Week 6 already in the NFL; I think most Panther fans are happy with our season so far. If they are not, then nothing would satisfy them. Can we improve? Definitely. Are we the best overall team out there? Don't know. But the way we have been playing we should be in the discussion.
We have two quality receivers that complement each other and the same can be said for our running back duo. Our offensive line is much improved over last year in spite of the injuries and have a two game streak without allowing a sack. On the defensive side our secondary is stronger than it has been in quite a few years, and the same can be said of the linebackers. The defensive line is still considered our weakness but even they have held their own.
Put it all together and the Panthers are pretty solid and match-up well against most teams. With Steve Smith back the last three games our offensive has continued to improve. Opposing teams have to respect the pass and deep ball. If Jake stops overthrowing Smith down field, yes overthrowing, as he did in the Chiefs game, then teams will have to respect him even more.
So far on the defensive side our rushing defensive has been tested every week. And you could say it's improved each week. 97, 92, 77, 55, 2 are the respective number of yards the team's top running back gained each week. Overall we are allowing 98.4 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry. Currently Tampa Bay is 8th in rushing yards per game, so our rushing defense again will need to be strong. But respecting only their rushing game will get our secondary burned as they can also pass the ball down field.
This was supposed to be a quick intro into the key match-ups. So, without further ado, let's take a look at where to expect some of the game changing aspects will come from.
Panthers DE Charles Johnson vs Bucs RT Jeremy Trueblood
Second year DE Charles Johnson stepped up his game big time last week against Kansas City. While he was only credited with one sack, but believes he should of had three. While it may seem strange to list a non-starter as a key match-up, I get the feeling that Johnson could be quite a factor. Since he's not a starter, he should draw less attention to himself and can make that extra play. The last few weeks the defensive line has shown several new looks and getting Johnson on the field doesn't mean he is weaker at that spot.
Panthers Cornerbacks vs Bucs QB Jeff Garcia
It looks like the Bucs are forced to go back to Jeff Garcia this week. Would it of happened anyway who knows, but with Brian Griese not practicing due to injuries Garcia will take the start again. Garcia likes the short quick passes and that could spell trouble with our corners. They like to play off the line of scrimmage which allows the underneath game to hurt them. That's one reason Minnesota was able to win. Tampa's running game is no joke and with the DL and LB having to keep the RB in check the corners will have to pick up their game. Our run defense has been tested over and over again, but we are moving into several games now where the passing game will be harder to cover.
Panthers MLB Jon Beason vs Bucs Running Backs
Another game another running back, or in this case two. Tampa currently uses two running backs; Earnest Graham has gotten 67 touches to Warrick Dunn's 53. They both average over 5 yards per carry and the team ranks 8th overall is yards per game. However, they only have 3 total rushing touchdowns between the pair. Unlike in previous game where we can solely focus on the rushing game, we have to respect both. That makes it all that much important for the Panthers LB to fill their gaps.
Panthers LT Frank Omiyale vs Bucs RE Gaines Adams
Again this week we are not 100% sure who will be starting on the OL. Frank Omiyale started his first game last week, although he's been in the league since 2005. He played well but faces another challenge if Jordan Gross remains out with a concussion. Gaines Adams has 14 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 passes knockdowns, and two interceptions (one returned for a TD) so far this season. Our OL has been playing quite well despite the injuries. I am very impress they haven't allowed a sack in the last two games. In the Atlanta game I was expecting Abraham to get at least one and probably record multiple sacks but he was ineffective most of the game. If Omiyale and the rest can protect Jake Delhomme he should able to take advantage of the Bucs secondary.
UPDATE 10/10/08 8:30 AM: Apparently Jordan Gross thinks he should play on Sunday. But I haven't seen anywhere confirming this or if the Doctors approve. If this is true it is welcomed news. The match-up still matters however, but Jordan is the better play with more experience which should be even better protection.
Panthers QB Jake Delhomme vs Bucs Secondary
Just like our secondary will have to watch out for Garcia and his short game, the Bucs secondary will have to watch out for Delhomme and his long game. While John Fox likes to use the running game to open the passing game I would expect a few more plays down field to soften the Bucs D. The Bucs rank 24th in passing defense and 14th on defense (16th overall).
Panthers TE Dante Rosario vs Bucs LB's
I think Dante Rosario could be back again this week and have a major impact. Will he have the same impact as the San Diego game, probably not. However, if the coaching staff calls the naked bootleg again, Rosario should be at the receiving end of a few of those. The Bucs cornerbacks are a bit more experienced than the previous two opponents which means both Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammad could find it a little more difficult to get open. Rosario has the size and has shown the ability to have a presence on the field, but unfortunately the TE doesn't get called upon in the passing game that often. I am a BIG fan of the TE position and loved to watch Wesley Walls back in the day. A good TE can pose trouble for a lot of teams and if they can block and catch the defense has to account for them on every play.
To wrap-up, on both sides of the ball we both match up fairly well. Neither team appears to have a major advantage. However, I give the edge to the Panthers on overall team talent and in a few key areas.
As I said before the Atlanta game, our team will be defined by these games going into our buy week. We are gaining respect around the league, if we win at least two of these games, most importantly against our division, everyone will have to respect us. It will be a hard win this week, don't expect anything close to the Kansas City game or even the Atlanta game. Tampa should be fired up to play after a hard loss to Denver last week and will want to win. Also given the fact this is a division game means even more. The Panthers better sharpen their claws; it's Wolverine versus Davy Jones whoever wants it more will win.
UPDATE 10/10/08 8:30 AM: Added information about Jordan Gross