Football is here and the season opener could not be any more exciting for Buccaneers fans as the team faces off against division rival Carolina Panthers. Last year Carolina stomped the Buccaneers in both games and fans are ready for retribution.
The biggest general matchup in this game is going to be our defense’s awareness of Carolina’s tricky offense. During the preseason this year the Buccaneers defense has been susceptible to misdirection and trickery. Carolina’s offense runs on these principles (if they play anything like last year). Plays such as zone options, quarterback options, play action and misdirection plays constitute a larger percentage of their plays than most teams and they are very good at executing. The brief window of time these plays give the offense is just enough for it to take advantage of the defense being caught out of position. It is going to be vital for our defense to have good on-field awareness to not be deceived by these plays.
The key to managing Carolina’s explosive offense is containing QB Cam Newton (#1). The offense relies heavily on his ability to escape pressure and elude tacklers. His size (6’5″ and 245 lbs.) renders safety and cornerback blitzes less ineffective as it is harder for them to bring him down. This means the defensive line will be crucial in this game in both keeping him in the pocket and stopping him as quickly as possible if/when he escapes. Newton is coming off of a rib injury, but as LB Lavonte David (#54) said, “if he’s playing, he’s 100%.”
Make no mistake, Carolina is a running offense. The Panthers running back corps is coming in the season healthy and they did not lose any starters from last season. Their ground game should be relatively unchanged from last year.
An unknown variable on the Carolina offense is the receiving corps, which has been totally rebuilt since last season. Carolina lost thorn-in-our-side Steve Smith, Sr. to Baltimore last year, and gained two seasoned veterans in his place: WR Jerricho Cotchery (#82) and WR Jason Avant (#81). Newton may benefit from large, athletic receivers that can jump up to catch a ball as accuracy is not his forte. These receivers will match up against our veteran cornerbacks, CB Mike Jenkins (#24) and CB Alterraun Verner (#21), who are both coming off of injury and largely missed the preseason. This could drive this game into the air if the Panthers see that as a weakness. Rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin (#13) stood out in preseason as an up-and-comer and adds another potential weapon for Newton.
With the exception of C Ryan Kalil (#67), Carolina’s offensive line is relatively young and inexperienced. We should expect the Buccaneers defensive line to dominate the offensive line. Specifically, DT Gerald McCoy (#93) is going up against rookie G Trai Turner (#70). Anticipate a stellar performance from McCoy.
DE Michael Johnson (#90) was disappointingly quiet in the preseason. I think the front office’s sole purpose in bringing Johnson in to the organization was to corral and hunt Newton down. No one else on the line has the speed to catch Newton on the run. Johnson is bigger and faster than Newton and should show up this game. If there was one reason he was brought into the organization it was to neutralize Newton.
Expectations for the Buccaneers offense are low considering its preseason performance and the questions surrounding the offensive line. A large question is whether QB Josh McCown (#12) will have time to drop back and throw the ball. If he has the time, our big receivers should dominate Carolina’s secondary. Strong tackling is this secondary’s strength and yards after the catch are less likely. This plays into the Buccaneers receivers strengths as they do not rely on yards after the catch (with the exception of WR Mike Evans (#13) who we do not know much about). They are sure route runners with good hands who excel in coverage.
Schematically it remains to be seen what types of passes the Buccaneers will attempt. In the third preseason game against Buffalo, the Buccaneers threw a lot of short passing plays. It will be interesting to see if the offense sticks to that strategy as it will not work against Carolina’s notorious front seven. The best plan of attack from our perspective would be to throw the ball over the front seven. It will be absolutely vital for the offensive line to give McCown enough time to do so.
With the state of the Buccaneers offensive line it is impossible to predict our running game. OC Jeff Tedford is known for his run-heavy offenses. We should be run-heavy this game unless we get behind early. With Carolina’s dominant front seven and the Buccaneers questionable offensive line it remains to be seen how RB Doug Martin (#22) will fair this game. Overall, the expectations for the running game are low.
This game has an interesting personal storyline. Carolina HC Ron Rivera was Lovie Smith’s defensive coordinator at Chicago when the Bears went to the Super Bowl. Rivera was responsible for the Bears aggressive defense that carried the team to the championship. While the split between Rivera and Smith was not bitter, it did leave many scratching their heads. The Bears defense did not play with the same gusto after Rivera left. The two coaches are very familiar with each other and it will be interesting to see how that will effect the game.
Overall, this game will be a matchup of Carolina’s tricky offense against the Buccaneers defense. With Smith’s defensive bahckground everyone expects our defense to define the team this season. Its first true test will be this matchup against Carolina. But let there be no mistake: our offense has to put up points. Carolina is not a come from behind team and did not overcome a point deficit over 10 points last season. The Buccaneers stand a chance if the offense can put us on the board early and the defense can sustain us.