The 3-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will head to the Queen City for the first of two contests this season against the 1-5 Carolina Panthers. The division matchup is set to kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, October 23 at Bank of America Stadium. After a humbling loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week Six, the Bucs will be looking for their fifth consecutive win in the head-to-head series against Carolina. The Panthers have undergone significant changes in 2022 as results on the football field have been less than desirable, garnering a last-place seat in the NFC South.
After a 1-4 start to the 2022 slate and less than 24 hours following a 37-15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Panthers fired Matt Rhule, instigating change and unleashing a domino effect. Carolina owner David Tepper described, "We're just not getting over the hump," as the contributing factor to the decision. Panthers' Defensive Passing Game Coordinator and Secondary Coach Steve Wilks replaced Rhule as the interim head coach. Wilks spent one season as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 and will strive to cement the Panthers' full-time gig wearing the headset. Defensive Coordinator Phil Snow and Assistant Special Teams Coach Ed Foley were also fired in the team's mass exodus mid-season. Carolina's previous Defensive Assistant Head Coach Al Holcomb assumed the vacated role as defensive coordinator. Holcomb was Wilks' defensive coordinator in Arizona.
Rhule's tenure in Carolina produced an overall record of 11-27 over two-plus seasons, including two straight five-win campaigns. The instability at the quarterback position attributed to the club's offensive woes. Rhule inherited Cam Newton, who was released in 2020 as he rehabbed from both foot surgery and a lingering shoulder injury that hindered his performance. Carolina brought in Teddy Bridgewater, who was promptly released one season after signing a three-year deal. The Panthers then traded with the New York Jets for Sam Darnold, who posted a 13-25 record as the signal-caller in New York. After Darnold suffered a shoulder injury midway through the 2021 season, the Panthers brought back Newton. However, the former first-round pick went 0-5, once again adding to the ongoing quarterback carousel. When Deshaun Watson chose the Cleveland Browns, the Panthers began pursuing Baker Mayfield and finalized the trade in July. The trend continued in 2022 as another shift transpired. Both Darnold and rookie Matt Corral landed on injured reserve 10 days apart, forcing the Panthers to sign Jacob Eason to the practice squad on Sept. 1 as an insurance policy.
Mayfield – the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner – started out the year under center for the Panthers as the most established quarterback of the bunch. The 27-year-old threw for 962 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions in five games. His 192.4 yards per game were on pace for a career low with a 71.9 quarterback rating. Mayfield suffered a high ankle sprain in Week Five, thrusting PJ Walker into the starting role against the Rams. He finished 10-of-16 for 60 yards before suffering a neck injury. The offense relied on quick passes around the line of scrimmage to get Christian McCaffrey to the edge, with the first shot downfield coming in the third quarter. Eason took over and went 3-of-5 for 59 yards and an interception in his cameo in Week Six. Overall, Carolina amassed 203 yards, converted only two of their 10 third-down attempts and registered five three-and-outs.
The Rams found their rhythm in the second half against the Panthers with fly sweeps. With Matthew Stafford at the helm, they pieced together back-to-back touchdown drives sandwiched between the third and fourth quarters. Those drives totaled 141 yards off 15 plays to give Sean McVay and company a 14-point advantage. In the 24-10 loss, both Shaq Thompson and Cory Littleton posted 90.0-plus grades per PFF. Thompson showcased his sideline range, culminating in three tackles for loss, while Littleton notched four coverage stops. Cornerback Donte Jackson made a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown – the team's lone touchdown of the night. Additionally, tone-setter Derrick Brown tallied seven tackles and two quarterback hits to bolster the interior. In Week Seven, the Panthers will vie to propel themselves forward after a three-game losing streak.
On this week's edition of the difference-makers list starring Panthers' standouts, these headliners make splash plays on both sides of the football. Several players could have made the compilation; however, these five could help sway the outcome in Carolina's favor on Sunday afternoon in the NFC South clash:
WR DJ Moore
Despite inconsistent play under center for the Panthers, D.J. Moore has eclipsed the 1,000-yard marker the last three seasons in Carolina. Moore has many alluring traits, including elusiveness, high-point ability, suddenness out of breaks and an ability to adjust to the ball, and he is adept at finding soft spots in zone. He elevates the Panthers' screen game with his ability to generate yards after the catch. The Panthers' offense has struggled in 2022 to sustain drives, but Moore remains a gritty receiver who can challenge defenses downfield and on intermediate routes. The Bucs' defense will have to be aware of where he is lined up on the field. The Cardinals traded for Robbie Anderson and following his departure, Moore will have an increased role to try and rejuvenate Carolina's aerial attack.
DE Brian Burns
Brian Burns currently leads the Panthers in sacks with 4.0. The speedster off the edge made his first Pro Bowl in 2021 and has cultivated an impressive resume in Carolina. Through 48 games prior to the start of the 2022 season, he had 25.5 sacks – the second-fastest start in franchise history in as many games (trailing only Julius Peppers). Burns, the team's best pass rusher, will command more double teams this season with the departure of his former counterpart, Haason Reddick. As a pass rusher, Burns is fast to turn the corner, running by tackles with elite speed. He has nice bend around the edge and low-pad height and possesses explosive first-step quickness. As a run defender, Burns is able to navigate through traffic with agility to get to ball carriers. His inside-to-outside countermove is special and consistently sets up offensive tackles. Nicknamed 'Spiderman,' Burns has a lethal spin move that baits tackles and elite closing speed to finish. On Sunday, Tristan Wirfs will have a big day going up against a top-tier – albeit underrated – defensive end. Winning the battle in the trenches will be crucial.
DT Derrick Brown
Chosen in the top 10 of the 2022 NFL Draft, Derrick Brown has continued to progress on the field for Carolina. He has taken strides forward in his third year, evidenced by a sensational one-handed interception against the Saints that took the NFL by storm. His stat line may not wow but Brown influences the pocket and gets opposing quarterbacks off their spot. If he cannot disrupt the play by knocking down the quarterback, he can impact with batted passes (six). He plays with good leverage and is quick out of his stance. Brown possesses strength to work off blocks, has a powerful bull rush, can set the edge and is fast in the short area with redirection skills. He is still a developmental young player but has tremendous upside for the Panthers. Brown creates a challenge in the trenches for Tampa Bay. He disrupts more than the numbers dictate, creating negative plays for opposing offenses.
LB Shaq Thompson
Shaq Thompson is a premier playmaker for the Panthers, commanding the middle of the field. He currently leads the Panthers in tackles with 39 through six games, fortifying the defensive unit. Thompson is a quality pursuit defender that can cover ground in zone. He breaks on the ball with instinctual play and has the ability to help in pass-coverage as a three-down linebacker. He is not overly physical but possesses the athleticism to chase down running backs. Thompson has the versatility to play inside linebacker, outside linebacker and strong safety in dime packages. He is a bright spot for the Panthers on defense and will strive to have a big day against Tom Brady and company on Sunday.
Here are some ways in which the Panthers have excelled in 2022:
- The Panthers rank first in the league at gaining four-plus yards on first down. On first downs, 55.6 percent of the Panthers' rushes have gained over four yards (30 rushes). That is largely due to former RB Christian McCaffrey's slash running style and shiftiness in space. The Panthers have traded Christian McCaffrey to 49ers prior to this week's game.
- The Panthers' defense ranks fourth in the league in forcing three-and-out drives, killing the opposition's momentum. On 70 defensive series in 2022, Carolina has forced 17 three-and-out drives (24.3 percent), trailing only the 49ers, Packers and the Colts.
Negative factors hindering the outcome of ballgames for Carolina, most notable in 2022:
- The Panthers have lost 25 consecutive games in which they have allowed 17-plus points – the longest such streak by any team since the 1990-1994 Seahawks with 40.
- Baker Mayfield has career lows in completion percentage (54.9), touchdown-interception ratio (4-4), and passer rating (71.9) in 2022. His passer rating of 71.9 ranks last in the NFL.
- The Panthers currently rank in the bottom of the league in nearly every offensive category including total offense (32nd), rush offense (26th) and pass offense (29th). Carolina has struggled to sustain drives or push the ball downfield, contributing to the club's anemic unit.
New Faces in 2022
The Browns agreed to trade quarterback Baker Mayfield to the Panthers for a 2024 conditional draft pick, depending on Mayfield's playing time in Carolina. Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, joined a quarterback room featuring Sam Darnold and 2022 third-round draft selection Matt Corral. Mayfield and Darnold competed in training camp for the starting role and command of the Panthers' offense. The Mayfield trade came after Cleveland's blockbuster deal with the Texans to acquire Deshaun Watson. Mayfield won the starting role and backup Darnold, suffered a high ankle sprain in the final preseason game landing him on injured reserve. Mayfield also suffered a high ankle sprain in Week Five, giving P.J. Walker the under-center duties against the defending Super Bowl Champions. Steve Wilks confirmed that Walker will start on Sunday against the Buccaneers.
The Panthers added depth to a variety of spots on the roster with a plethora of offseason acquisitions during free agency including center Bradley Bozeman, wide receiver Rashard Higgins, defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, linebacker Cory Littleton, linebacker Damien Wilson and safety Xavier Woods. Upgrading the offensive line became the club's top priority, as evidenced by a myriad of moves. Bozeman landed in Carolina after he and the Ravens failed to come to terms on an extension and the Panthers snagged tackle Ikem Ekwonu on the first night of the draft. The first five teams in the draft selected defensive tone-setters, giving the Panthers their optimal choice of top tackles on the board. Ekwonu has a violent mentality and bullied defenders at North Carolina State, knocking players backward. He can mirror edge rushers with agility out of his stance and has undergone the learning curve process of acclimating to the pro level. Ekwonu has the capability of becoming a franchise left tackle. Woods, a prototypical free safety and arguably Carolina's biggest signing, has given Carolina flexibility in the secondary.