Panthers vs. Buccaneers: Are the Bucs NFC Elite?

Kyle Vassalo@VassaloBRFeatured ColumnistNovember 12, 2010

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 19:  Mike Williams #19 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers breaks a tackle on his way to scoring a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 19, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sunday November 14, 2010

Line: Tampa Bay -7


The 5-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of the biggest surprises in 2010. Led by second-year quarterback Josh Freeman, the Bucs are the self-proclaimed best team in the NFC. After keeping it close against the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons, the Bucs will face an opponent on the other side of the spectrum.

The Carolina Panthers have combined a lack of talent with a rash of injuries to reach a pitiful 1-7 record. They held off the Saints on the road to give them their only road deficit that was less than the seven-point spread given in this matchup. Will they be able to do it again?

Keys to the Game

The Panthers have to dig to the bottom of the running back depth chart on Sunday. While they have struggled mightily running the ball when healthy, with three running backs likely out, it seems their poor rushing attack is going to take a turn for the worse. Mike Goodson, who has less than 100 yards in his entire career, is going to be the feature back in the Carolina offense.

With a struggling quarterback, Carolina needs to excel on the ground. Tampa Bay is vulnerable against the run—giving up 147 yards per game—but it appears as though the Panthers will be unable to take advantage. This will be the first game the Bucs clearly have the advantage against the run, which will allow the defense to toy with Matt Moore at will.

The Bucs defense has its bright spots, but they need to be more aggressive than they have been so far. Typically, in a 4-3 defense, you have four defensive linemen who all have a knack for getting to the quarterback.

The Bucs only have six sacks on the entire year. Since they aren’t getting it done with the four down linemen, they need to start bringing the heat from their linebackers. Aside from one Quincy Black sack, the linebackers on the Bucs have been held sackless.

They are facing an inexperienced quarterback in Jimmy Clausen. Clausen might be a franchise quarterback later in his career, but as for right now, his playmaking abilities and decision-making skills are suspect. The Bucs need to make him uncomfortable in the pocket. By sending backers early and often, the Bucs will leave nowhere for Goodson to turn and fluster Clausen.

LaGarrette Blount looks like he could be the next big thing in Tampa Bay. Cadillac Williams has been consistently injured throughout his career, so the emergence of Blount can take carries away from him while providing another dynamic to their run game.

Blount had a breakout game against Arizona, getting 22 carries for 120 yards. Despite being solid against the pass, the Panthers are 25th in the NFL in run defense. Blount is a huge running back, which will make the already soft Panthers defense even weaker against such a physical back.

Josh Freeman is ready to have a huge game. Although it is early in Freeman’s career, he is quickly being lauded for his poise in clutch situations and comeback abilities. Freeman picks up moderate rushing yards for a quarterback, but he looks to throw the ball first and foremost.

His mobility and ability to throw on the run make him dangerous against a team like Carolina. If the Panthers allow him to leave the pocket, you can expect Freeman to have a big day. His ability to move around creates time, which is going to give the Panthers fits in coverage.

The Panthers held Mike Williams to 54 yards in their last outing, but Williams has since made great strides. In his rookie campaign, he has already hauled in five touchdowns and 559 yards.

Williams has given Josh Freeman a go-to guy. As a rookie, he has not hit the notorious wall and is improving every single week. The Panthers will likely lend extra support to stopping the run, but failure to constantly keep Williams in their sites will land the Panthers in hot water.

Who is going to be Julius Peppers? The Panthers didn’t realize how much Peppers brought to their pass rush. Sure, the numbers and statistics were there, but when they allowed him to enter free agency, they lost a guy offenses fear. As of right now, they have three down linemen who do not contribute to getting to the quarterback.

The defense has reached the quarterback twelve times this season, but the defensive line is failing to really put the heat on opposing quarterbacks or draw a double team. This puts pressure on not only the secondary, but also on the linebackers. The Panthers have a lot of holes and addressing the need at pass rush should take precedence this offseason.

Wrap Up

The Panthers are in turmoil and the Bucs want to prove they deserve to be in the conversation when people talk about elite NFC teams. They are still in striking distance of grabbing the division title, despite the Falcons posting the best record in the NFL to this point.

The Bucs covered by more than seven on the road last time they took on Carolina. This time they have home field advantage and are facing a team that has gotten worse as the season has gone on. Tampa Bay is playing their best football, despite suffering a loss last week.

Free NFL Pick: Tampa Bay -7