Tale Of The Tape: Carolina Panthers At Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- QuarterbackThe Panthers were one of the top stories of the year in 2013, but they can’t take their success for granted in this new season. Cam Newton keyed the team’s rise a year ago, and he will try to build off that success. However, he begins the year with a broken rib that could limit his running and throwing. The Panthers may struggle if he can’t play with his normal sense of freedom.The Lovie Smith era begins with a chance to beat the defending NFC South champions. Smith and Bucs brought in former Chicago backup Josh McCown to lead the offense. If he can get decent protection from the Tampa Bay offensive line, he has a chance to pick up from where he left off with the Bears. McCown is an accurate thrower who makes solid decisions in the pocket.
- OffenseThe Panthers chose not to bring back veteran receiver Steve Smith, and that’s a decision that is likely to hurt them as the 2014 season progresses. Newton has a good working rapport with tight end Greg Olsen, but he will need to find a go-to wide receiver. The running game should be in excellent shape with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.The Bucs have some decent skill-position weapons, and the best of them is wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who can stretch the field and make game-changing plays. If McCown can find him early, the Bucs may be able to play with the lead in this game. Tough-minded running back Doug Martin can make key yards between the tackles and refuses to go down on the first hit.
- DefenseThe Panthers played a nasty and aggressive brand of defense a year ago and ranked fourth in yards allowed. Defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are dominating pass rushers (26.0 combined sacks) who are formidable against the run. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly holds the defense together and had 156 tackles last year.Smith made his name as a defensive coach with the Bucs and Rams before he got his head coaching opportunity with the Bears, and he should be prepared to turn the defense around. The Bucs ranked 17th in overall defense last year, and Smith would like to turn them into a top-10 unit. New cornerback Alterraun Verner had five interceptions last year and is a legitimate ball hawk.
- Special TeamsThe Panthers do a good job of limiting opponents from making big plays in the return game, and that helps the defense considerably. Placekicker Graham Gano made 24-of-27 FG attempts last season, while Brad Nortman has a strong leg and averaged 47.8 yards per punt.The Bucs are hoping that backup running back Bobby Rainey can handle the punt return chores and help them get decent field position. Michael Koenen has decent leg strength but he has been an ordinary punter. He averaged. 44.2 yards per punt, but his net was just 38.3 yards.
While the Panthers have all the measurable edges in this game, the Bucs have the intangibles on their side. They are at home in the first game of the Smith era, and they should have a raucous crowd behind them. If they can hang in for three quarters, they may be able to pull off the fourth-quarter upset. -Steve Silverman, CBS Local Sports