The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. kickoff at Bank of America Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
DL Ndamukong Suh. The first time the Bucs and Panthers met this season, in Week Two, Tampa Bay's defense recorded five sacks and got much of its pressure straight up the middle. That included two sacks by Suh, who has four QB takedowns on the season and is tied for the team lead with 12 quarterback hits. From the start of the 2019 season through the midway point of 2020, Suh recorded 60 QB pressures, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which ranked fourth among all interior defensive linemen in the league. Suh is also a critical piece in Tampa Bay's top-ranked rush defense, which gave up 138 yards last Sunday to the Saints but is still averaging just 77.9 yards allowed per game. The Panthers' rushing attack frequently attacks straight up the middle, and with good success. According to the NFLGSIS stat service, the Panthers have run 76 of their 226 rushing plays up the gut, which is the sixth-highest total in the league. Carolina has averaged 4.43 yards per carry on those plays, the 13th-best rate in the NFL. After getting double-teamed very frequently in 2019, Suh has seen more one-on-one opportunities this year as opposing offenses key more on outside linebackers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, and as he noted last week, he hopes to continue seeing single blocks the rest of the way.
WR Chris Godwin. The Bucs' leading receiver in 2019 returned from a finger fracture last weekend to catch three passes for 41 yards, and Wide Receivers Coach Kevin Garver said he only saw one instance in which the injury kept Godwin from making a play. While Godwin still has pins in his fingers and is playing with a splint, he says that the digit is quickly getting better. Last year, Godwin absolutely terrorized the Panthers, recording 18 catches for 272 yards and a touchdown in two meetings. Injuries have limited the fourth-year receiver in 2020 after his 2019 Pro Bowl breakout campaign, as he has missed four games due to the finger, a hamstring pull and a concussion. After racking up 1,333 yards and ranking second in the NFL in receiving yards per game last year, Godwin has been limited, by circumstance mostly, to 320 yards through the first nine games of 2020. But he impressed Garver with his toughness in last Sunday's contest and, given some better injury luck down the stretch, could be primed for a big second half. With the addition of Antonio Brown, the Buccaneers may be emphasizing three and four-receiver sets in the coming weeks, and Godwin usually operates out of the slot in those alignments. Last season, he was one of the NFL's best slot receivers, leading the league in receiving yards on passes down the middle of the field.
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul. Pierre-Paul missed both games against Carolina last year as he was recovering from an offseason neck injury but he dropped Teddy Bridgewater for a sack in Week Two of this year, and he leads the Buccaneers in 2020 with 6.5 sacks. He also has 35 tackles, four tackles for loss, eight quarterback hits, one pass defensed, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery as the 31-year-old edge rusher (he'll turn 32 on New Year's Day) has shown no signs of slowing down. Since he primarily rushes from the right end of the Bucs' front, he'll be going up against one or more replacement blockers with left tackle Russell Okung out. Carolina has done a decent job protecting Bridgewater, ranking 15th in the NFL with a sacks-allowed-per-pass-play rate of 5.79%, although Tampa Bay got to him five times in the season's earlier meeting. Getting pressure on the opposing quarterback has been a key determining factor for the Buccaneers this season in terms of the final outcome; Tampa Bay is 5-1 this year when it records at least three sacks in a game. Pierre-Paul, who has 27.5 sacks in just 33 games as a Buccaneer, has seven more games to rack up at least 3.5 more QB takedowns and record his fourth career season with double-digit sacks. Getting closer to that mark on Sunday would significantly increase the Buccaneers chances of leaving Charlotte with a seventh victory.
T Donovan Smith. As important as pressuring the opposing quarterback has been to the Buccaneers this season, limiting that same pressure on Tom Brady has been even more critical. In six of their nine games so far, the Bucs have allowed two or fewer sacks of Brady, and they've won all of those contests. Every time they've allowed three or more sacks, they've lost. Obviously, Smith, Brady's blind side protector, has been an important part of that typically good protection, though last week he and replacement left guard Joe Haeg weren't particularly in sync and Brady felt some pressure from the left side late in the game. This week, Smith's long-time linemate Ali Marpet will be out as well. Smith, who has played in and started 88 of a possible 89 games since he was drafted in 2015, has good size and nimble feet and has had stretches of dominance in his career. Carolina's pass rush hasn't been particularly productive in 2020 but it does include a potential star-in-the-making in second-year defensive end Brian Burns. The Panthers use Burns on both ends of the line, likely dependent upon where the tight end is lined up, but he should see plenty of one-on-one snaps against Smith.
S Antoine Winfield, Jr. Winfield did something in Week Nine that he hasn't done often in the first half of his rookie season: He "only" recorded seven tackles, with no other marks in the stat sheet against New Orleans. Winfield is third on the team with 51 tackles but most of his performances have also included some sort of standout play, such as his win-preserving breakup of a two-point conversion in Week Eight or his first career interception in Week Nine. Winfield has shown a veteran-like understanding of what opposing offenses are trying to do; on that two-point stop against the Giants he was 6.7 yards away from targeted running back Dion Lewis when quarterback Daniel Jones hit the top of his drop, according to Next Gen Stats, but he was able to get through traffic and arrive in time to blow up the play. The Next Gen heat map that shows the various places Winfield has lined up at the start of a play this year looks like a Rorschach inkblot with hot spots everywhere from the edge of the line of scrimmage to 20 yards deep. The Buccaneers liked Winfield's versatility and demonstrated playmaking ability when they chose him in the second round of the 2020 draft, and they've made great use of the former while he has proved that the latter translates to the NFL level. The Buccaneers, who lead the NFL with 16 takeaways, will probably need a few big plays from their defense to overcome a strong Carolina offense, and Winfield is as good a bet as any player on that unit to provide them.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 10 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 45.9%/27.8%/54.2%. The Buccaneers' offense never got into a rhythm against the Saints in Week Nine, and that was largely due to struggles on third down. In Tampa Bay's six wins this season, it has converted nearly 46% of its third-down attempts, but in its three losses that drops to 27.8%, including a 1-for-9 performance against New Orleans. The Buccaneers hope to do far better in this category in Week 10 against the Panthers, who have the worst defensive third-down percentage in the NFL, at 54.2%. No NFL team has ever finished a season with a third-down defensive rate higher than 50%, though both Carolina and Tennessee are on track through the first half of this season.
- 96.9%/96.7%/86.7%/93.9%. Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium will feature the NFL's two most reliable offenses in terms of turning red zone incursions into points. The Buccaneers rank first with a red zone scoring percentage of 96.9% while the Panther are just behind at 96.7%. Both teams have only failed to score on one red zone drive, though Tampa Bay's missed opportunity came just last week on goal-to-go from the one. The Buccaneers rank higher in opponent scoring percentage than do the Panthers – those are the third and fourth numbers above – though it's not really an appreciable difference.
- 104-72. After their near upset of the defending-champion Chiefs last weekend, it seems clear that the Panthers are a better team than their 3-6 record would indicate. Five of Carolina's six losses have come by a single score and five of the six have come against teams that currently have a winning record, including the Buccaneers in Week Two. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said, "It's frustrating to not be finishing right now, winning these games." Carolina has been outscored by 32 points in the second halves of their first nine games, while topping their opponents by a 128-112 margin in the first halves.
- 6-0. Not much explanation needed here. The Buccaneers have won the turnover battle in six of their nine games so far this season, and they have won all six of those contests. Each of the three times they've lost or even tied the turnover battle, the Buccaneers have lost.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- The Panthers will be without their best offensive player Sunday, as running back Christian McCaffrey will miss the game due to a right shoulder injury he suffered against Kansas City last weekend. McCaffrey had just returned from the ankle injury he suffered at Raymond James Stadium in Week Two, and he made an instant impact with 151 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. As was the case during McCaffrey's previous lengthy absence, Mike Davis will take over the majority of the workload in the backfield.
- The Buccaneers won't have their usual starting five on the offensive line again in Week 10 after left guard Ali Marpet did not make the trip to Charlotte.
- The Panthers will be without their starting left tackle for the third week in a row. Russell Okung, who was acquired in an offseason trade with the Chargers, is currently sidelined with a calf injury. Carolina has started two different players – Greg Little and Dennis Daley – in Okung's place and have also given snaps to Trent Scott.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE PANTHERS
Carolina's offense is loaded with dangerous weapons even with Christian McCaffrey out of the picture, including one of the NFL's most productive wideout tandems in Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore. Teddy Bridgewater, in his first year with the club, has fit in well and is directing that Panther attack with efficiency and an ability to spread the ball around. Carolina's defense has been lacking somewhat in terms of applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks but hasn't given up a lot of big plays in the passing game. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday:
The Panthers really do move wide receiver Curtis Samuel all over the chessboard, and to very good effect. Samuel has seen the highest percentage of his snaps in the slot, split pretty evenly between the left and right sides, where he has taken 167 snaps. However, he's also lined up wide on 67 snaps, tight against the offensive line on 56 snaps and in the backfield on 33 snaps. Among NFL players listed as wide receivers, Samuel has the second-most carries, having run the ball 22 times for 104 yards and two touchdowns. He's also third on the team with 38 catches, second among wideouts to Robby Anderson, has added two touchdowns through the air. The Buccaneers' defense will have to be aware of the possibility of an end-around when Samuel is on the field, and in the past he's even been in the middle of some tricky reverse plays against them. He is also frequently targeted by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on third downs. Over his last two games, Samuel has caught 13 passes for 136 yards and both of his receiving touchdowns while also running six times for 36 yards and another score. Last weekend, Samuel was on the field for 71% of the Panthers' offensive snaps – his highest figure this season – and that was with Christian McCaffrey in the mix.
Second-year defensive end Brian Burns picked up his fourth sack of the season this past week…on Wednesday. A review of one of the plays from the Panthers game in Kansas City changed a statistical ruling from a tackle on a run play to a sack for Burns, and that put him in the lead on the Panthers' defense in that category. Burns also leads Carolina with 12 quarterback hits and he has forced three fumbles while breaking up two passes. Burns, a first-round pick in 2019, has a very quick first step; in fact, from his rookie season through the first of 2020, the former Florida State star has posted an average get-off at the snap of 0.74 seconds, according to Next Gen Stats, which ranks third among all players in that span. Burns had a promising rookie campaign with 7.5 sacks, but with some offseason turnover in the Panthers' personnel up front he is playing a lot more than he did last year. Burns was on the field for just 43% of the Panthers' defensive snaps in 2019 but he's played 75% of them this year. The Panthers' coaches rush him from both edges of the line and even occasionally have him stand up off the line as an outside linebacker when they go to three-man fronts.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On why the Buccaneers have been good at bouncing back from bad games this season:
"I think we have great leadership, and when you have really good leadership, very seldom will you ever lose two in a row. We've always preached that to our guys. This week of practice has been outstanding – just as if when we won our last ballgame. The one thing I can never complain about is our guys' work ethic. [Their] attention to detail has been outstanding. I would anticipate them to bounce back pretty good."