Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Scouting Report: Carolina Panthers

Carolina has compiled an NFL-best 14-1 record in 2015 thanks to an MVP candidate under center, a ball-hawking defense and one of the league's best rushing attacks.

Photos of the Panthers' projected starters from team's website.

On Sunday, the 6-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 14-1 Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. It will be the 31st meeting between the two teams in the regular season, with the Bucs trying to capture their fourth intra-divisional win of 2015.

Carolina will be looking to lock down home field advantage throughout the NFC side of the playoffs with a win on Sunday. To prevent that from happening, the Buccaneers will need to avoid turning the ball over against the NFL's leading defense in terms of takeaways. Tampa Bay's defense will contend with the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack and a top MVP candidate in quarterback Cam Newton. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they close out their 2015 season in Charlotte.

HEAD COACH

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In 2013 and 2014, Ron Rivera did something no other head coach had ever done in the 14-year history of the NFC South: He guided his team to back-to-back division titles. Now Rivera's club has made it three in a row, and in their most impressive fashion yet.

After a 12-4 campaign in '13, the 2014 Panthers needed a late-season surge and a full-division swoon to take the South title at 7-8-1. This year, however, Carolina has been the NFL's best team for most of the season, only suffering its first loss last Sunday at Atlanta. No matter what happens on Sunday against the Buccaneers, Rivera's Panthers will set a franchise record for most regular-season victories.

This year's Panthers will have at least a first-round bye and perhaps home field advantage throughout the NFC side of the playoffs. That could help them advance farther than the last two years, as they lost Divisional Round games in both cases. Last January's loss at Seattle in that round was the only game Carolina dropped in more than a calendar year, as their defeat in Atlanta snapped an 18-game regular-season winning  streak.

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. Rivera's Panther defenses haven't disappointed, finishing in the top 10 in yards allowed each of the last four years. They head into the season finale ranked ninth in points allowed and fourth in yards.

Rivera's Panthers have generally formed their offensive identity around a commitment to the run. That has remained true in 2015, as Carolina boasts the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack and the league's highest percentage of running plays at 49.5%. Of course, both of those totals have a lot to do with the Panthers' quarterback, as Cam Newton has rushed 126 times for 626 yards. In his fifth season in the NFL, all under Rivera, Newton has developed into a prime NFL MVP candidate.

The Panthers named Rivera the fourth head coach in their history in January of 2011; since then, Carolina has a 46-32-1 record and those three 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.

OFFENSE

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Earlier in the season, the Newton-for-MVP argument was based largely on the Panthers' winning streak and the added running dimension that he brings to the Carolina offense. Opponents felt that Newton's passing numbers didn't quite measure up to the performances of such quarterbacks as New England's Tom Brady and Arizona's Carson Palmer. Then Newton proceeded to go on a touchdown tear, recording three five-TD passing games in the span of five weeks. As such, he has thrown a career-high 33 touchdown passes (against just 10 interceptions) which only adds to his very typical eight scores on the ground.

Newton is completing 58.6% of his passes this year, which ranks just 31st among qualifying passers this year. However, in addition to the ever-present threat of his scrambles, Newton has also been adept at creating big plays in the passing game this year, especially with speedy wide receiver Ted Ginn on the other end. Newton's passer rating on throws that travel more than 20 yards in the air is 117.7, second-best in the entire NFL. Ginn has 10 touchdowns on just 44 catches and is averaging 16.8 yards per reception; that represents nearly half of the 21 TD catches he has in his nine-year NFL career. Ginn's breakout year has included a handful of notable dropped passes, and one of Carolina's rare low NFL rankings is in percentage of catchable balls that are dropped. Statspass has that figure at 7.3% for a ranking of 26th.

The favored target in Carolina's passing attack is actually Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who has surpassed 1,000 yards for the second year in a row. Among all NFL tight ends, Olsen ranks fourth in receptions (75), second in receiving yards (1,088) and tied for fifth in TD catches (seven). Because he is both a dynamic receiver (14.5 yards per catch) and a strong blocker, Olsen almost never leaves the field when the Panthers are on offense. In fact, he has played 95.9% of Carolina's offensive snaps this year.

Again, however, the Panthers are the NFL's most run-heavy team. Interestingly, they don't necessarily attempt to establish the run first, and their high percentage of carries is due in part to a number of big second-half leads. Carolina runs on 45.2% of first-half plays and 56.3% of first-and-10 plays, which rank ninth and eighth respectively. In the second half, the Panthers have run on 53.7% of their snaps while the league average is just 40.4%.

Photos of the Bucs Cheerleaders from Week 16 at Raymond James Stadium.

As has been the case in Tampa, but perhaps to an even greater degree, the offensive line has been a pleasant surprise for Carolina. Two of their five starters – center Ryan Kalil and right guard Trai Turner are headed to the Pro Bowl; Kalil has now made it five times but Turner gets his first all-star call in just his second NFL season. Left tackle Michael Oher, essentially unwanted in Tennessee after just one year, and right tackle Michael Remmers, a former practice squad player with the Buccaneers, have handled the edges and left guard Andrew Norwell finishes out the front five. After years of injury-related upheaval up front, the Panthers have had those five players make a combined 71 out of a possible 75 game starts. That said, Newton has taken 29 sacks this season and the Panthers rank 18th in sacks allowed per pass play.

Jonathan Stewart shared a Panthers backfield for years with DeAngelo Williams but got the lead role in 2015 and has rushed for 989 yards and six scores on 242 carries. He has missed two games due to injury, however, and did not participate on Wednesday when Carolina began its week of practice for Sunday's game. Carolina might be a bit thin in the backfield, with RB Fozzy Whittaker also out this weekend, which means it may have to rely on a pair of rookies in Cameron Artis-Payne and Brandon Wegher. Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert can help out, especially in short-yardage situations; he has 52 carries for 197 yards.

As one might expect when a team is possessed of a unique weapon like Newton, the Panthers have been good in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 66.1% of such drives to tie for third-best in the NFL. They are slightly above average on third-down tries, converting on 40.9% of their attempts (league average is 38.9%), but most notably the Panthers do not hurt themselves often. They have turned the ball over just 17 times – about one per game – and are first in the NFL with a +19 turnover ratio. As such, they've allowed only 29 points off turnovers all season, the lowest total in the NFL and less than half of the league average.

DEFENSE

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The Panthers have four defensive players headed to the Pro Bowl, and it starts right up the middle with defensive tackle Kawann Short, a second-year breakout star, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Those two are a big reason why opposing teams are gaining four or more yards on first down just 39.0% of the team, the best mark in the NFL.

Kuechly and Short will be joined in Hawaii by long-time standout linebacker Thomas Davis and another star defender who emerged in 2015, cornerback Josh Norman. With those four patrolling the field the Panthers do other things extremely well: create turnovers and keep opposing quarterbacks in check. Carolina has the most takeaways in the league, with 36, and the second-most points scored off turnovers, with 127. That latter mark is nearly double the league average and a big reason why Carolina was undefeated until last Sunday. In terms of the passing game, the Panthers' various QB foes have combined for a 74.1 passer rating, the lowest mark against any team in the NFL.

The Panthers have featured star edge rushers for years with the likes of Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. Peppers and Hardy are gone, however, and Johnson has just one sack this year…and still Carolina has 42 sacks. Because opposing teams have frequently been down in the second half, Carolina has faced a higher number of pass attempts than most teams, but they do rank 11th in sacks per pass play. The leader is Short, with 11, but three other players – Davis and reserve ends Kony Ealy and Mario Addison – all have five or more sacks. The team also traded for long-time NFL star Jared Allen, who is the starter at right end and who has two sacks since arriving in Charlotte. Carolina's star-studded front also includes 2014 first-round pick DT Star Lotulelei.

With that line backed by Kuechly, Davis and 2015 first-round pick LB Shaq Thompson, Carolina has fielded the fifth-best rushing defense in the NFL, allowing just 89.2 yards per game and 3.9 yards per rush. Again, that is partly a function of the team enjoying comfortable leads for much of the season, but Kuechly and Davis both boast outstanding range and tackling ability. According to press box totals, Kuechly has led the NFL in tackles since 2012, just ahead of the Bucs' Lavonte David. Meanwhile, Davis is the only player in the NFL this season with at least five sacks and at least three interceptions. Davis also has 15 forced fumbles in his career.

Carolina has picked off a league-high 22 passes and they have three players with four or more. Norman has been the top story in that secondary – he has four interceptions, two of which have been returned for touchdowns – but he's so strong in coverage that opposing passers tend to look the other way, limiting his opportunities. According to Pro Football Focus, passes thrown with Norman in coverage have resulted in a passer rating of 54.7 for opposing quarterbacks, the third-lowest mark in the league among cornerbacks.

The team leader in interceptions is safety Kurt Coleman, who is enjoying a breakout season of his own after bouncing from Philadelphia to Kansas City to Carolina the last three years. He has seven picks, which is tied for third in the NFL, and is also third on the team with 103 tackles. Surrounding all of this emerging talent is some incredibly experienced veteran depth in cornerback Charles Tillman (13 NFL seasons, 38 interceptions), Roman Harper (10 seasons, 11 interceptions) and the recently-signed Cortland Finnegan (10 seasons, 18 interceptions).

In the red zone and on third downs, Carolina has been just a bit better than league average. They've allowed touchdowns on 54.1% of drives inside their 20, good for 13th in the NFL. Their opponent third-down success rate of 37.0% is 11th in the NFL; the league average is 38.9%.

SPECIAL TEAMS

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If you're looking for a weakness in the Panthers' game this year…well, you probably won't find it. However, one could consider the third phase of the game, relatively speaking, a "non-strength." Carolina has returned punts fairly well thanks to Ginn but otherwise does not rank highly in many special teams categories.

The numbers might be a bit deceiving, though, especially in the case of placekicker Graham Gano. Gano is 29 of 35 on field goal tries this season, and in the current era of extremely efficient kicking, that percentage puts Carolina at 22nd in the NFL. However, Gano is the NFL's second-leading scorer (138 points), he was the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month in November and he's already kicked a 52-yard overtime field goal to beat Indianapolis and a 43-yard game-winner as time expired against the Giants two weeks ago. On top of that, Gano is also the NFL's leader in kickoff touchback percentage over the last three years, at 73.5%. He ranks 11th in that category in 2015, at 65.3%.

Meanwhile, punter Brad Nortman has been pretty close to league average in both gross punting (45.6-yard avg.) and net punting (39.9). He has placed 18 punts inside the 20 but also hit five touchbacks.

Photos from Buccaneers vs. Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.

Ginn ranks sixth in the NFL with his average of 10.3 yards per punt return, even though he hasn't broken one longer than 37 yards this season. A former first-round pick in Miami who hasn't always been a big contributor on offense during his nine years in the league, Ginn has been a consistently good punt returner. He ranks fourth in the NFL among active players with a punt return average of 11.0 yards per try.

Carolina has used six different players on kickoff return this season, led by Whittaker, who won't play against the Buccaneers. Ginn is the second player listed on Carolina's depth chart at that position, but he has just one kickoff return this year for eight yards. The Panthers rank last in the NFL with a kickoff return average of 17.8.

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