A three-game losing streak has put the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a bit of a precarious situation, albeit with about 60% of the season still to be played. Fortunately, a visit from the Carolina Panthers gives the Buccaneers an opportunity, at least, to get back on firmer ground.
An unusual 2017 schedule with most of its intra-divisional matchups backloaded has the Buccaneers preparing to play an NFC South opponent for the first time. Three of Tampa Bay's next four games, in fact, are against division foes, though the Buccaneers are looking no further down the schedule than Sunday. Despite that losing streak, Tampa Bay is only two wins behind the 4-3 Panthers and 4-2 New Orleans Saints. The Atlanta Falcons sit in the middle, at 3-3. The story of the NFC South is still largely unwritten. The Bucs would like to begin authoring their own comeback this weekend, though it will be a challenge against a very good Carolina squad.
"When you're not where you want to be within your division, the fastest way to catch up is to beat one of the team's ahead of you, because it brings them down and raises us up," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "[The Panthers are a] very, very talented, well-coached football team that's just two seasons removed from playing in the Super Bowl. [They] have won our division multiple times in the last five years. Even though they've been a little bit up and down on the scoreboard, when you watch the tape they have a tough scheme and really good players running it."
Pictures of the Buccaneers' players arriving for their Week 8 game against the Panthers.
The Bucs are quite familiar with most of those talented players, from Cam Newton to Luke Kuechly and Kelvin Benjamin to the rejuvenated Julius Peppers. The new face in the bunch is rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, who leads the team in receptions and is being used all over the formation.
"They do a lot with him," said Koetter. "Before last week's game, I think his touches were pretty even. I think it was like 35 catches, 37 runs – it changed, I know, a little bit last week. He's a dangerous player. He's one of several. You've got to remember: They're playing without their All-Pro tight end, Greg Olsen, so I think with Olsen being out that has increased the touches for McCaffrey. They've also got two talented receivers in Benjamin and [Devin] Funchess."
McCaffrey's versatility and the unpredictable places he lines up will make him a challenge for the Buccaneers' linebackers, but that group is back at full strength after some injury issues and hopefully on the verge of turning in some big plays. Lavonte David had his second critical takeaway in as many games last Sunday in Buffalo but his primary running mate, Kwon Alexander, may have been a little rusty after missing most of five weeks with a hamstring injury.
"There's definitely something to that," said Koetter of Alexander needing time to get readjusted to the game. "I think the only time that doesn't affect a player, being out three or four weeks, is if it's a veteran that's played multiple years. I know Kwon can play a lot better than he played last week. Another good example of that is Lavonte David. Lavonte David played a heck of a game last week in his second game back."
If McCaffrey and company are able to put up points against a struggling Buccaneers' defense, the home team at least has the offensive firepower to respond. The Bucs have scored 60 points in the last two weeks and have the NFL's number-one ranked passing attack in terms of yards. Quarterback Jameis Winston has done a good job of getting his wide array of weapons involved – last week was O.J. Howard's biggest game yet – but that has largely been a matter of taking what the defense allows.
"That's just the way it worked out in that game," said Koetter of Howard's six catches and two touchdowns in Buffalo. "When we're game-planning, of course we try to get certain matchups. You're going to try to get Mike [Evans] on somebody and DeSean [Jackson] on somebody – you're always trying to do that. What people always forget, every time, is that the defense ultimately gets the chalk last, because they decide the matchups. They decide if it's man or zone. They decide if they're going to double-cover Mike Evans or not. At that point, Jameis has to go through his progression based on what the defense does and get it to the right guy. That's what Jameis did a really good job of. We're not going out there saying, 'Hey, Jameis, we'd like to get four guys with 60 yards.' We're going out there saying, 'Hey, we need to score points.'"
Winston will make his 39th consecutive start on Sunday despite being limited in practice by a shoulder injury. However, Tampa Bay's defense is down a few key players in the secondary, with starting cornerbacks Brent Grimes (shoulder) and Robert McClain (concussion) unable to suit up. Special teams ace Josh Robinson will also miss his third straight game due to a concussion.
In addition to Grimes, McClain and Robinson, the Buccaneers have deactivated tight end Antony Auclair, center Joe Hawley, DT Sealver Siliga and T Leonard Wester.
Carolina will be without starting center Ryan Kalil, but linebacker Luke Kuechly is back after missing one game with a concussion. The Panthers seven inactive players are Kalil, FB Alex Armah, DE Bryan Cox, Jr., QB Garrett Gilbert, cornerback LaDarius Gunter, tackle John Theus and running back Fozzy Whittaker. Tyler Larsen will start for Kalil at center.
The Buccaneers and Panthers kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be televised regionally by FOX and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.