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Shaq Thompson Emerging as Newest Panthers Playmaker

LB Shaq Thompson (Damian Strohmeyer via AP)
LB Shaq Thompson (Damian Strohmeyer via AP)

Thanks to the NFC West, a nationally-televised Week Two matchup in the NFC South suddenly seems doubly critical to the two teams involved.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their season opener at home to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, shortly after the Los Angeles Rams overcame the Carolina Panthers' home field advantage with a win in Charlotte. With little time to lick their respective wounds, the Buccaneers and Panthers must leap back into action on Thursday night and try to avoid an 0-2 hole to start the season. Barring a tie, either the Bucs or Panthers will be in that hole, and will have an 0-1 record in the division to boot.

Fortunately for both teams, it's not hard to see how things could get turned around, even on a short turnaround week. The Buccaneers played quite well defensively against the 49ers but were stung by two pick-sixes among four turnovers, as well as some extremely costly penalties. Reducing those two counts and getting better results in the red zone would likely lead to a much better offensive output in Week Two. Meanwhile, the Panthers generated a ton of offense, most of it running through Christian McCaffrey and only lost by three to the defending conference champions. The Panthers' defense had a tough assignment and can probably expect to have outings where it gets off the field more often (nine of 17 successful third downs by L.A.) and is stingier in the red zone (three of four touchdowns allowed).

And so each team will try to get back on track by fine-tuning their play in Week Two. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will confront against Carolina on Thursday night:

PANTHERS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

Cam Newton is going into his ninth season and the Panthers have assembled a versatile and talented group of weapons around him. Carolina's defense is loaded with proven veteran talent, anchored by inside linebacker Luke Kuechly. Here are four Panthers in particular who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:

1. QB Cam Newton. Yes, we could put the opposing quarterback in this section every week, as he is almost certainly going to be one of his team's top difference-makers, whether good or bad. But Newton is a different sort of challenge, as evidenced by his nearly 5,000 rushing yards and 58 touchdowns on the ground, the latter an all-time record for quarterbacks. Newton's potential for option plays and other runs limits how many coverages the Buccaneers' defense can use as they have to account for the quarterback potentially taking off. Newton's size also makes him difficult to sack, as he can shrug off would-be tacklers and extend plays. The Panthers worked with their veteran quarterback to change his throwing mechanics this offseason after he had problems with his right shoulder, and he completed 25 of 38 passes for 239 yards against the Rams.

2. LB Shaq Thompson. The threat that Kuechly poses to opposing offenses is obvious, and something the Buccaneers have had to contend with for seven years. The Panthers drafted Thompson in the first round in 2015 even though they already had Kuechly and his Pro Bowl running mate Thomas Davis. That didn't stop Thompson from carving out a significant role, as he had 238 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 10 passes defensed in his first four seasons. Now that Thomas has moved on, Thompson becomes Kuechly's new best buddy and is primed for a true breakout year. Thompson has a physical style of play, can shed blocks from bigger men to get into the backfield and can deliver big hits in the open field. Thompson can even cover receivers in the slot thanks to his speed and athleticism. After his nine-tackle performance against the Rams, Thompson drew praise from both Kuechly and Head Coach Ron Rivera.

3. RB Christian McCaffrey. The Panthers added McCaffrey to their injury report on Tuesday, not because the dynamic third-year back has an ailment, but because they wanted to give him a bit of rest. That's not surprising after McCaffrey played every single offensive snap of the Panthers' opener on Sunday. That's not an unusual occurrence; he rarely came off the field all of last season, and Carolina's offense essentially runs through his hands and feet. McCaffrey led the Panthers in rushing (128 yards, two touchdowns) and receiving (10 for 81) in the game against the Rams. He is elusive and fast, and can produce big plays with quick cut-backs, but he can also shed tackles. Of all Newton's weapons, McCaffrey is the one that will concern the Bucs the most.

4. CB James Bradberry. A second-round pick out of Samford in 2016, Bradberry has emerged as the Panthers' top cornerback and, according to Rivera, is getting even better because his confidence is growing. Bradberry certainly started his fourth season off in fine fashion, collecting the Panthers' only sack and only interception against the Rams. Los Angeles Head Coach Sean McVay specifically sought Bradberry out after the game to tell him how fine of a play his interception. The 6-1 Bradberry has good size to match up against big receivers like Mike Evans and in fact has had a couple very good outings against the Bucs' number-one receiver.

STRENGTHS

You can count on one thing when you play the Carolina Panthers: They will be able to run the football. The Panthers have ranked in the top 11 in rushing yards in every season of Cam Newton's career, including fourth each of the past two years and first in 2015. They started this season with 127 rushing yards against the Rams. Carolina's defense is usually opportunistic; the Panthers are tied for third over the last five seasons with 78 interceptions and are first in that same span in both forced fumbles (84) and fumble recoveries (57). Here are some more specific areas in which the Panthers can be expected to excel, based on last season and the 2019 opener:

·    Cam Newton becomes a particularly troublesome problem for defenses near the goal line, and that's one reason why Carolina is usually successful in the red zone. The Panthers ranked fourth in percentage of successful plays and fifth in yards per carry inside the 20 last year. Against the Rams in Week One, all three of their red zone incursions became goal-to-go situations, and all three of those resulted in touchdowns.

·    With Kawann Short and Dontari Poe clogging the middle and Luke Kuechly roaming around behind them, the Panthers' defense tends to make a lot of stops in the backfield. Last year, they led the league in percentage of opposing rushes that went for negative yards, at 4.5%. Against the Rams on Sunday, they had four more such plays, good for 12.5% of L.A.'s carries.

·    The Panthers have had a good kicking game behind Graham Gano for years. Last season, they ranked sixth in the NFL with a field goal success rate of 90.5%. However, Carolina had to find a new kicker when Gano was placed on injured reserve, and they settled on untested first-year player Joey Slye. Slye did miss one of his three field goal tries in his debut on Sunday, but it was from 53 yards out. He also made tries of 52 and 46 yards.

·    With Newton and McCaffrey liable to break containment at any time, the Panthers' offense is good at racking up plays of 10 or more yards. They tied for seventh in the NFL in that category last year with 237, which works out to just under 15 per game. On Sunday, they had 18 more 10-plus yard plays to star the new season.

WEAKNESSES

Carolina ranked in the top half of most offensive categories last year, but Panthers quarterbacks (Newton and Taylor Heinicke) threw 16 interceptions in 378 attempts, ranking 24th in the league in interception rate. Newton was picked off once against the Rams. The Panthers have some talented pass-rushers and added Brian Burns in the draft but last year they were just 25th in sacks per pass play. The Rams' Jared Goff was sacked just once in 40 dropbacks on Sunday. In addition:

·    As good as the Panthers' offense is at approaches the goal line, Carolina's defense struggled with its back against the wall last year. Panther opponents scored touchdowns on 70.2% of their red zone incursions last year, fifth-worst in the NFL. In Sunday's opener, the Rams got into the painted grass on three of their four trips inside the 20.

·    Last season, the Panthers won only one of the three games on their schedule that was decided by three points, and only three of the 10 that came down to one score (eight points or less), ranking near the bottom of the league in win percentage in both categories. How did their 2019 season begin? Rams 30, Panthers 27.

·    Carolina's defense was in the upper half of the league in run defense last year, allowing 112.8 yards per game. However, their opponents did pick up 4.70 yards per carry, which was only 23rd-best in the NFL. The Rams' strong rushing attack found similar success in Week One, averaging 5.20 yards per tote.

·    Perhaps due to his shoulder issues, Newton didn't throw the deep ball very successfully in 2018. Carolina passers had a 45.5 passer rating on throws that traveled 21 or more yards in the air last year, which was third-worst in the NFL. Will a healthier shoulder and new mechanics make a difference in that area for Newton in 2019? The jury is still out as Newton only threw one pass that far in the opener and it was incomplete.

NEW FACES IN 2018

The Panthers used both the draft and free agency to add edge rushers to their new-look defense, which is using more 3-4 formations. They also have a new placekicker, by necessity, and the offensive line has a new man at the pivot.

1. OLB/DE's Brian Burns and Bruce Irvin. To address the aforementioned lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Panthers used a first-round pick on former Florida State star Brian Burns and brought in Irvin as an unrestricted free agent. Both are good fits in the 3-4 as stand-up edge rushers. Irvin didn't play in the opener due to a hamstring injury and hasn't practiced this week.

2. K Joey Slye. We alluded to Slye's debut above. The Virginia Tech product originally signed with the New York Giants after this year's draft but ended up in Carolina at the beginning of August. He ended up handling all of the placekicking duties in the preseason after Graham Gano sustained a left leg injury in training camp, and he was nearly perfect, making seven of eight field goal tries and all four PATs, including several 50-plus blasts.

3. C Matt Paradis. The Panthers found themselves in need of a new center in 2019 when Ryan Kalil, a five-time Pro Bowler, announced his retirement on December 31. (The retirement didn't stick; he's now the Jets' starting center.) Carolina found their man in former Bronco Matt Paradis, who had started 57 games he'd played for the Broncos. Paradis helped Carolina rack up 127 rushing yards in the opener against the Rams.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. OLB/DE Bruce Irvin. As noted in the previous section, Irvin has been dealing with a hamstring injury. Irvin has 43.5 career sacks, including 6.5 last year split between Atlanta and Oakland.

2. T Greg Little. Little was the Panthers' second-round draft pick this past spring and is likely considered a long-term solution on one edge of the O-Line or the other. A concussion has delayed his NFL debut a bit, though he has practiced this week without limitations.

3. TE Greg Olsen. Olsen didn't practice this week due to a back issue, which will put his availability for Thursday in doubt. However, Olsen said on Tuesday that he believes he'll be ready to suit up on Thursday night.

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