthers in Week 4, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.

Rivera was a linebacker on the famous 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team, which won its first 12 games, and he began his NFL coaching career in Chicago as well, in 1997. In subsequent stops in Philadelphia, Chicago again and San Diego, Rivera became known as one of the NFL's top defensive coordinators, and that eventually led to his first head coaching opportunity in Carolina. Rivera's Panther defenses haven't disappointed, finishing in the top 10 in yards allowed each of the last five years.

Rivera's Panthers have generally formed their offensive identity around a commitment to the run. That was true in 2015, as Carolina boasted the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack and the league's second-highest percentage of running plays at 49.6%. Of course, it helps to have a quarterback who can help to that cause, and Cam Newton is the team's leading rusher in 2016.

The Panthers named Rivera the fourth head coach in their history in January of 2011; since then, Carolina has a 48-35-1 regular-season record and those three division titles. In 2013, Rivera's job had reportedly been in jeopardy after a 1-3 start, on the heels of a 7-9 season that led to the hiring of new general manager, Dave Gettleman.  However, Rivera consciously chose to take a more aggressive approach to play-calling – including some gutsy fourth-down decisions – earning the nickname of "Riverboat Ron" and at the very least providing an easy narrative for the Panthers' incredible 11-1 run to end the season.

OFFENSE

101newton.jpg

Cam Newton led the NFL's highest-scoring offense in 2015, earning league MVP honors for his efforts. While the Panthers have already lost two more times in the first quarter of this season as they did all last year, the offense has not gone missing. Carolina ranks fourth in yards per game (386.5) and sixth in points per game (27.3) and is one of only three teams to rank in the top 10 in both rushing and passing. Newton may be a bit of a question mark for Monday night's game due to a concussion suffered last weekend against Atlanta, but if he's on the field he will remain the same dual rushing-passing threat. His 147 rushing yards lead the team and he has accounted for both Carolina ground scores – not surprising given that he has more rushing touchdowns than any other quarterback in NFL history.

Newton is atop the team rushing chart in part because starting tailback Jonathan Stewart has missed two games and most of a third with a hamstring injury. In his place, the Panthers have used running backs Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne, with a little dash of fullback Mike Tolbert. Whittaker is the smaller of the two tailbacks and is an excellent pass-catcher (second on the team with 18 receptions), while Artis-Payne is thicker and more of a traditional first and second-down back. Listed at 5-9 and 250 pounds, Tolbert is just a load.

Pictures of the Panthers' starting offense and defense, according to the team's depth chart.

Even without Stewart, the Panthers have run the ball fairly well, averaging 4.3 yards per tote and recording the second-fewest negative-yardage carries in the league. That's helped Carolina pick up at least four yards on first-down runs 51.6% of the time, which is sixth-best in the league. However, Carolina's offense has not been nearly as balanced as in recent years, with Newton (and a little bit of Derek Anderson) throwing on 60.3% of the team's plays this year. That's obviously somewhat due to the fact that the Panthers have been chasing scoreboard deficits more often than last year; their pass percentage in the second half of games this year is 66.7%.

Carolina only ran 15 times for 49 yards – a third of those Newton carries – in their Week Four loss to Atlanta, snapping an incredible streak of 35 straight games (including playoffs) in which the team hit triple digits on the ground. The streak was 30 games in the regular season only, which was the longest run by any team in the NFL since the 1970s.

When Newton chooses to throw the ball rather than tuck and run, his favorite target by far is tight end Greg Olsen. Carolina is one of only three teams in the NFL (also Kansas City and Washington) whose leading receiver is a tight end, and Olsen is averaging six catches and 84 yards per game. He has great speed for a tight end, excellent hands and he's a master of finding the open spaces on the field. Carolina makes it tough for opposing teams to take Olsen out of the game by lining him up all over the formation.

Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin returned with a bang from a year on injured reserve, catching six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in a season-opening loss in Denver and then another seven for 108 yards and two scores in Week Two against San Francisco. Benjamin has just three catches on eight targets over the past two weeks but the 6-5, 245-pound receiver still poses a serious challenge for the Buccaneers' mostly 5-10 group of cornerbacks. WR Ted Ginn has struggled a bit with consistency throughout his NFL career but is a very real deep threat, as evidenced by his 16.5 yards per catch.

One way or another – and often that's with a clutch Newton run – the Panthers keep the chains moving on offense. They rank sixth in the NFL with a 46.8% success rate on third downs, helping to explain why only one in eight of their drives, on average, ends in a three-and-out. The Bucs may want to keep an eye on Benjamin on third downs – 14 of his 16 catches have produced first downs, an 87.5% rate that ranks fifth in the NFL.

Carolina's offensive line was considered a significant question mark heading into last season but emerged as a very pleasant surprise, with free agent Michael Oher stabilizing left tackle and former undrafted player Mike Remmers providing consistent play on the other end. In between, the Panthers proved very strong in 2015, with center Ryan Kalil and guard Trai Turner both making the Pro Bowl. The whole line returned intact in 2016, with Andrew Norwell filling out the other guard spot. According to the analysis on the Football Outsiders website, Carolina's line has been the league's 14th-best at run blocking this year but only the 29th-best in pass protection. Indeed, Newton has been sacked 13 times four games and the Panthers' 7.6% sacks-per-pass-play percentage is the NFL's fourth-worst.

Carolina's primary problem on offense has been the same one that has tripped up the Buccaneers: turnovers. Only the Jets (13) and Bucs (11) have more giveaways than the Panthers and their 10, with half of those being interceptions thrown by Newton (Anderson added two more picks last week in relief). Opposing teams have converted those takeaways into a total of 37 points; only the Bucs and Jets have given up more.

Newton and the Panthers also haven't had much luck on deep throws so far this year, though the potential is clearly there; Carolina's 60.4 passer rating on balls that travel more than 20 yards in the air ranks 26th in the league. That said, the Panthers are tied for fifth in the NFL with six touchdowns of 10 or more yards. Also, Carolina has been good around the goal-line, which is often a function of Newton being able to get the ball over the line himself. The Panthers have turned 75% of their red zone incursions into touchdowns, good for fifth in the NFL.

DEFENSE

kuechly.jpg

Last year, the Panthers' defense racked up 24 interceptions and 44 sacks, totals that ranked first and sixth in the NFL respectively. That was a good example of a front line and a secondary complementing each other, and with the Pro Bowl linebacking duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis operating in between, it was an incredibly successful formula. Carolina allowed the sixth-fewest points in the league, at 19.3 per game.

Through a quarter of the season, those interception and sack totals haven't fallen off too much but the formula isn't working as well. With five picks and nine sacks through four games, the Panthers are on pace for 20 and 36, respectively, and they are still tied for fourth and tied for 16th in those categories. But Carolina is giving up 29.5 points per game after Atlanta hung 48 on them in Week Four.

The problem seems to be in a secondary that no longer features all-pro cornerback Josh Norman. The Panthers drafted three cornerbacks after Norman's departure and are starting second-round pick James Bradberry but the Falcons torched them for 503 passing yards last week. Bradberry's toe injury early in the game didn't help but usual slot corner Bene Benwikere did not fare particularly well when pushed to the outside.

Kurt Coleman, who had a terrific 2015 season with seven interceptions, already has 22 tackles, an interception and three quarterback pressures this year at strong safety, but the free safety spot has been a bit of a carousel. Tre Boston is listed as the starter but was replaced in the lineup last week by Colin Jones. Midway through the game, with the Falcons having so much success in the passing game, the Panthers turned to Michael Griffin, who had only signed with the team earlier in the week. He played 51 snaps.

Opponents have been able to throw deep on the Panthers to this point, with a 128.5 passer rating on all passes that go more than 20 yards in the air. Most notably, Carolina foes are throwing very successfully on first downs. Opposing passers have picked up four or more yards on 60.4% of their throws, putting Carolina 29th in the league in that category, and the Panthers have allowed a 129.7 passer rating on first down, which is dead last.

Those numbers may improve if the Panthers' pass rush heats up, which is a very distinct possibility. Defensive tackle Kawann Short emerged as a star last season and formed a dangerous inside duo with Star Lotulelei. And if that wasn't enough, Carolina used its first-round pick in this year's draft to nab Louisiana Tech's Vernon Butler, another talented inside pass-rusher. Short, Lotulelei and Butler already have a sack each, accounting for a third of the team's total.

Kony Ealy has settled in at right end after Jared Allen's retirement and Ealy's own star turn in the Super Bowl last year. Veteran Charles Johnson made the free agency rounds in the spring but elected to re-sign with the Panthers after an injury-plagued 2015. Neither Ealy nor Johnson has been credited with a sack yet, but Johnson does have six quarterback pressures and two forced fumbles.

That front line, particularly the stout middle, has given the Panthers a strong run defense. They have allowed only 90.3 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry, marks that rank 10th and sixth in the NFL, respectively. Carolina has been absolutely the toughest team to run against consistently; that is, they allow a rushing play to gain at least four yards only 31.7% of the team, the lowest percentage allowed in the NFL.

That's also a testament to that aforementioned linebacking duo. Kuechly, the only player not named J.J. Watt to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year over the last four seasons, is second in the NFL with 46 tackles and also already has a sack, an interception and three passes defensed. Kuechly has incredible range and instincts and is capable of making an impact play in coverage, in run defense or in the offensive backfield. Kuechly's 12 interceptions since 2012 are the most for any linebacker in that span, with nobody else even hitting double digits. His running mate, Davis, has eight picks in that same interim, tied for fourth on the list, and is also a rangy playmaker and a sure tackler. Just like Kuechly, he has already made a mark in both the tackle and sack categories this year.

Carolina may be giving up more points than expected but it has still been stingy in the red zone, ranking eighth with an opponent touchdown rate of 45.5%. And the defense is still creating takeaways and points off of them, tying for third in the league so far with 30 points scored off turnovers.

SPECIAL TEAMS

gano.jpg

The Panthers switched out half of their kicking duo from last year's Super Bowl team, letting Brad Nortman depart via free agency and trading for veteran Andy Lee near the end of the preseason. So far, that has worked out well, as Lee ranks third in the league with a 51.1-yard gross punting average and ninth with a 42.3-yard net. Lee had a very long and very good run as the San Francisco 49ers' punter, earning three Pro Bowl trips and three all-pro nods, before spending last year in Cleveland. That run in San Fran included a 2011 season in which he posted a net average of 44.0 yards per punt, the second-best mark in NFL history.

Graham Gano returns to handle the placekicking duties, however, after making 30 of 36 field goal tries last year, along with 56 extra points in 59 tries. Since coming to Carolina from Washington in 2012, Gano has made 84.0% of his field goal attempts, 19th-best in the NFL in that span. He's eight of 10 so far this year. Gano is also an extremely valuable weapon on kickoffs, as most of his blasts are deep enough to force touchbacks. Since 2013, Gano has forced a touchback on 73.6% of his kickoffs, the best mark in the NFL in that span.

Ted Ginn has handled all of the punt and kickoff returns so far this year, and he's had a good amount of success in those roles during his decade-long NFL career, particularly on punts. Though he's averaging just 6.2 yards per punt return so far this year, Ginn's career average is 10.8 (ninth-best in the NFL since 2007) and he has finished at 10.0 or better in each of the previous six seasons. Ginn also owns four career punt return TDs and another three on kickoff returns.

Carolina has had some issues covering punts in the early going, allowing 15.6 yards per attempt, which is fourth-worst in the NFL and includes a 54-yard touchdown by Minnesota's Marcus Sherels in Week Three. Opponents are averaging just 17.3 yards per kickoff return against the Panthers.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Advertising