Carolina will go in to Tampa Bay with the unfortunate but helpful injuries to a few key starters. Doug Martin is likely lost for the season with a torn labrum, guard Carl Nicks has already been ruled out of Thursday's game, and Dashon Goldson likely won't play either. Mark Barron practiced on a limited basis, but will likely play. It remains to be seen if his hip injury will hamper his play at all.
Steve Smith vs. Darrelle Revis
Last week, Janoris Jenkins learned who his daddy is, but I don't expect the same result this week. If there's any semblance of common sense in that coaching staff, they will make Darrelle Revis stick to Smith like glue. Steve Smith had his best game of the season last week against Jenkins, who stepped in to cover Smitty for the injured Courtland Finnegan. I would expect Tampa Bay to try and take him away as best they can. Though Cam has finally started to trust his other receivers, Steve Smith still remains his favorite target. The Panthers don't often win if Steve Smith can't get open. It will be quite a battle between the Panthers all-time greatest receiver and one of the best players at his position, in his prime in Revis. We know Smith can get frustrated if a corner is shutting him down, so we can hope that Smith finds a way to get open here.
Gerald McCoy vs. Travelle Wharton and Chris Scott
I saw a comment earlier today from one of our readers that said "Gerald McCoy pretty much beat the Panthers single handed last year". It stinks, but its true. And he's primed for another field day on Thursday. Wharton finally had a good game on Sunday, while Chris Scott struggled per usual. Hopefully Ryan Kalil can help nullify this, but he struggled Sunday against Michael Brockers, who is a darn good defensive tackle as well. The Bucs will likely try to take the run game away early as Carolina has made their mark this season off of running the ball well. Interior pressure can destroy both the run game and passing game if left unchecked. Last season Carolina managed a measly 31 points in two games against the Bucs, and a lot of it had to do with McCoy. Cam is decent at avoiding exterior pressure, but very few quarterbacks can flourish when a defensive tackle is getting in their face.
Vincent Jackson vs. Please God Not Josh Thomas
Jackson has been about the only bright spot in Tampa Bay's offense in 2013. He's already logged 544 yards and four touchdowns in six games with rookie Mike Glennon taking over at quarterback for an inept and shackled Josh Freeman. Last season Jackson also had a lot to do with sweeping Carolina, as Tampa Bay was the only team who swept us in our division. The Panthers have been shuffling in Drayton Florence and Melvin White for the rotation with Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn. Josh Thomas has been pretty good at stopping the run, but has gotten burned more than any of our other cornerbacks this season. I don't see any of those names who can lock down Jackson without help, but Josh Thomas is the last person who should be doing it. Mike Williams is no joke either, but Jackson has been a consistent threat this year and will likely be a focal point of the offense that now lacks Doug Martin.
Donald Penn vs. Greg Hardy
Hardy hasn't been putting up quite the numbers you might expect on paper (though 4 sacks is pretty good for only six games), but he's been having a fine season collapsing the pocket and getting consistent pressure. It really shows when you consider that 4 players not on the defensive line have gotten sacks. Of our 15 sacks, 7 of them have come from non-defensive lineman. This shows that teams are trying to nullify our fearsome front four, and are paying for it when Carolina sends additional pressure. Taking from Crawford's fantastic article about blitzing thus far, it is important to note that Carolina is only 28th in the league as far as actually applying added pressure, but are the 7th highest team at getting unblocked sacks. Part of this has to do with trying to keep our four man rush at bay.
The Bucs will need to try and scheme to slow our rush to keep their rookie QB upright. And part of this would come from trusting Penn to block Hardy. Some would argue Penn is a bit overrated, but he's a very good tackle and it should be a good matchup to watch. If the Bucs need to start pulling added protection to keep Hardy off of Mike Glennon then expect McDermott to dial up some more exotic blitz packages. The key to keeping Jackson and Williams from tearing us up will be to smack around the quarterback, something we do best.
This victory is really key for the Carolina Panthers. We face another "should beat" team before we face Atlanta. The Panthers need wins like this one for any chance at a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. The Saints will likely have the division won barring a meltdown, so Carolina will need every win we can get with teams like the NFC North battling it out with close records for the top of their division. And it would please every Tampa Bay fan and coach if they could beat us and make the playoffs a lot more of a dream.