The long wait is finally over!
I don't know about the rest of you (I could hazard a guess), but I've been waiting for this game since April. The kiddy gloves come off this Sunday when we make our opening debut first in a set of four of our opening five games against divisional opponents. It's going to be imperative for us to start off hot this season. If we can manage to get chalk up a win against these opponents then we'll go a long way toward setting the tone for the rest of the season, giving us a leg up in the division.
That starts with Tampa Bay. After a hot season two years ago, the Bucs faltered last year resulting in a departure of Raheem Morris. The Bucs are clearly in a rebuilding mode. For several season now, their defense, once the envy of the NFL, has been getting older and older and the replacing talent has been sub-optimal. That might change though. The Bucs drafted S Mark Barron in this past draft and are looking to get younger on defense. But this kind of rebuilding will take time and it should be a good match-up for the Panthers.
X-Factor: RB Jonathon Stewart
Whether it's Cam Newton setting records or J-Stew dribbling Ronde Barber en route to a touchdown, the Panthers always seem to be able to get an excellent ground game going against the Bucs. Stewart in particular has been fantastic in previous match-ups against them, but after suffering an ankle sprain in the third game of the preseason, it's not 100% clear whether or not he will be good to go for the opening starter. If Jonathon Stewart is ready, expect to see some more legendary stiff arms from the powerful runner.
Battle in the Air: Panthers Passing vs. Bucs Secondary
While the highlight of many of our recent match ups may be in the run game, our passing attack was just as effective against the Bucs both games. It was in one of these match ups last season that LaFell broke the Panthers record for longest TD in Carolina history, breaking off a 91 yard TD bomb with the help of some savvy blocking from the veteran Steve Smith. That one play will be long remembered by the Panthers faithful, but doesn't do justice to the explosive passing attack that has come to characterize our game.
In the first meeting between the two, the Panthers put together no less than 5 "explosive" passing plays, or passes that went for more than 20 yards. Almost every reception seemed to be a big one and every receiver caught one except for Legedu Naanee (19 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (12 yards) giving Newton nearly 17 yards per completion.
Now, I can't really speak for the Bucs because if I were them, I'd have gone with Morris Claiborne to shore up a secondary that really needs help. They decided to get cute like a lot of teams, trading back to grab some more picks instead and missed out on him. However, they did take the best safety in the draft with Mark Barron in order to help limit these explosive plays that saw us put 38 and 48 points on them both games. Will it be enough though? I honestly doubt it. Not to undermine the Bucs, but their defense was almost as bad last year as ours, and the margins are razor thin there (Football Outsiders puts us at 32nd in overal defensive DVOA... Bucs at 31st). But there is some talent there. As much as I dislike Aqib Talib, he has the skills to play in the NFL and when he's not injured, he's good (7th in yards allowed among CBs). Problem is, Smith is better. and he was cleared to play so that poses a big problem for the Bucs. Barber really struggled last season as well... All in all, I expect Newton to be able to find his WRs and attack down field again this weekend.
Battle in the Trenches: Carolina Rushing vs. Tampa's Front Seven
Perhaps criminally undervalued last season was the potency of our run game, even by some of us around here. I remember going into the last few weeks of the season and realizing that somehow despite some pretty mediocre stats and the early season struggles, we had climbed all the way to 3rd in the NFL in yards per game on the ground and as I've mentioned before, the Panthers always seem to hammer the Bucs in the ground game. We gained 163 and 270 yards in the two meetings last season, all without a single player breaking 100 yards total.
In the first game, Cam punched the ball in 3 times for TDs and 54 yards. Stewart added another score and 80 yards. The next game? Cam broke off the longest run of his career thus far, a 49 yard scamper where he dragged two defenders into the endzone. As for double trouble? Stewart only had a 12.6 ypc while D.Will had a 9.4 and two scores, one from 22 yards out. Like I said... the Panthers can run on the Bucs. I didn't even mention bringing Tolbert into the equation yet!
Now that doesn't mean the Bucs don't have talent. They ignored their defensive line in the draft because they have a good corp of young players who they believe can develop into a force. Da'Quan Bowers will be back after suffering a late season ending injury and their MLB Mason Foster is also very talented. I am willing to bet that there will be a focus on stopping the run game this time around against us. I'm not going to predict another 250+ ground game for us, but I can easily see us eclipsing 120 again on the ground.
Closing Remarks: I'm not Just a Homer
Wonder if I think this is a very favorable match up for the Panthers? Well, it's not just because I'm psyched about our offense, because I am. This is going to be the first time we see the Bucs on the field after a really atrocious 2011 season. They started off well enough, but they fell off in a hurry and once they did, there was no coming back. I do think the Bucs will be harder to beat this time around, if for no other reason than I expect their offense will sustain more drives, giving us fewer opportunities. But our defense will also be improved, so that counteracts this effect.
In short, I just need to see some of Schiano's Buccaneers before I start giving them the benefit of the doubt in stopping the most explosive offense in the NFL last year and a run game that always seems to find a way to exploit them.