Four of the Buccaneers' next six games on the 2023 slate are against NFC South opponents. Next up on the high-stakes docket, the Bucs face the one-win Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Week 13. The 4-7 Bucs are still in the hunt for their third-consecutive South title and will begin the quest against a team that fired first-year Head Coach Frank Reich on Monday following a 17-10 loss to the Titans. The Panthers have undergone a transitional year with a rookie quarterback in Bryce Young and a new coaching staff, which will now be led by Special Teams Coordinator Chris Tabor as the interim head coach. The Bucs will stive to bounce back after taking their sixth loss in the previous seven weeks to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 12 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Tampa Bay rallied from behind and trimmed the deficit to three points, but critical self-inflicted wounds caused the 27-20 defeat. Here are four players who could help swing the game in favor of the Panthers on Sunday:
DE Brian Burns
Brian Burns, the cornerstone of the Panthers' defense, plays with elite football intelligence and awareness. He possesses freak athleticism and accumulated a career-high 12.5 sacks in 2022. Burns has a consistent get off and bend around the corner that is second to none. He accelerates to the quarterback quickly and can dip under offensive linemen to gain leverage. Often, Burns seems to teleport on the field with how quickly he can get from one spot to the next. Burns has amassed a team-high 6.0 sacks in 2023, along with 15 quarterback hits. His sudden feet, speed around the rush arc, rush alterations, lower-body flexibility, lateral agility and effective pursuit as a tackler differentiates Burns from the pack. He has a lethal spin move and routinely puts on a power-move clinic during games. The Bucs will have to be aware of his positioning at all times. Burns has the ability to wreck a game.
DT Derrick Brown
Derrick Brown is a stout run defender and tone-setter in the trenches for Carolina. In his fourth season, Brown has tallied three passes defensed, one sack, nine quarterback hits and 60 tackles. He is quick off the snap which allows him to stuff run lanes, invading the backfield. Brown showcases pop off the line of scrimmage and is adept at gobbling up blockers, allowing linebackers to roam free. His violent punch, power and shed technique are among the best in the NFL. Brown poses a challenge in the trenches for Tampa Bay with a myriad of disruptive traits that positions him to control the line of scrimmage.
WR Adam Thielen
In March, the Panthers added former Vikings receiver Adam Thielen to their roster on a three-year, $25 million deal with $10 million in the first year. Minnesota released Thielen after nine seasons with the team and he joined a Carolina team looking for a veteran presence in the receiver room. Thielen played the No. 2 role in Minnesota behind Justin Jefferson and with the departure of D.J. Moore in Carolina, the team needed a crafty route runner. Thielen possesses an effective stem and release package to generate separation. He has outstanding body control and can adjust based on leverage to make himself available for the catch. Although Thielen had one reception (season low) on three targets for two yards in Sunday's 17-10 loss to Titans, he has been a bright spot in Carolina's otherwise struggling offensive attack. Thielen's ball-tracking ability puts him among some of the NFL's best and his fluidity in-and-out of breaks generates consistent separation on deep overs or when he works out of the slot. He can do it all: run deep routes, intermediate routes and sweeps to ignite a horizontal stretch. Thielen is fundamentally sound and many of his routes could occupy a highlight-reel tape.
LB Frankie Luvu
The green dot on the back of Frankie Luvu's helmet and the captain badge in the wake of Shaq Thompson's season-ending injury, signifies his impact. Luvu made the switch to inside linebacker, and it has paid dividends. Last season, Luvu set new single-season career highs in tackles (111), tackles for loss (19), and sacks (7.0). The tackles for loss were the second-most in franchise history in a single season and in 2023, he has adapted quickly to his new duties as the quarterback of the defense. He leads the Panthers in tackles with 83 and spearheaded the defense in the team's lone win against the Houston Texans. In that matchup, Luvu racked up 12 tackles (two for loss), a sack and two pass deflections. Luvu plays with a relentless motor and has the instinctual awareness to mirror backs. He is adept at dropping into coverage, disrupting passing windows and reading the quarterback's eyes to blanket potential targets. He is a menace all over the field and the Bucs' will have to key in on his whereabouts on Sunday.