The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-8), now on a three-game win streak, hope to avenge a 31-13 loss earlier this season by knocking off the Carolina Panthers (8-3), who have won seven straight and are in the hunt for the NFC South divisional title in a tight race with the New Orleans Saints.
“They’re obviously the hottest team in the league right now,” head coach Greg Schiano said of the Panthers. “They’re incredibly well-coached. It’s probably the top defense if you look through every category, if you add them all up.”
The Panthers have allowed the fewest points of any team in the National Football League, surrendering just 13.7 points per game, better than the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks. They’re second in the league in red zone defense, allowing just nine touchdowns in 26 red zone possessions.
They also rank first in the league in scoring defense and have picked off opposing quarterbacks 15 times out of the last 387 passing attempts, the fourth-best mark in the league and just one above the Bucs, who have a 3.70% pick-off percentage.
Linebacker Luke Kuechley, along with safeties Mike Mitchell and Robert Lester have each recorded three interceptions this season.
Coaching hot seat
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has been in Greg Schiano’s shoes. Last season, Rivera’s team started the season 1-6 before roaring back to a 7-9 finish by winning five of the last six games. This season, they started 1-3, with Rivera sitting at 14-23 heading into Week 6, meaning he was back on the hot seat before the streak began.
“Last year I was in the same situation and we got on a roll at the end of the year and now this year we’ve gotten on a roll again. It’s just so hard to win in this league and you’ve got to develop your team first. I think people have to be willing to take the lumps and accept it,” Rivera said of Schiano, comparing the expectations of new head coaches to the changing expectations of rookie players.
“There was a time back in the day when guys would be drafted in the first and second round and nobody expected him to play until three-four years down the line. Now you draft a guy and everybody says why isn’t he on the field, he’s a bust. Well everybody wants that instant gratification and I think it’s the same thing when you bring in a new head coach and everybody says ‘He should be great at what he’s doing, they should be winning right now.’”
Rivera preached patience to fans and ownership when evaluating new head coaches like Schiano, explaining that it takes time to develop teams.
“If you’re not looking pie in the sky you sit there and go ‘Wow they need to do this, they need to do that, that guy needs to develop, that guy needs time, oh they’ve got to replace this guy, or this guy’s got to grow.’ I like who Tampa Bay is going to become and they’re on their way. Coach Schiano’s doing a great job. It’s just again be patient and just stick with it.”
An offensive juggernaut
The last time these two teams squared off, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw for 221 passing yards and two touchdowns, rushing for a third touchdown with 50 yards on the ground. Surprisingly enough, Newton’s actually running less than in his previous two years, but his throws outside the pocket have given the Bucs and a number of other teams the most trouble.
“[Panthers offensive coordinator] Mike Shula has been able to get Cam to stay within himself and he still runs, he still does all the things that make exciting, but he doesn’t force passes. He’s doing all the things that winning quarterbacks do,” Schiano said.
“He’s a great athlete so he’s going to make plays, but you’ve just got to limit those plays down the field,” said middle linebacker Mason Foster. “Don’t let him escape with his feet and make throws outside the pocket. Just keep him in there and try to contain [him].”
A big part of Newton’s success has been veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, who will battle against cornerback Darrelle Revis. Revis has been limited by a groin strain and actually missed two days of practice this week. Smith has served as motivation to get him back out on the field.
“It would be good to knock them off. Don’t get me wrong, they’re playing lights out. [Carolina quarterback] Cam Newton is playing great this year. They’re rolling. On offense and defense they’re rolling and they’re a great team,” Revis said.
“We’re not shying down. We played against another great team a couple of weeks ago in Seattle and we hung in with them well. We feel that we can beat this team and try to get our fourth win under our belt.”
In the first quarter of October’s Thursday night matchup, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen went completely unaccounted for when he grabbed a 1-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone.
“I think [Olsen] is every bit in the league with [Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham],” said Schiano. “He is a big-play guy for them and he’s a very good route runner – very good. I know Greg from years back. He’s a football coach’s son and he’s a football guy. He understands the game, he has the feel what coverages are doing to him. He’s a big part of [Carolina’s] offense.”
With so much attention fixated on Smith, Olsen, the team’s second-leading receiver, sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. He currently has the fifth-most touchdown catches in the league at that position and is fifth in the league in catches of 20 yards or more.
Know your identity
Tampa Bay’s ground game didn’t fare so well last week against the Detroit Lions, managing just 22 rushing yards. Against the Panthers, the Bucs also struggled with 48 yards rushing. Despite those numbers offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said the team won’t lose sight of its identity as a run-first football team.
“It’s easy at times to be tempted to [say], ‘Oh, let’s just go ahead and throw it,’ but I think that persistence just to stay with it, whether it’s a tackle for loss or a penalty or something that sets us back,” said Sullivan, who believes patience and a commitment to the run game will allow for big shots downfield.
“Ultimately, if we could just have the patience, and that we have that dual-threat, then you do have the defenders, I think, being a little bit more aggressive and they’re stepping up and just biting a little bit more, if you will, like what happened on [wide receiver] Tiquan’s [Underwood] long touchdown pass.”
The key is doing it on their terms and not playing from behind, Sullivan said.
This will be the 27th time these two teams meet. The Panthers lead the all-time series 15-11.
The Bucs are 6-7 against the Panthers on the road.