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Panthers will need a big game from receivers and tightened run defense to beat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers

 By Zach Goins

Photo: Alex Cason

September 17, 2020

The Panthers failed to kick off the Matt Rhule era with a victory against the Raiders in week one, but there’s no time to dwell on the loss. Now, all the attention is focused on the Buccaneers as the team prepares to head down to Tampa Bay to take on their NFC South divisional rival.

Last time these two teams met they were across the pond playing in London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium where the Panthers earned a 37-26 victory. But as Panthers fans are well aware, this is a whole new team, and the Bucs have plenty of new additions. 

Here’s what to watch for this week against the Bucs:

Facing the GOAT

After Jameis Winston tallied 33 touchdowns (and 30 interceptions) last season, Tampa Bay decided to part ways with the long-time Bucs quarterback. When you’re able to secure the greatest of all time as his replacement, losing Winston doesn’t seem so bad.

In March, former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady brought his talents down to “Tompa Bay,” and the Bucs quickly became one of the most talked about teams in the league. In last week’s debut, Brady looked a bit rusty, completing 23-of-36 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Brady also added a two-yard rushing touchdown. Throughout Brady’s 21-year career, Sunday’s performance marked his fifth-worst passer rating in a season opener. But if there’s one thing we know, it’s never underestimate the GOAT.

“First of all, he is the GOAT,” linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “He’s very smart. He knows how to pick apart whether you’re in a zone defense or man defense, stuff like that. At the end of the day it’s not about Tom Brady, it’s about us and how we’re going to go out there and tackle and play football.”

Brady has a 3-3 all-time record against the Panthers, but his victory in Super Bowl 38 will always give him bragging rights in the Carolinas. 

The Tampa Bay wideouts vs Carolina’s secondary

Speaking of Brady, he’s got a pretty impressive group of pass catchers this season. On top of bringing himself down to Tampa, Brady’s move was enough to convince his buddy and Patriots partner Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement and join the Bucs.

Combine one of the most decorated tight ends in NFL history with two of the game’s most dangerous wide receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and suddenly the Bucs passing game can get scary. The Panthers secondary certainly has its work cut out for them on Sunday.

Despite the concerns surrounding Carolina’s young secondary last week, the unit allowed just 239 yards and one touchdown through the air. That’s particularly impressive considering the cornerback positions were manned by rookie Troy Pride Jr. and waiver acquisition Rasul Douglas, who had just joined the Panthers four days prior to kickoff. 

Starting cornerback Donte Jackson went out with an ankle injury early in the game against the Raiders and did not return, but since then, Jackson has been full-go in practice and head coach Matt Rhule said he expects him to play “really well” on Sunday. If not though, Rhule has faith in his young defensive backs.

“I was pleased with Troy Pride last week,” Rhule said. “What Troy Pride showed me last week is that he can do it, that he can run with guys down the field, he can compete. We saw that from Rasul. It’s the National Football League. Each and every week, we’re going to face really good receivers, going to face really great quarterbacks, great offenses, big physical offensive lines, great backs. This week is no exception.”

The Bucs’ receiving corps is a whole new problem compared to the Raiders’ receivers, though. Since entering the league in 2014, Evans ranks fourth in total receiving yards (7,262) and third in receiving touchdowns (49). Godwin, on the other hand, exploded onto the scene last year finishing third in receiving yards (1,333), including a whopping 272 yards in two outings against the Panthers.

The Panthers’ secondary may catch a break, though, as Godwin entered concussion protocol on Wednesday with delayed symptoms. But just because the wideout is in the protocol doesn’t necessarily mean he has a concussion or will miss the game. Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said the team is acting out of an abundance of caution, and Godwin told the media he’s fine.

Can the defense get pressure on Brady?

After posting 53 sacks to finish second in the league last year, expectations were high for Carolina’s defensive front entering 2020– especially when you factor in the return of Kawann Short and the addition of first-rounder Derrick Brown.

Well, the unit didn’t live up to the hype in Week 1, considering Raiders quarterback Derrick Carr was never sacked or even hit a single time. Granted, Carr has one of the quickest releases in the NFL, but still. How about a little pressure up front?

“I think the biggest thing that I took away from last week is we have guys who are more than capable, but we have to be a little bit more tenacious,” Rhule said. “We have to hit pass rush moves and use our hands better.”

According to Rhule, the problems he saw can be easily corrected, and he said the team had already gotten to work emphasizing them in practice this week. But when the defensive line hits the field on Sunday, they may be without a few key members. Rookie defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos will miss the game with a concussion, and Short suffered a foot injury last week against the Raiders. As of Thursday, Short hadn’t practiced this week. If he’s unavailable, then Rhule said the Panthers will turn to rookie Bravvion Roy and free agent acquisition Zach Kerr.

“I have a lot of confidence in Zach Kerr,” Rhule said. “Bravvion Roy we thought played really well this past game and then Efe (Obada) will give us some flexibility both as a defensive tackle and as a defensive end. Obviously, we’d love to have Yetur with us, but he won’t be and KK (Short) is doing the best he can to get ready.”

Shoring up the run defense

Raiders running back Josh Jacobs caused problems last week for the Panthers, as he tallied 93 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, leading Las Vegas to 133 total rushing yards. That pattern of getting gashed on the ground could continue this week if Carolina isn’t careful against the Bucs.

“I think it definitely starts with the run game,” linebacker Tahir Whitehead said of Tampa’s offense. “They have good physical backs, good shifty backs. You stop the run, you’ve got to try to make them one dimensional, and then put everything all on Brady.”

The team’s leading rusher from last season returns in running back Ronald Jones, and the Bucs also picked up former Jaguar top five draft pick Leonard Fournette in the offseason. Both backs were held in check last week against New Orleans, combining for just 71 yards, but the Saints also boast one of the league’s toughest run defenses. Last year with the Jags, Fournette totaled 137 scrimmage yards against the Panthers.

“This game presents a whole different set of problems, different runs schemes,” Rhule said. “I think for all of us, we weren’t happy with the screen game coming out of last week. This is another team that’s excellent in the screen game.”

The Panthers offense has to finish drives

It’s hard to argue with points on each of your first four drives. Anything is better than nothing. However, after moving the ball up and down the field at will, it’s a little deflating to see just 15 points on the board. 

Last week the Panthers struggled to close out drives and reach the end zone, instead settling for field goals on three of the offense’s first-half possessions. Again, any points are better than no points, but a touchdown on just one of those three drives would have been the difference in the game.

After two three-and-outs to start the second half, the Panthers put together back-to-back 75-plus-yard drives to reach the end zone. The key to that success? Deep shots, and feeding running back Christian McCaffrey. 

That may be difficult to do this week, though. The Bucs were one of the few teams last year capable of slowing down McCaffrey, holding the All-Pro to just 68 rushing yards in two games. As a result, the Panthers may have to rely on some of the offense’s other weapons. 

“The thing that we have to do is we have to take advantage of our opportunities when they’re there,” Rhule said. “You can’t force a square peg into a round hole sometimes. If the other team is determined to take something away, then you have to be well rounded enough that you can turn to something else.”

That means Sunday could end up being a big day for wide receivers Robby Anderson, DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel.

The Carolina Panthers take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at 1 p.m. EST on FOX.

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