Bucs Vs. Panthers: Typical NFC South Catfight

Jeff BerlinickeContributor IMay 28, 2009

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 16: Defensive tackle Chris Hovan #95 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers watches play against the Minnesota Vikings at Raymond James Stadium on November 16, 2008 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Panthers at Bucs, Oct. 18
Bucs at Panthers, Dec. 6

Jeff Berlinicke

TAMPA – The Carolina Panthers won’t take a long time to scout this season. They are basically the same team that went 1-1 against the Bucs last season on the way to a 12-4 record that culminated with a disastrous 33-13 loss in the playoffs to the Arizona Cardinals.

The Bucs played arguably their best game of the season in a 27-3 rout of the Panthers in Week 6 last year. The defense pestered Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme all day, but that’s when the Bucs held first place in the NFC South and looked like they would be a lock for the playoffs. It was a 38-23 loss at Carolina that started the four-game losing streak that ended the Bucs season and knocked the Bucs out of the playoffs.

When the two teams face off this season, Chris Hovan could be the key figure for the Bucs. Shutting down the Panthers running game is crucial and Hovan is the big man in the box. Here's why:

The Bucs have made changes on both sides of the ball. With a new quarterback, and new keys to the running and passing game, the Bucs will present a whole new look.

Carolina, though, despite its meltdown against Arizona, is the same team. Delhomme is still quarterback and has no one breathing down his neck (Bucs starting quarterback Luke McCown’s brother Josh McCown is Delhomme’s backup), and the offense still revolves around running back DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart. Between them, they rushed for 2,437 yards last season.

As with the Bucs against the other three NFC South teams, it will be up to the men in the box to stop the Panthers. The division lacks any quarterbacks who are going to light up the scoreboard and Williams and Stewart will test Bucs tackles Hovan, Ryan Sims and rookie Roy Miller.

It will be important for Miller to step his game up early in his rookie season to complement Sims since every one of the Bucs games against their division opponents start at 1 p.m. Trips to New Orleans and Atlanta will be indoors, but the sweltering heat will make it necessary for the Bucs to have some room for versatility on the line.

Steve Smith is one of the best receivers in the NFL when he isn’t suspended and Muhsin Muhammad is an excellent No. 2 for Delhomme. Delhomme will be remembered for his six-turnover effort in the Arizona game, which included five interceptions, but he knows how to control the ball and isn’t turnover-prone. 

The offensive line is the same as well. Coach John Fox hasn’t changed his run first, throw later philosophy and won’t change this year even though rumors constantly have him on the hot seat, possibly to be replaced by former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. The curious thing about those rumors is that Cowher and Fox share the exact same philosophies.

The Panthers were terrible down the playoff stretch last season and didn’t do anything during the off-season to fortify the defensive pass coverage. In fact, they even traded their first-round pick for the second straight season.

It’s a team without a lot of depth and, since Luke McCown or backup quarterback Byron Leftwich will have some experience by the time the Panthers show up on the schedule, they might be able to pick apart the Panthers secondary.

The Panthers are strong up front, but perennial Pro Bowler Julius Peppers continues to make it clear that there are plenty of things more finer that to be in Carolina and he wants out. Peppers is the key to the defense and is a terror from the right defensive end position. He’ll give Bucs left tackle Donald Penn, the weak link on the Bucs line, a nightmare.

This is a team that can be beaten by the pass, especially with the Bucs dump and run tendency. New coach Raheem Morris has said he wants to be more vertical than horizontal this year with his passing game, but the Panthers are a team cut out for a quarterback than can go just 10 yards at a time.

The Panthers over the past few years have been as erratic as the Bucs. They probably weren’t as good as the team that went 12-4 last year and they aren’t a team likely to go into the tank.

In the NFC South, where teams have as many personalities from year to year as Sybil, they fit in perfectly. It’s easy to predict that the Panthers take the first meeting at home and, whichever one is out of it by the rematch in December, will be in trouble. If the Bucs are still in contention, it will be a pivotal game, the third in a string of games against NFC South competition.

LAST SECOND SHOT: Has anyone noticed that the ultra-classy Derrick Brooks has shown no intention of trying to come back even though he has some gas left in the tank?

Brooks seemed to have lost a step towards the end of last season, but he’d be a great influence inside the locker room and as a part-timer backer just about anywhere. He’d be a great fit, for instance, in Jacksonville and might even help to sell some tickets with his Florida State pedigree.

Instead, Brooks is hanging them up as a Buccaneer and that’s a good thing for both Brooks and Bucs fans.