The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4) return to divisional play on Sunday in Charlotte, taking on the 5-2 Carolina Panthers, who are coming off consecutive impressive wins over Philadelphia and Baltimore. Dating back to last season, the Panthers have won nine straight games at Bank of America Stadium. Quarterback Cam Newton is performing at the level that won him league MVP honors in 2015 and is once again in the conversation for that award. He and second-year back Christian McCaffrey, who plays virtually every snap, have given Carolina the league's second-ranked rushing attack. If the Buccaneers want to get back to .500 and get their second road win within the division, they'll need to slow down that ground game and avoid letting the Panthers' talented front seven on defense create the turnovers that have plagued Tampa Bay this season.
The Buccaneers and Panthers renew their rivalry at 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday. As we wait for kickoff, here are five specific issues to ponder:
1. Can the Buccaneers keep Cam Newton from hurting them with his legs?
Cam Newton's current 97.4 passer rating is close to his own career high, but it's more than 20 points below that of the Buccaneers starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. What more than closes that gap is Newton's ability to sting opposing defense with his legs. Newton has run 62 times for 309 yards and a team-leading four touchdowns through seven games, and the Panthers find a wide variety of ways to make use of his rushing ability.
"The thing that makes them different from almost every other team is it's not just their run game [and] their pass game, but their quarterback run game," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "And they're running a lot of things where he's a threat to run it. RPOs, hitting the glance route – they've scored three or four touchdowns on that, so your defense is seeing run with a pulling guard and a back coming across. Then you've got the pullers: McCaffrey and one of their backs coming across and all of a sudden Cam's pulling it and they've got a quarterback run off of that. Then they've got the bootleg where all the action's going one way, Cam is running the other. Cam Newton is part quarterback, part running back – super quarterback and part running back. They just have an added dimension of quarterback run that the defense has to defend."
Tampa Bay's defense has been mostly effective against the run this season, dropping to 10th in the league after giving up 138 yards to Joe Mixon and the Bengals last Sunday. But, while they've faced a couple decently-mobile quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield and Mitchell Trubisky, this is the first time they've had to take on an offense that is making a purposeful effort to get the quarterback involved in the rushing attack. Tampa Bay's young defense has had some issues with communication and confusion this season – somewhat less so the last two games – and having to divine whether Newton is going to run or pass makes the challenge even tougher.
"Big challenge," said Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner. "This guy has got a cannon for an arm, been very successful in his quarterback play in his career, probably playing as good as he has at any time coming off a shoulder surgery. From a running standpoint, a scrambling standpoint, shoot, he's really tearing it up. He's five-yards-plus a carry, so this – like every game – involves every defender. They're going to certainly demand every participation from all of our players in terms of the run-pass game what they present to us on defense."
2. Will Ryan Fitzpatrick maintain his hot hand now that he's back in the starting lineup?
As alluded to above, Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has a league-leading 119.3 passer rating, which he will put on the line as he returns to a starting role in place of the turnover-prone Jameis Winston. Fitzpatrick was red-hot to begin the season, when he was playing for a suspended Winston, and was so again when he relieved Winston last Sunday and led a rousing comeback in Cincinnati.
Tampa Bay's passing attack leads the NFL and is on a record pace, in terms of yards produced. That's the product of a ridiculously talented group of pass-catchers, but Fitzpatrick has made it work with his accurate and timely passing, and his command of the offense.
"I think Ryan has just done a really good job of putting the ball on the money," said Koetter. "On the deep ball, sometimes that's over the inside shoulder, sometimes it's over the outside shoulder, sometimes it's a back shoulder – like the one right in front of our bench last week to Mike [Evans]. He's just consistently put the ball where it needs to be put. We have guys that have been getting open over the top on all those kind of routes and we have size to throw back shoulders and he's just hit them at a consistent rate, put the ball on the money and they've made the plays for him."
Fitzpatrick returns against a defense that may provide a tougher challenge than he faced last week against the Bengals' 32-ranked defense. Carolina ranks 13th overall on defense and 18th against the pass, but most notably they can take the ball away and get the quarterback on the ground. The Panthers already have nine interceptions in seven games – as compared to one for the Buccaneers' defense – and 18 quarterback sacks. Fitzpatrick has the hot hand and all the weapons, but he also has a serious test awaiting him in Charlotte.
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.
3. What kind of running game will the Bucs be able to muster against the Panthers' talented front seven?
Tampa Bay's rushing attack got off to a slow start but has shown definite signs of life the past three weeks, averaging 120.3 yards per game and 4.57 yards per carry in that span. Some of that has included quarterback scrambles, but Peyton Barber had a strong showing last Sunday in Cincinnati with 85 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
Given the explosive nature of their passing attack, the Buccaneers aren't likely to become a run-first team anytime soon. But more effective – and more frequent running – would probably help that aerial game be even tougher to stop, and less likely to turn the ball over.
"I think for those people that want our running game to be more productive, we have to run the ball more," said Koetter. "I say that every time I get asked about it. You can't run the ball a few times a game and think you're going to get better at your run game – you're not. The best running teams keep running it. The best passing teams keep passing it."
Barber started this week slowly due to an ankle injury but was a full participant in practice by Friday and is ready to go. Unfortunately, rookie Ronald Jones, who has gradually been taking on a larger role in the offense, will be sidelined for at least this game and perhaps longer due to a hamstring injury. Rookie Shaun Wilson will be active and could get a small package of plays but the bulk of the running game is going to fall on Barber's shoulders.
From a play-calling standpoint, the ultimate outcome will depend on what type of situation the Buccaneers put themselves in early. A quick deficit means less running, and that has happened several times this season.
"I think it's improving," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken of the Bucs' rushing attack. "I think you see some of that. I think we've got to call it more. If we stop turning it over and stop getting down so much, it won't put us in a situation where the numbers end up being where they're at. You've got to put yourself in a position where you're able to run it, which we have done a much better job the last few weeks. We've gained more confidence that way."
4. Which team will win on third down?
Turnovers will probably be the deciding factor on Sunday if either team gets well ahead in that category. If it's a low-turnover game, however, the next battle that may decide the outcome is third downs.
The Buccaneers' offense has been among the league's best at converting third downs, succeeding on 47.0% of their attempts. That ranks fourth in the NFL, and over the last three weeks they've run at a 53.8% clip. Carolina's defense, meanwhile, has been almost as tough in that situation, allowing a third-down success rate of 35.4% that stands seventh in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, the Carolina offense (40.7%) and the Tampa Bay defense (38.6%) both rank right around the middle of the pack. Tampa Bay's efforts in this regard have improved in the past two weeks since Duffner took over as the coordinator; in those two games, the Bucs allowed only eight of 27 third downs to be converted, for a stellar 29.6% opponent success rate.
Carolina's offense hasn't generated a lot of downfield plays but it has been able to keep drives moving. If the Buccaneers' defense can continue its improvement on third downs it could keep Newton and the Panthers from controlling the ball. And when the football is back in the Buccaneers' hands, then third downs will become strength against strength, and the outcome will be pivotal.
5. Can Jason Pierre-Paul keep his streak going and set a new franchise record?
The first hurdle for Pierre-Paul has been cleared: He overcame his ribs and foot injuries this week and has been cleared to play on Sunday against the Panthers. That means he'll have a chance to build on his impressive streak of six straight games with at least one quarterback sack.
That has already tied a team record, set by the great Simeon Rice in 2002, so one JPP takedown of Newton on Sunday would set a new standard. Pierre-Paul is also in the running for the NFL's sack lead, as one of six players with 8.0 on the season, two behind leader Aaron Donald. All of the other six players on the list have already played eight games to Pierre-Paul's seven.
The complicating factor, of course, is that Newton is not an easy man to get on the ground. He's only taken 10 sacks in seven games so far this season; not only can he elude pass-rushers but he's big enough to shrug them off if they do get to him.
"The guy's a good quarterback, he's been in the game," said Pierre-Paul. "He's a vet now. He's my size, so we've just got to bring our energy. Cam is just that guy."
While Tampa Bay's offense has had trouble protecting the football, the Bucs' defense has not been able to come up with a single takeaway in the last four games (Tampa Bay had one on special teams against Cleveland). Pressure on the quarterback can increase the chances of takeaway opportunities if the defense can force hurried or off-target throws and bad decisions. The Bucs' best pass-rusher so far this year is Pierre-Paul, and if he can remain hot he could also end the weekend with a new franchise record.