Let's jump right in:
Panthers defensive Stats - Game Averages
|Def||19.2||313.3 (11th)||200.5 (12th)||112.8 (18th)|
Tampa Bay offensive Stats - Game Averages
|Off||23.3||335.4 (14th)||217.4 (12th)||118.0 (11th)|
On paper we match-up well. Neither team has a great advantage over the other. So this game will come down to the little details. Here's how I see it.
1. QB Jeff Garcia or RB Warrick Dunn
Who is more of a threat? I was a bit surprised to find that the Bucs rank 6th in attempted passes (419) while Carolina is dead last on the list with only 329. We also rank 10th and 8th respectively in rush attempts (348 to 360).
However, Tampa averages 6.5 yards per completion (ranked 23rd) while or D is ranked 4th with 6.2 allowed. And they rush 4.1 yards per attempt (ranked 17th) while or D is also ranked 17th at 4.1 allowed.
While anyone can pull plenty of stats to support a lot of different viewpoints, I take from this I still have trust in our bend but don't break secondary, but not so much faith in our run defense at this point. To answer my own question I see Warrick Dunn as the bigger threat right now. While the Panthers do struggle with the shorter passes, overall Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas with Charles Godfrey and Chris Harris over the top, they are able to hold their own.
I haven't given much love to our DT this year and probably for good reason, but I'm looking for a big game from Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis. Maybe not with stats, but with clogging the middle forcing the Bucs RB to the outside allowing the strength of our team make the play.
2. Limit Penalties
While our penalty problems are no where near as bad as the beginning of the season, the defense will need to keep their mistakes to a minimum. In our losses to Minnesota and Tampa we watched in disbelief at some of the penalties that either killed our offensive drives or allowed the opponent to stay on the field.
3. Force turnovers
The Panthers rank 8th in forced fumbles with 13 and Julius Peppers is 2nd in the league with 5. For interceptions the Panthers are ranked in a large group at 17th with 10. On the other hand, the Jeff Garcia has only thrown 3 int this year and the team only has 9 fumbles. So while the Bucs rarely turn the ball over, the Panthers will need to make the Bucs increase those numbers. QB Jeff Garcia has 2 fumbles, RB Earnest Graham had 2 before placed on IR, RB/KR/PR Clifton Smith has 2, WR Michael Clayton has 1, as does WR Maurice Stovall.
I see the best chance for a turnover to be caused by our defensive ends, either Julius Peppers or Charles Johnson. As Garcia is more than willing to leave the pocket, it will up to our DE to keep in him in check and make him lose a couple.
4. Special Teams
While this may not completely count in the defensive category, when we kickoff or punt the other team will have the ball so I'm looking at this part of it.
First, we CANNOT spot Tampa the same 7 points as our last match-up at any point in the game. As close as this game should be, those types of mistakes will be costly. To our credit we have vastly improved on this aspect.
Second, Bucs KR/PR Clifton Smith has exploded on the scene for Tampa their last 5 games. Even returned the first Tampa special teams TD in quite some time. He was even named the NFC's special team player for the month of November. The Panthers, however, also have an improved kick/punt return game with our own Mark Jones being named Special Team player of the week. Neither team can afford to lose the field position game. The one that does will be playing up hill.
5. Home Field
The NFC South has only lost two games at home this season (Atlanta to Denver and the Saints to Minnesota) and nobody has lost at home against another NFC South opponent. I can't say if this is a good thing as trends love to be broken, but I also won't say its a bad thing. Our home crowd should be as pumped as ever and could play an important role in this game.
There's going to be a lot of pressure on our defense to have a big day, but I think the most pressure will be on our defensive line. Their play will be the biggest difference.
While I fully expect the Panthers are capable of winning this game, the defense has given me pause to fully expect a win. However, if the Panthers have taught me anything it's not to count them out, as soon as their backs are against the wall, it's when they come out the hardest. So with that in mind I look forward to watching the Panthers regain the NFC South lead.
Predication: Panthers 23, Bucs 21