Photos of the Panthers' projected starters from team's website.
On Sunday, the 1-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 3-0 Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. It will be the 30th meeting between the two teams in the regular season, with each squad trying to go to 2-0 in divisional play in 2015.
RELATED: BUCCANEERS-PANTHERS SERIES HISTORY
Carolina may be without star linebacker Luke Kuechly, but new playmakers like Josh Norman, Shaq Thompson and Kawann short are rapidly emerging on the league's second-best scoring defense. The Panthers' offense, as usual, goes through QB Cam Newton, who has thrown five touchdown passes and run for two more scores. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they welcome the Panthers to Raymond James Stadium.
The highlight of Ron Rivera's resume as an NFL head coach is something that no other head coach in the 14-year history of the NFC South can claim: back-to-back division titles.
The Panthers built the first successful title defense in the NFL's most unpredictable division last year when they won their last four games to finish 7-8-1. Discounting the playoffs (where the Panthers beat Arizona and then lost to Seattle), Carolina has now won seven straight games as they are off to a fine 3-0 start in pursuit of a third straight South crown. And streaks have been a notable part of Rivera's five seasons at the Panthers' helm. In his first season, Rivera's team lost six games in a seven-week stretch, and since then they've added two four-win runs, an eight-win run, a five-loss run and a six-loss run. They'll be shooting for another four-victory streak when they come to Tampa on Sunday.
Rivera was a linebacker on the famous 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team, which won its first 12 games, and he began his NFL coaching career in Chicago as well, in 1997. In subsequent stops in Philadelphia, Chicago again and San Diego, Rivera became known as one of the NFL's top defensive coordinators, and that eventually led to his first head coaching opportunity in Carolina.
The Panthers named Rivera the fourth head coach in their history in January of 2011; since then, Carolina has a 35-31-1 record and those two division title. In 2013, Rivera's job had reportedly been in jeopardy after a 1-3 start, on the heels of a 7-9 season that led to the hiring of new general manager, Dave Gettleman. However, Rivera consciously chose to take a more aggressive approach to play-calling – including some gutsy fourth-down decisions – earning the nickname of "Riverboat Ron" and at the very least providing an easy narrative for the Panthers' incredible 11-1 run to end the season.
Last year, that pattern was flipped, as Carolina won its first two games and was in first place after five weeks with a 3-2 record. However, a seven-game winless streak followed (including a 37-37 tie at Cincinnati in Week Six) and nearly knocked the Panthers out of playoff contention. Carolina then ran the table in the last month and passed both Atlanta and New Orleans for the division crown. It was an impressive rally for a team that had dealt with a litany of injuries to the offensive line and running back positions. That was particularly significant for Rivera's Panthers, who have generally formed their offensive identity around a commitment to the run. That has remained true of Rivera's 2015 squad, which has 98 rushes through three games, only one less than the NFL team high of 99 runs that San Francisco has record.
Unsurprisingly, the Panthers' offense in 2015 has been all about Cam Newton, and Carolina's undefeated record is an indication of how well Newton has handled that responsibility. The fifth-year passer has thrown five touchdown passes against just two interceptions and has also scored both of Carolina's rushing TDs. The only touchdown Newton hasn't played a part in for Carolina this year was a Josh Norman pick-six.
Newton's passer rating through three games is 86.5, which ranks just 15th in the league, but that's not a particularly accurate portrayal of his importance to the Panthers or his standing among the league's best quarterbacks. That rating is brought down primarily by a completion rate of 56.6% and a yards per attempt mark of 6.92 that rank 28th and 19th in the league respectively. But high completion rates have never been a significant part of Newton's game (his career mark is 59.3% and the league-wide rate since he arrived in 2011 is 61.4%) and it's worth noting that Newton's yards per completion mark of 12.23 is 11th in the NFL. In other words, when he does complete passes, they're often big plays. Meanwhile, the Newton-led offense has only turned the ball over twice so far, tied for third-lowest in the NFL.
Given Newton's ability to make plays on the run, it's a bit surprising that Carolina only ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of both red zone percentage and third-down conversions. However, that Newton threat becomes more significant when the ball is close to the goal line or the first-down marker; the Panthers are first in the NFL in third-down conversions of less than four yards, making it 87.5% of the time. Carolina has also sustained drives well – most likely due to a sixth-ranked rushing attack – tying for fourth with seven 10-play drives and tying for fifth with five drives that lasted longer than five minutes.
That rushing attack was a two-headed monster for years with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart sharing carries, but Williams is now a Pittsburgh Steeler. Stewart has 49 of the 66 carries by Panther running backs so far, with jumbo back Mike Tolbert next with 11. Stewart's averages of 57 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry aren't overwhelming, but Newton has made the difference by running for 144 yards of his own. Blocking the way is a reconstructed offensive line that brought in Michael Oher to play left tackle and has developed journeyman Mike Remmers into a solid right tackle. Center Ryan Kalil, who has been to four Pro Bowls, still anchors that line, which has allowed just five sacks so far, tied for 11th fewest in the league.
Newton was robbed of perhaps his best weapon in the passing game when second-year WR Kelvin Benjamin suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp. All that has done has put more of a spotlight on tight end Greg Olsen, who joined Benjamin as 1,000-yard receivers last year. Olsen has a team-high 28 targets from Newton, out of 99 total, and he leads the Panthers with 15 receptions for 215 yards. More than just a short-yardage threat, Olsen can work the seams and get downfield, as evidenced by his 14.3 yards per reception. Wide receiver Ted Ginn has returned for a second stint in Carolina and has emerged as Newton's most targeted wideout. Ginn has 10 catches for 188 yards and one score, and he could easily top his NFL single-season high of 38 receptions. Second-round pick Devin Funchess, a 6-4, 215-pound target who was supposed to team with Benjamin to give Newton two big outside receivers, has just three catches so far.
Again thanks largely to Newton's contributions, the Panthers are succeeding on offense with big plays. They rank seventh in the NFL in passer rating (125.8) when Newton throws the ball more than 20 yards downfield. They are also second in the league with 14 carries of 10 or more yards. The latter almost certainly helps the former by setting up very believable play-action passes.
Carolina's defense ranks second in points allowed, seventh in total net yards allowed and fourth in rushing yards allowed, but it is some new faces who are leading the way for a crew that is trying to rank among the NFL's top 10 for the fourth straight year.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and the heart and soul of that defense, hasn't played since sustaining a concussion in Week One. Defensive end Charles Johnson and linebacker Thomas Davis both suffered injuries in Week Three and Johnson has landed on short-term injured reserve. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who had 26 sacks in 2012-13, is now a Dallas Cowboy.
Among the new stars emerging for the Carolina defense is third-year defensive tackle Kawann Short. The Panthers took defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, then followed up with Short in Round Two, and both are now anchors for Carolina's 4-3 front. Early in 2015, it's Short that has stood out among the NFL's best at his position, ranking fourth in the DT grades on Pro Football Focus, just ahead of Ndamukong Suh. Short has a team-high eight quarterback pressures and has helped Carolina give up just six runs of 10 or more yards, tied for sixth-best in the NFL. Meanwhile, Lotulelei returned to the lineup last weekend after missing time due to a foot injury.
The Panthers are in the middle of the NFL pack (ranked 15th) in sacks per pass play on defense, but they are getting contributions from a lot of different defenders. Defensive end Mario Addison has a team-high two sacks but five other Panthers are already on the board with one. Addison has just three starts in five seasons, but he has helped out with 11 sacks over the last two years and three games. That edge-rushing group got a boost during the week when Carolina traded for Bears DE Jared Allen, who ranks ninth in NFL history with 134 sacks (though only 5.5 in his last 18 games).
If Kuechly does play this weekend, he will immediately become the focus of the Buccaneers' game plan against Carolina's defense. Kuechly has led the NFL in tackling since he arrived in 2012, with 480 stops to edge out the Buccaneers' Lavonte David. He has a fantastic running mate in Davis, who leads the Panthers this year with 31 tackles and also already has a sack, a forced fumble and an interception. The Football Outsiders website tracks "defeats," which it defines as all tackles for loss (including sacks), any tackle or pass defensed to prevent a conversion on a third or fourth down, and any turnover or batted pass that leads to an interception. Kuechly (28) and Davis (24) were two of 16 players to record at least 24 defeats last year.
Carolina's linebacking corps added another playmaker in the first round of the 2015 draft by selecting Washington's Shaq Thompson. Thompson is the seventh-rated 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL by Pro Football Focus and, unsurprisingly, he has been particularly good in pass coverage. Though Thompson surely isn't the only factor, opposing tight ends have caught just seven passes for 78 yards against Carolina through three games.
Overall, Carolina's secondary has been strong, ranking 15th overall in yards but second in yards per pass attempt. Panther foes have consistently been behind in their games and have had to throw more often, with 68 carries against 143 pass plays. The rising star in that group is cornerback Josh Norman, the fourth-rated corner in the league on Pro Football Focus. A fifth-round pick in 2012, Norman actually began his breakout last year, starting 10 games and getting two picks plus 11 passes defensed. This year, he has already caused three turnovers, with a pair of interceptions and a forced fumble-fumble recovery combo in the season opener at Jacksonville. He returned his first pick for a touchdown against the Jaguars, then helped seal last week's win over New Orleans with an amazing acrobatic interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith is familiar with Carolina's other starting cornerback, Charles Tillman. Smith helped develop Tillman into one of the league's best turnover producers during their shared time in Chicago, and the man they call "Peanut" may be one of the best practitioners of the forced fumble in league history. Tillman doesn't have a takeaway yet in Carolina but he does have 21 tackles and three passes defensed. He and safety Roman Harper bring a combined 23 years of NFL experience to Carolina's secondary.
Carolina returns the same punter/kicker duo for the fourth straight year in Brad Nortman and Graham Gano. Nortman has a weird disparity so far this season between his gross punting average of 48.6 and his net punting average of 36.0. The former ranks fifth in the league but the latter just 26th, and that would seem to suggest either a lack of hang time or issues with Carolina's coverage units. Either way, opponents are averaging 16.6 yards per punt return and 25.5 yards per kickoff return which ranks 27th and 19th in the league, respectively.
Nortman ranked last in the NFL in net punting average last year, too, but in 2013 he was fifth with a fine 41.1-yard mark, so there is a history of success in his body of work. That's true for Gano, as well, particularly on kickoffs. Last year, he recorded touchbacks on an NFL-leading 77.2% of his kickoffs, and he's 10 of 12 in that category so far this year. Gano spent three seasons in Washington before joining the Panthers in 2012, and overall he has a career field goal success rate of 78.3%. He has missed three of eight tries this year, but two of those three were blocked and all were from 43 yards out or farther. Gano has been perfect on eight extra point tries, which is more of an accomplishment with the new yard line for that play.
While Ginn has had more to do in the passing game in his second stint with Carolina, he also stepped right back into the punt return role and is averaging 12.9 yards per runback. He has excelled in that role throughout his career, with an average of 11.2 yards per try and a run of six straight years (including 2015 so far) in which he average more than 10 yards a return. Running back Fozzy Whittaker is listed as Carolina's kickoff returner but the team has had only two runbacks on kickoffs all year.