If you played a little NFL word association, you'd probably find some teams returning the same instant responses over and over again. Colts? Peyton. Dolphins? Wildcat. Ravens? Defense. Jets? Rex.
And Carolina? Allow Stylez G. White, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive end, to handle this one.
Give White, or any Buccaneer defender, a little more time to expand and the answer will still remain pretty simple.
"Running, running backs, those two running backs – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewarts," said White, at the beginning of his team's preparations for another battle with their NFC South foe. "We're in another battle in the trenches with them, just playing the run. That's who they are. That's another big challenge for us this week."
Carolina ranked third in the NFL in rushing in 2008, and third again in 2009. Even with guard Keydrick Vincent, a starter on both of those teams, now playing on the Buccaneers' line, the Panthers will undoubtedly attempt to be a power running team again in 2010. The Buccaneers hope to stop that from occurring this weekend in Charlotte, but the Panthers are likely to succeed in that effort overall in 2010.
"This is a team that's going to force its will on you and they're going to run the ball," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Now, you can't let it kill you. You can't let it take you out. You can't let it dominate the game. You can't let it take over the game. You've got to tackle and you've got to get off on third down when you have the opportunity."
There is simply too much talent in the Panthers' two-headed backfield monster for them to be shut down every week.
"I've never seen a man with better contact balance than Jonathan Stewart," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "When he gets hit he stays on his feet. He runs sideways better than anyone I've seen through a hole. He's able to lower the boom on you and then after he gets out into the open grass he can run away from you. DeAngelo Williams, he creates different problems. He has the same type of jump-cut moves except he can absolutely disappear in that hole and run away from you and be dynamic with it. And he's also powerful. The combination of those two guys remaining fresh throughout the game is very dangerous.
"It's very difficult to deal with, and the way to stop those guys is to get them off the grass, to force them into situations where they have to throw it. That's tough to do when you've got two dynamic running backs like that and you've got a physical type of mentality of their head coach."
The Buccaneers certainly know they can stop the Panthers' ground game. In the first meeting between the two teams in 2008 Williams gained just 27 yards on 11 carries and Stewart added 12 yards on six totes as Carolina ran for 40 total yards in a 27-3 Bucs win. However, the Panthers have won the last three games between the two teams, with Williams and Stewart piling up the yards each time. Carolina's ground-game dominance peaked in the first meeting of 2009 when the Panthers ran 15 times on a 16-play, 80-yard drive that produced the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs don't consider past results to be any indication of what will happen this weekend, but they are certainly studying those recent games closely. Even rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who wasn't around for any of those Bucs-Panthers matchups, knows about that 16-play drive in '09.
"This is it," said McCoy of getting back on the plus side against the Panthers' ground game. "This is all they've been talking about. They made it so key today in the film room. It's going to be a barnburner and you've got to be ready. You've got to strap up, lock down and go play. We're going to do our best to stop them."
The Panthers have made some adjustments up front, necessitated by Vincent's departure and some injuries in 2009. Jordan Gross is back at left tackle after spending the second half of 2009 on injured reserve. Travelle Wharton, who moved from left guard to left tackle after Gross's injury, is back at his original spot. That has pushed Mackenzy Bernadeau, who took over at left guard after Wharton's shift, to right guard, where he replaces Vincent. Jeff Otah is designated as the starting right tackle but didn't play in the opener due to a knee injury, and he did not practice on Wednesday. Geoff Schwartz, who started the last three games of 2009 at that spot, filled in again in the opener.
Even with all of that, however, the Panthers continue to provide good blocking up front.
"They've got great offensive linemen who are moving people out," said White. "We're looking at film and they're just burying people right now. It's going to be really tight for us."
Obviously, the Buccaneers can't just simply pack nine men into the box and load up against the run on every play (though Steve Smith would certainly love that). Young quarterback Matt Moore has had several good outings against the Buccaneers, and Smith is always a threat to go the distance. The Buccaneers can't even be sure what sorts of running plays the Panthers will emphasize this time around. But they do know that keeping Carolina from getting into a rhythm on the ground is their most important goal on Sunday.
"We're not sure what they're going to do, but they're going to run the football," said linebacker Quincy Black. "It's their M.O., it's what they hang their hat on. You've got to prepare for that."
McCoy Shows Versatility
Obviously, the Buccaneers are somewhat of a different team than they were when they last faced the Panthers and their dynamic ground game, especially up front. Tampa Bay's defensive line has new starters in three of its four positions in 2010, including both defensive tackle spots. One of those new DT starters is 2010 first-round draft pick Gerald McCoy.
Tampa Bay believes it drafted a total-package interior defender in McCoy, one who can both rush the passer and make a big difference against the run. As the young player works his way into the team's defensive schemes, the Buccaneers are actually discovering that he can do even more.
Sharp observers might have seen an example of that on the first play of the Bucs' season opener against Cleveland on Sunday. Though White is the team's starter at right end and McCoy the starter at three-technique tackle, on this snap McCoy slid out to White's spot and Ryan Sims came in to play three-technique.
McCoy played more than 50 snaps in his first real game, and though the majority of that did come at his starting spot, he was also used on the end and as part of a package called "Redskin" that features just three down lineman plus Black as an upright pass-rusher on the edge. In this type of defense, McCoy is playing a position akin to an end in a 3-4 front.
"When you go out there with a rookie and you play him 50 or so snaps and he can play three different positions in a game, that's just increased value," said Morris. "It makes us a bigger, faster more physical football team and it also makes us more dynamic. It also makes offenses around the league play the 'Where's Waldo' game with him a little bit. You've got to find him. He's not always going to be lined up at three-technique so you can double-team him with your tackle and your guard. He may mess you up."
Morris said the Buccaneers' staff has chosen to be this creative with their rookie because he has proved to be both talented and hard-working. Because he pays so much attention to his craft, McCoy is capable of keeping many different assignments clear in his head.
"He has a dynamic that's special," said Morris. "He's unique. He has great athleticism, enough athleticism to play end. He also plays three-technique for us and brings an elite quickness to that three-technique. When he goes into our rush package he's able to go outside with Quincy, himself, [Brian] Price and Stylez G. White so he brings a great athleticism there. He can drop [into coverage]. He's smart. He's sharp. And when he got him I found out he was even more conscientious than I knew. What I mean by that is that he takes the game outside the building and goes home with it. He sleeps with it and he brings it back and he's able to carry it over into the next day. He still makes his mistakes, but his growth and development in the short time that he's been here has been awesome."
Roster Moves and Injury Update
The Buccaneers made another switch to their eight-man practice squad on Wednesday after rookie defensive end Erik Lorig cleared waivers. The Buccaneers released Lorig on Tuesday when cornerback Aqib Talib was re-activated but quickly signed him back to the practice squad. To make room on that crew, the Bucs released linebacker Lee Robinson.
In addition to allowing young talent to be developed, the practice squad also helps NFL teams conduct more efficient practices. Injuries from games can thin specific positions, but the extra players on the practice squad can step in mid-week to keep drills running smoothly.
That wasn't much of a problem for the Buccaneers on Wednesday, however. Only two players were held out of practice as the week of Panther preparations began, and it doesn't look as if either is in danger of missing Sunday's game. Defensive tackle Roy Miller sat out due to illness and tight end Kellen Winslow was given a normal day off as part of the team's ongoing plan to keep him in top shape.
Running back Kareem Huggins was limited in practice due to a groin injury, but quarterback Josh Freeman (thumb) and guard Davin Joseph (quad) – the only other players listed on the Bucs' first injury report of the week – both participated fully.
The Panthers began the week with four players not practicing, including Otah. Joining him on the sideline were wide receiver Brandon LaFell (hamstring), defensive tackle Louis Leonard (elbow) and defensive end Tyler Brayton (ankle). Four other Panthers were limited on Wednesday: wide receiver Charly Martin (concussion), quarterback Matt Moore (concussion), linebacker Jordan Senn (ankle) and running back Tyrell Sutton (shoulder). Brayton, Leonard, Otah and Moore are listed as starters on Carolina's depth chart.