The Bucs sacked Carolina QB Jake Delhomme just once in the last meeting between the two teams
When the Buccaneers and Panthers first played this season, Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms was sacked five times and hurried on numerous other occasions. Meanwhile, Panthers starter Jake Delhomme was dropped just once. This Sunday in Charlotte, the Bucs want it to be Delhomme and not Simms who feels the heat.
During the five-game winning streak the Panthers are currently riding in this head-to-head series, Delhomme has more commonly inflicted pain – of the mental variety – then received it. In Carolina's 34-14 victory in November, for instance, Delhomme completed only 11 passes but got 216 yards out of them and too often converted long third downs. If the Bucs hope to flip the score from that game, and in the process regain a share of first place in the NFC South, they almost certainly will have to flip the sack numbers between the two passers.
It won't be easy.
"They do a tremendous amount of base blitzing and nickel blitzing, not only on third down but on first down," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. "And the guys they have playing around the line of scrimmage are great players. Sometimes they're unaccounted for due to the nature of the front. And when you do throw the ball to try to attack them, God help you because the pass rush is that good. We're going to have to be very creative in our game-planning. And we're going to have to get after their quarterback much better than we have in recent games also to try to create some field position and turnovers ourselves."
The Bucs could try to turn the heat up on Delhomme with liberal blitzing, but considering his penchant for big plays in the series they might be loathe to provide him with any more ready-made opportunities. The more effective way to disrupt the Carolina quarterback and the Panthers' offensive rhythm would be to generate pressure with their front four, and the Bucs believe they have the personnel to do that. Tampa Bay's defensive line was disruptive against the Saints last Sunday, though the elusive Aaron Brooks managed to avoid all but two sacks. Gruden would like to see even more out of that front, especially as the games grow more pivotal down the stretch.
"These are the players that have the ability to turn the game in our favor," said Gruden. "Hopefully they can do that down the road. We've had some good games. We've had good individual efforts. And it's been a lot of the guys doing it. I thought Greg Spires played very well yesterday. Chris Hovan might have had his best game as a Buc. He was very disruptive in the rush, and getting off double teams, and cleaning up piles. He was very good inside. We're going to need that down the stretch."
Delhomme has been sacked just 21 times this season, and he's used that freedom to post very good numbers, including a 61% completion percentage, 18 touchdown passes, 2,600 yards and an 87.2 passer rating. He threw one of those 18 scoring passes against the Bucs last month – to Steve Smith, of course – and he has routinely had strong outings against his NFC South rival. But no quarterback in the league is going to find it easy to remain effective against an unstoppable pass rush, and any passer can turn the ball over under pressure. The Bucs need to make the game-changing plays before Delhomme does.
"We've got to deliver, I think, some more key play-making in key times," said Gruden. "That's going to be a theme that we have to live by this week."
The Bucs are very pleased with the work of their own quarterback, but even during Simms' rapid development this year it has been clear that pass protection is essential. Simms has now started the last six games and the Bucs have won three of them. In the three wins, Simms has been sacked a total of one time. In the three losses, he was dropped 15 times. That's a massive difference.
Of course, it must be admitted that the quarterback himself usually plays a significant role in how often he is sacked. Simms' declining sack numbers have also been a product of his own improved decision-making. However, you can expect the Panthers to put that theory to test.
"Opposing coaches are going to test young quarterbacks," said Gruden. "And he certainly did get tested [against New Orleans] in some key passing situations. But his ability to protect the ball in the past few weeks has been very good. That's certainly a good reason why we have been able to win some of these tight games."
How well the Bucs protect Simms, and how tough they make it on the Panthers to do the same for Delhomme, could be the deciding factor this Sunday, too.