Preview: Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 6, Regular Season)
The Panthers love to run the ball under head coach John Fox. However, running on this stout Buccaneers run defense could be a 7-foot-tall order.
Despite the fact that the Buccaneers allowed 107 rushing yards per game in 2007, they signed free agent stud defensive end Marques Douglas from the 49ers in the off-season to help stuff the run. In 2007, Douglas accumulated 71 tackles (4th in the NFL).
Then there's Chris Hovan, a run-stopping defensive tackle. He posted 48 tackles last season, a solid number for a tackle.
The other defensive tackle, Jovan Haye, is no slouch, either. Last season he compiled 68 tackles, second-most for a tackle in the NFL.
The linebacking unit is still solid, too, if unspectacular.
Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud had his breakout season last year, racking up 114 tackles in his third season. Ruud should be even better this year.
And of course old man Derrick Brooks is still playing outside linebacker for the Bucs. While he's never been a superstar, he's been a solid player for years.
But he's on the decline—in the three years since his best season, 2004, in which he compiled 137 tackles, his tackles totals have dropped by 12, 14, and 12. Brooks won't be quite the defensive force in 2008 that he was in the past, but he will still put up respectable numbers.
I must say, I can't figure out how the Bucs were 17th in the NFL last year in rush defense at 107 yards per game allowed. Their defensive line and linebackers are too good.
However, this preseason, the Bucs are the toughest run defense in the NFL. They've allowed 52 rush yards per game. But just how much of that top-ranked defense can be accredited to the starters? In any event, all I can say is: Good luck running against these guys, Panthers.
However, there is a gaping weakness in the Tampa Bay secondary.
Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber, 33, lost a big step last season. He recorded 40 fewer tackles in 2007 than in '06, and his deflections and interceptions with down, too, if only by one apiece. Nevertheless, Barber is not the same player he once was.
I wouldn't be surprised if 2008 first-round draft pick Aqib Talib out of Kansas replaces Barber by the time this game rolls around.
The other starting cornerback, Philip Buchanon, is decent. In 2007 he had 61 tackles and 3 interceptions.
By far the stronger of the Buccaneers' starting safeties is SS Jermaine Philips. Last season Philips registered 83 tackles and 4 interceptions.
The other starting safety, Tanard Jackson, posted 58 tackles and 2 interceptions in his rookie campaign in 2007.
The Panthers likely will not have much trouble scoring on this defense, though. All they have to do is start by throwing deep passes to test the secondary, which will be fairly easy when you think about the new talent and depth at receiver.
When you think of the Panthers, one of the first names that always pops into your head is Steve Smith. Smith is one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL, and he has unique chemistry with quarterback Jake Delhomme, who looks rejuvenated after having off-season Tommy John elbow surgery.
A carry-over from 2007, second-year receiver Dwayne Jarrett has looked vastly improved from his rookie campaign, amassing seven catches for 84 yards in three preseason games. That's already a little more than Jarrett did all of last season, when he only played in seven games.
Then there are the off-season free agent acquisitions.
Oft-injured receiver DJ Hackett, picked up from the Seahawks after playing his first four seasons in Seattle, has potential and could be really good if he stays healthy. In his best season with Seattle, Hackett received for 45 catches, 610 yards, and 4 touchdowns in 14 games.
Hackett was injured (toe) for the Panthers' whole training camp, and he has also sat out practice since camp ended as well as all three preseason games. However, he is expected to be back soon. Hackett is projected to be the Panthers No.2 receiver for the start of the regular season.
Utility receiver Muhsin Muhammad is back with the Panthers after three years with the Bears. While concerns about his age (he's 35) have surfaced, that shouldn't be a problem because the Panthers plan to use him as a pass and run blocker and possession receiver, which suits him well due to his size (6'2", 215 lbs) and his notorious ability as a blocker, especially in the running game.
Another possible problem could be the fact that his production dropped off so sharply the last three years. But think about it. He was on the Bears. Their quarterback situation has been in shambles for years. Yes, I know they got to the Super Bowl a few seasons ago, but they rode their defense to the big game. The Bears passing game is so bad, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens could probably even suck in Chicago.
The Panthers also just signed within the last couple days receiver Samie Parker, a four-year player who was recently released by the Denver Broncos Monday, to be the fifth receiver since Jason Carter suffered a season-ending injury. Parker had 24 receptions for 298 yards and two touchdowns in 2007.
But there's also tight end Dante Rosario. He backed up starter Jeff King last season, but his 24-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter of Saturday's blowout win over the Redskins may have been an indication of things to come. The Panthers have suggested that they plan to begin to utilize Rosario's receiving skills by playing in two-tight end sets more, as opposed to four-wide receiver sets.
Between Smith, Moose, Hackett, Jarrett, and possibly Parker and Rosario, the Panthers have a lot of receiving depth. They will be a lot for the Bucs' weak secondary to handle.
The Bucs offense seems headed for the gutter, courtesy of an ancient quarterback, no-name or old receivers, a running back maybe still a couple seasons away from stardom and another on PUP, and a decent offensive line.
Starting quarterback Jeff Garcia is 38, and last season he threw for only 2,440 yards and 13 touchdowns on 209 completions in a balanced offense. Not exactly amazing numbers.
Of course, it never helps if your already-declining quarterback doesn't have any receivers to throw to—with regards to receivers, the 2008 Buccos like the 2007 Panthers.
The Bucs' best receiver is also an old geyser, 36-year-old Joey Galloway. While Galloway has had three straight 1,000-yard seasons, you have to wonder how much longer he can produce that well.
But beyond Galloway, the Bucs have no one.
The other starting receiver is Ike Hilliard, an 11-year veteran who has never received for 1,000 yards (though he did get very close once) and hasn't accumulated more than 996 receiving yards since 1999.
The rest of the receiving corps is so bad I won't even bother to write about it.
TB will have to survive on their running game. That's not good for Buccaneers fans.
The focus of their offense this year seems to be passing—so far in the preseason the Bucs have averaged about ten more pass attempts per game than rush attempts. Personally I don't understand why the Bucs wouldn't focus more on the running game.
True, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is on the PUP right now and Earnest Graham may or may not be ready for a breakout season, but the rushing attack is still more dangerous than their passing game.
In addition, the offensive line seems more adept to running the ball. The Bucs ranked 11th in the league in rush offense last year at 117 yards per game, but they also ranked 17th in the NFL in 2007 at 209 yards.
So far in the preseason, the Bucs have passed for 184 yards per game (15th in the NFL) and rushed for 119 yards per game (10th in the NFL).
The Panthers should be able to smother a weak offense such as this one.
Carolina's starting defensive line has been perhaps the biggest surprise this year, racking up 10 sacks (tied 2nd in the NFL) in three preseason games insofar. Last year the Panthers only had 23 sacks in all.
The starters as a whole have been brilliant this preseason. They have not allowed even one point against insofar.
Overall, I just don't see how the Panthers wouldn't win. This game will be a defensive battle, similar to the Panthers' second game against the Bears, but the Bucs simply don't have any offense. It doesn't matter how good your defense is if your offense can't score points to help out. The Panthers defense will hold, and their offense will find a way to score enough points for the win.
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