The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are banged up, but the Monday night spotlight is a perfect balm for their aches and pains.
The Buccaneers return to Monday Night Football for the first time since 2013 and do so with a divisional road game against the defending NFC South champs, a similarly battered Carolina Panthers squad. The Bucs are looking to snap a three-game losing streak and will be relying on some down-the-depth-chart contributors to do so with six players ruled out for the game due to injury.
INFO: HOW TO WATCH THE GAME
"I think the players are obviously excited [for] Monday Night Football," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "You dream of playing Monday Night Football as a player and as a coach, when you're the only game on. There are almost always games on TV these days, but not on Monday nights. That's the only show in town. A divisional game on the road, a win counts double, three-way tie for second place in our division right now – there's a lot at stake for us. We've got some guys that are going to be making their debuts, some guys moving around to fill in at different positions. It's a great opportunity."
The Bucs' list of unavailable players is concentrated on the defensive line (Robert Ayers, Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald) and in the running game (running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims and tight end Luke Stocker, with Sims going on injured reserve on Monday). Of course, the Panthers counter with an inactive league MVP in starting quarterback Cam Newton, as well as left tackle Michael Oher, starting running back Jonathan Stewart and rookie defenders James Bradberry and Vernon Butler. The Newton absence, in particular, changed how the Bucs approached Monday's game, with veteran passer Derek Anderson set to fill in.
"You know division teams better than you know anybody else that you play," said Koetter. "Of course, the preparation this week was a little bit unique because of the fact that they've got the reigning MVP in Cam Newton not [slated] to play. It's a totally different offense [with] Derek Anderson in there. They're a unique offense in that their quarterback is the feature of their running game and their passing game. Totally different preparation for our defense based on who the quarterback is. Defensively, other than some personnel, they haven't changed their scheme too much. Sean McDermott, their D-Coordinator, Ron Rivera, a defensive head coach – they've been pretty consistent and very good on defense."
The Panthers made it all the way to the Super Bowl last year based largely on Newton's MVP play and a very stingy defense. Carolina's 'D' has not been as good through the first quarter of this season, giving up close to 30 points per game, but it still boasts such starts as linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, defensive tackle Kawann Short and defensive end Charles Johnson. The division-leading Atlanta Falcons surprisingly put up 48 points and nearly 600 yards on the Panthers last weekend, which is both instructive and potentially misleading.
"It's not like Atlanta threw it every down," said Koetter, who knows that Falcons QB Matt Ryan topped 500 yards. "Atlanta did a really nice job of mixing and Atlanta had the lead so they were able to mix run and pass and they ran the ball very well. That would be a great plan for us to follow
"If you can mix the run and the pass that helps slow that pass-rush down. I don't think they've lost their pass-rush, I just think Atlanta did a good job of keeping them off balance. As far as the yardage, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones were both on fire in that game last week. They got beat on some double-moves. It was one of those games where Atlanta, everything they threw down the field they hit at a crazy percentage. That's hard to do, would be hard to repeat, and I'm sure Carolina was working to shore that up. That's not indicative of what kind of defense Carolina plays."
The Buccaneers' list of seven game-day inactives is made up of rookie guard Caleb Benenoch and six injured players: Martin, Stocker, Ayers, McCoy, McDonald and WR Cecil Shorts. Three players who have been added to the roster since Tuesday are suited up and expected to play: defensive tackle John Hughes, linebacker Cameron Lynch and running back Russell Hansbrough.
In addition to their five injured players (Newton, Oher, Butler, Bradberry and Stewart), the Panthers also declared WR Dameire Byrd and LB Jeremy Cash inactive. Usual starting right tackle Mike Remmers will flip to the left side in Oher's absence, with Daryl Williams stepping in at right tackle. With Bradberry out and Bene Benwikere released near the end of the week, Carolina will go with a starting cornerback duo of Robert McClain and rookie Daryl Worley.
The Buccaneers take on the Panthers in Week Five on Monday night, with kickoff scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET at Bank of America Stadium. The game will be broadcast nationally by ESPN and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.