This is it Panther fans. The Sunday we've all been waiting for, and what better way to open the season than against our division rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs will have returning quarterback Josh Freeman, along with Aqib Talib and Gerald McCoy back for the opener. They have also added a few new faces to the mix, with the addition of left guard Carl Nicks (formerly from New Orleans), wide receiver Vincent Jackson (San Diego Chargers), and tight end Dallas Clark (Colts), as well as drafting Mark Barron and Doug Martin. These new faces will have a lot on their hands, as the Panthers hope to start the season 1-0 for the first time since the 2008-2009 season.
We have heard plenty of how the Buccaneers fans think they will surprise some teams. The Panthers look to do the same.
Chris Gamble vs. Vincent Jackson
Vincent Jackson appears to be the best number one receiver the Buccaneers have had in years, and he will look to cement himself among the NFL's elite once again this season. However, he will have to start his career with the new team against arguably the NFC South's best coverage corner, Chris Gamble. Gamble had a great year last season. We saw Gamble shut down the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Greg Jennings, and many others, having one of his best years as a player. He recorded 3 interceptions, but was in the top tier of the NFL in just about every category when it comes to being a corner (thrown to, catch percentage, etc.) Gamble will face Jackson for the majority of Sundays game, all 6 foot 5, 230 pounds of him. This matchup could be key, as the Panthers linebackers will look to try and shut down the run game of the Buccaneers, and keep Freeman in check. Also look for Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn to try and keep control of Tampa's other young wideouts, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn.
Luke Kuechly vs. Dallas Clark
Well folks, he is who we thought he was. Luke Kuechly appears to be the real deal, racking up 17 tackles, one forced fumble, and a pass deflection in 3 games (where he didn't play the entire game) during the preseason. As we all know, the Panthers pass defense was awful last season, and a large part of that was due to tight ends. Our injury ridden linebacking corps could not keep up with the many dynamic tight ends that we faced. This season, all 3 other teams in the NFC South feature a threat at tight end, with Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzales, and the aforementioned Dallas Clark. Clark is a veteran of this league, who played many seasons with Peyton Manning. This will be his first season away from the Colts, and he looks to help reignite the Buccaneers. However, we all saw Luke Kuechly's cover skills in the offseason and preseason. This will be an exciting match to watch, as Kuechly, Beason, and Anderson will look to control the middle of the field and make some plays against the run. Clark could create problems if he gets the better of Kuechly, making this a truly key matchup.
Ryan Kalil (and the guards) vs. Geral McCoy
Gerald McCoy has been a curious case for the Buccaneers. He was the 3rd overall pick in the 2010 draft, right behind Pro Bowler Ndamakong Suh, and has since battled injury after injury during his short career. The Bucs are pretty high on him, and if he can stay healthy he could create big problems for the Panthers offensive line. He will match up against Ryan Kalil, Geoff Hangartner, and sometimes Amini Silatolu. While Kalil is one of the best at his position, he will need to help out with the veteran and the young rookie against the big defensive tackle. McCoy has the potential to be a disruptive defensive lineman, and the offensive line will need to keep Cam Newton upright to win this game.
Deangelo Williams vs. Tampa Bay rush defense
I really couldn't think of anyone who would stick out for the Bucs here, but they know as well as anyone that the Panther run game is something to take quite seriously. The Bucs have 4 returning starters on the defensive line, along with a young linebacking group, lead in the middle by Mason Foster. They also added Lavonte David and have returning veteran Quincy Black who will try to plug the holes and shut down the Panthers run game. However, the Panthers 3rd ranked rushing attack will be returning full force and will try to trample the Bucs. The Panthers running attack will be lead by Deangelo Williams, backed up by recently added running back Mike Tolbert, and the retained Jonathan Stewart, giving them a fearsome foursome with Cam Newton at the helm. However, there is a problem this week. Stewart's ankle is still healing, and while no official word is out on whether he will practice or not, the Panthers have gameplanned in case he doesn't play. As we have all seen, Stewart turns it on against the Bucs, serving out stiff arms like he's working the soup kitchen. If he doesn't play, the Panthers will use Williams as a feature back, and will use Mike Tolbert in a more expanded role (if that's even possible).
This game is a tale of two cities trying to prove themselves once again. The NFL was put on notice last season for the Panthers, now its time to deliver and keep pounding til we are in the playoffs. The best way to start the new season is a divisional victory over the Buccaneers.