Tonight’s Thursday Night Football matchup features two NFC division rivals, as the Carolina Panthers travel to Tampa Bay to face off against the Buccaneers.
While the Panthers are trying to continue their hunt for a playoff spot, the Buccaneers are still trying to land their first win of the season. Each team will have one major roadblock that they will need to overcome in order to earn a victory tonight.
For the Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have had a disastrous season up to this point.
They cut Josh Freeman, who was projected to be their quarterback of the future. Mike Glennon, a rookie out of NC State, has struggled to get the team over the hump since taking over under center.
Head coach Greg Schiano hasn’t had the success that was expected out of him when the Buccaneers’ management hired him out of Rutgers two seasons ago.
Although both of those issues have been extremely problematic, there might not be a bigger obstacle to overcome than the loss of their leading rusher, Doug Martin, for the rest of the season with a torn labrum in his shoulder.
There will be a platoon of players looking to fill the large shoes left by Martin, led by veteran Brian Leonard and rookie Mike James.
Leonard, who came into the league out of Rutgers as a fullback, has only three rushing attempts while gaining just six yards in 2013. He will receive more carries without Martin on the roster, but there are no promises that Leonard will produce at a high level.
In his first seven seasons, Leonard has only rushed for 652 yards and has yet to score a touchdown.
Due to this, James, the rookie running back out of Miami who was selected in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL draft, will need to emerge as the Buccaneers' featured back.
James has rushed 17 times this season and gained 57 yards, which is good enough for 3.4 yards per carry.
A big game for either Leonard or James would go a long way in securing the team’s first win of the season. If both players struggle to get anything going on the ground, look for Tampa Bay to make a splash before the NFL trade deadline.
For the Panthers
The biggest roadblock for tonight’s game for Carolina is limiting big plays from Buccaneers veteran receiver Vincent Jackson.
Jackson has 544 receiving yards and five touchdowns this season. He averages over 15 yards per reception, which is something that the Panthers secondary will need to focus on in order to limit the Buccaneers' offensive output.
Part of shutting Jackson down would be to force turnovers against young players such as Glennon and James.
Turnovers have been a strong suit for the Panthers this season; they have nine interceptions (tied for sixth in the league) and seven forced fumbles (tied for eighth in the league).
The Panthers have a sufficient pass rush and are going against a mid-level Tampa Bay offensive line. Pressuring Glennon on a consistent basis will force the rookie signal caller to make costly mistakes against the Panthers’ ball hawking secondary, and it would limit the time he has in the pocket to wait for Jackson to make plays downfield.
They will also need to force the unproven group of Buccaneer running backs, led by James and Leonard, to make mistakes. Forcing turnovers in the running game would force Tampa Bay to pass the ball at a higher rate.
The Buccaneers' inexperience against top defenses will bode very well for the Panthers, who have a dominant front-seven that is led by second-year linebacker Luke Kuechly and rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
If the Panthers can limit Jackson's production, they have a good chance at walking out of Raymond James Stadium with a victory.
The Panthers will win by two touchdowns.
The combination of the Panthers’ stingy defense, as well as their Cam Newton-led offense, will be too much for this inexperienced Buccaneers team to handle.
This will be Greg Schiano’s last game as the head coach of the Buccaneers. Buccaneers players have even begun to express dissatisfaction with Schiano. Add that with the current losing streak, and it's all adding up to Schiano being out of a job heading into next week.