As I discussed yesterday, the vaunted Carolina Panthers offense should be able to move the ball with success against a struggling Tampa Bay defense. I have the Panthers dominating all three facets on offense (run, pass, X-factor), but on defense its an entirely different story. We know what's happening here, the defensive line is mediocre and tired, the secondary is playing badly and we're playing 4th and 5th string linebackers. Regardless, lets see how the Panthers stack up on D.
X-Factor: Josh Freeman
There's one undeniable truth in the NFL: If your team has a decent defense, you run the ball well and don't turn it over you'll win games. In 2011 this is best typified by Tim Tebow, a player who's doing nothing special at the QB position but whose team is winning because of these facts. The same can be said of Josh Freeman in 2010 who only threw 6 interceptions; with a decent defense and LeGarrette Blount the Bucs managed to reach 10 wins last season, this season they can't reach that total.
While there are a variety of factors, Freeman's propensity to turn the ball over can't be underestimated. Thus far he has 16 interceptions, one of the few QBs in the league with more than Cam Newton. Freeman has regressed in 2011 as far as his decision making goes. There are times he looks like the same QB as last year, but others where he'll attempt a pass that is an utter head scratcher. These have happened most often when teams have been able to get a lot of pressure on Freeman, something I don't have a lot of faith the Carolina Panthers will be able to do.
Carolina run defense Vs. Tampa Bay run offense
Like Freeman, LeGarrette Blount has also taken a step back this season. At times he looks like an utterly dominant running back, at other times he's struggled with gap identification and made questionable change of direction decisions. In four games he's averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry, but in another five contests he's averaged over 5.0 yards. Even though he tends to be a Jekyl and Hyde RB, I think he has more than enough ability to get past a terrificly mediocre Panthers DL. This could get ugly.
Carolina pass defense Vs. Tampa Bay pass offense
I think Josh Freeman will turn up and play tomorrow, but lets look at his wide receivers. I have a lot of faith the Chris Gamble will nullify Mike Williams, which leaves Arrelious Benn and Kellen Winslow. Benn has been a big play threat this season when Freeman has been able to get him the ball and I'm deeply concerned that a big receiver like Benn will get the better of Captain Munnerlyn. Then we come to Winslow whose been great at picking up yards, but struggled getting into the endzone.
In the end I think Chris Gamble becomes a difference maker taking Mike Williams out of the game and disrupts Freeman's reads, but he still has two very good receivers available the Panthers don't really have an answer for.
The Carolina Panthers get a very slight edge with a game rating of 3.5 vs. 2.5 for the Buccaneers. Everything hinges on Carolina's ability to control LeGarrette Blount while limiting mistakes on offense. When it's all said and done I think the Panthers get the victory in a high scoring affair.
Final Score: Carolina 27 - Tampa Bay 23