Panthers vs. Buccaneers: What's the Game Plan for Carolina?

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIOctober 3, 2015

The Panthers look to improve to 4-0 against the Buccaneers.
The Panthers look to improve to 4-0 against the Buccaneers.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When the Carolina Panthers travel to Tampa this week to take on the Buccaneers, they’ll be trying to keep alive one of the longest streaks in football.  The Buccaneers have lost their last 10 home games, stretching back to 2013.  That’s the longest active streak in football and only four short of the record, shared by the Dallas Cowboys from 1988-89 and the St. Louis Rams from 2008-10.

Longest Active Home Losing Streaks
TeamStreakLast WinOpponent
Tampa Bay Buccaneers1012/8/2013d. Buffalo, 27-6
Tennessee Titans610/12/2014d. Jacksonville, 16-14
New Orleans Saints610/26/2014d. Green Bay, 44-23
Chicago Bears511/23/2014d. Tampa Bay, 21-13
Philadelphia Eagles311/23/2014d. Tennessee, 43-24
Pro Football Reference

It’s been a long time since Tampa Bay’s fans have had something to cheer about at home, though they’re hoping first overall draft choice Jameis Winston will break that streak.  If they can’t, they are set to tie the record on November 15 against the Dallas Cowboys.

Of course, to help them on their quest, the Panthers need to defeat them this Sunday.  As the Panthers have won the last four matchups between the teams, they have some experience doing just that.  What will it take this week to extend that winning streak to five? Let’s take a look.

Offensive Game Plan

The key to stopping Tampa Bay’s defense will be in the play of the offensive line across the board.  It’s a cliche to say games are won or lost in the trenches, but that has some relevance in this particular matchup.

Tampa Bay has two very good defensive tackles in Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald.  Coupled with the normally great Lavonte David’s relatively slow start, that pair up front has been the key to slowing the Buccaneers down.

The team's injury report lists McCoy as questionable for Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury, but he was listed the same last week with the same injury, with the same limited amount of practice, and should play.  Though he’s not quite at 100 percent, he’s still capable of making plays like this:

That puts the onus on Ryan Kalil, Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner to keep those tackles from blowing the Panthers up in the backfield before plays can begin.  It’s a matchup of strength against strength, and it will be crucial to the success of the Panthers offense to get a push in pass protection—and, ideally, without having to go to too many double-teams.

McCoy, an All-Pro in 2013, is the biggest threat.  He lines up as a 3-technique, on the outside shoulder of the guard—he actually plays on both sides of the line in different situations, though Norwell should see slightly more of him than Turner will.  McDonald lines up as more of a traditional nose tackle or at least on the shoulder of the center.

So, McCoy is essentially the 2015 version of Warren Sapp, attempting to get single-teams against the guards, which the team believes he can win on a regular basis.  His ability to win those means the Buccaneers don’t need to bring a lot of extra blitzers on most downs, allowing David and the linebackers to spend more time in coverage in Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defense.  Without McCoy’s ability to get pressure up the middle, the defense would more or less fall apart.

So, this should be a great matchup.  McCoy is listed as the third-best pass-rushing defensive tackle by Pro Football Focus, with a plus-7.1 grade through three games.  Last year, he topped the rankings.  Both Carolina guards, however, rank in the top 16 in terms of pass protection so far, and the Panthers are one of only three teams that can make that claim.  If any offensive line has shown the ability to stop McCoy in his tracks, it’s Carolina’s.

Andrew Norwell will have the opportunity to try to stop Gerald McCoy.
Andrew Norwell will have the opportunity to try to stop Gerald McCoy.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

That wasn’t the case in the first matchup last season, all the way back in Week 1.  McCoy was a regular presence in the backfield in that game and made four defensive stops, per PFF.  However, the starting guards in that game were Amini Silatolu and Fernando Velasco.  For the rematch in Week 15, Norwell and Turner had entered the lineup, and they held McCoy to a more pedestrian, if still solid, day.

On the outside, the Buccaneers have the current NFL leader in sacks, Jacquies Smith, who should match up with Mike Remmers.  His NFL-leading four sacks include a bit of an asterisk, as three of them were recorded in one game against New Orleans.  One solid game can really alter rankings when only three games have been played.  Still, ever since he entered the starting lineup last season, Smith has shown some potential in the pass rush, and Remmers will need to be on his toes.

The weak link on the Panthers offensive line remains Michael Oher, but he’ll get to match up with the weak link on Tampa Bay’s defensive line in George Johnson, assuming he’s active—Johnson is questionable with a neck injury.  Of course, he’s been questionable when playing, as well—he has only one quarterback pressure on the season, per PFF.  Oher picked up his play last week against New Orleans, allowing just one quarterback hurry and almost grading out positively in run defense.  This is a chance for him to get two solid games in a row under his belt, giving him confidence going forward.

The Buccaneers also have an interesting rookie on defense—inside linebacker Kwon Alexander.  He was voted as the NFL’s Rookie of the Week, recording 10 tackles.  PFF also had him with a very strong plus-2.3 performance in pass coverage, even as the Texans matched him up against wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Cecil Shorts and Nate WashingtonCam Newton has called him an “exceptional talent,” per WDAE’s Tom Krasniqi, and he leads all rookies in tackles to this point in the season.  He’s a sideline-to-sideline player who slipped in the draft thanks to less than ideal measurables (6'1", 227 lbs).

His performance means the Panthers might want to challenge the rookie with runs rather than passes.  While Alexander has racked up a lot of tackles, they’re coming significantly downfield and mostly in the passing game.  PFF has Alexander with the lowest run-defense grade among inside linebackers, and it’s not even particularly close.  That’s something the Panthers might try to test with Jonathan Stewart—and, of course, with Newton. 

Newton’s taken a step forward this season, with five touchdowns and only two interceptions through the air and a QBR of 60.67, the highest of his NFL career.  That puts his passing in an above-average category, even with the lack of talented receivers around him.  Add in his exceptional rushing ability—he’s averaging 48 yards per game, which is greater than starting running backs Jeremy Hill and Mark Ingram, among others—and you have a special weapon.

Gerald McCoy had a few things to say about Newton this week, per ESPN.com's Andrew Astleford:

I saw him his rookie year — he flew in the end zone three times against us. And then I just saw him do an Olympic flip. Basically, he's landing on both feet. That's why I say people like that are mutants. He shouldn't be able to do that. He's 6-6, 260 or whatever he is, runs almost as fast as the fastest dude on the field. He's doing that?  I don't think it's legal for him to be playing in the league. That's not fair.

The Panthers offense at this point is basically “give Newton time and let him make magic.”  While that isn’t the most sound long-term strategy, it’s working for now.

Defensive Game Plan

How do you confuse a rookie quarterback?  You put him under pressure.

That was the Tennessee Titans’ strategy against Tampa Bay, and they forced Winston into a number of mistakes in the rookie’s first game.  They pressured him on 19 of his 42 dropbacks, and Winston responded with a 16-of-33 line for 210 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions.  Most of his positive yards came in garbage time, as well—a very inauspicious debut.

Winston has improved since then, but a significant portion of it is due to the additional time he’s received in the pocket.  According to Pro Football Focus, after the Titans got to Winston on 45 percent of his dropbacks, New Orleans only forced pressure on 37 percent, and Houston on just 28 percent.  That’s given Winston more time to set up the intermediate and deep ball, and look more like a quality NFL quarterback, albeit one still under heavy development.

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 13: Quarterback Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers throws the ball in pregame warmups prior to the game against the Tennessee Titans at Raymond James Stadium on September 13, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff McBride
Cliff McBride/Getty Images

Carolina’s only getting pressure on 27 percent of opposing quarterback dropbacks—a number it would really like to see improve.  With Charles Johnson out until Thanksgiving, that might be difficult. 

On the plus side, the Panthers acquired Jared Allen, who will move back to his more familiar 4-3 position.  Playing end, Allen recorded double-digit sacks from 2007 through 2013.  That number dropped to 5.5 sacks last season, and he is beginning to wind down, but the hope is that a move back to his defensive end position on a team in competition will see him have a resurgence.

He gets a good matchup in his opening game in Carolina, assuming he plays.  Neither left tackle Donovan Smith nor right tackle Gosder Cherilus has had a good start to the season, allowing a combined 19 pressures, per PFF.  Smith is also questionable for this matchup with a bum knee, though he played through the injury last week.  Kevin Pamphile would come in to replace him if necessary.

Tampa Bay is also likely without center Evan Smith, one of the stalwarts on the offensive line.  That would put Joe Hawley in at center, and he did not look particularly good against Houston last week.  It’s a matchup that Kawann Short might be able to take advantage of inside.  The weakness at tackles combined with the replacement at center might kick-start Carolina’s pressure, which should keep Winston in check.

When Winston does have time, he’ll be looking for Mike Evans.  Last week, Winston targeted Evans 17 times, more than he targeted all other receivers combined.  According to Pro Football Reference, that was tied for the third-most targets in the league last week.  Winston will be forcing the ball to Evans early and often.

That matchup will be covered by Josh Norman, who has been off to a fantastic start this season.  Opposing quarterbacks have just a 38.8 quarterback rating when targeting Norman, per PFF, and his highlight-reel interception to close out the game against New Orleans won’t soon be forgotten.  His Week 1 interception return for a touchdown is the only Panthers touchdown this season that has not involved Newton in some way.  It’s no surprise he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month.

Norman versus Evans should be a fun matchup to watch.  The way Norman is playing right now, however, it's hard to see him giving up massive yardage to anyone.  The Panthers will count on him to shut down Tampa Bay’s top receiver, preventing the Buccaneers from gaining any traction as the game goes along.

Key Players and Matchups

Tampa Bay RG Ali Marpet

Tasked with stopping Kawann Short, rookie Ali Marpet has had his share of struggles in his first NFL season, especially in run defense.  In the following clip, Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney blows Marpet off his blocks and blows up a running play in the backfield.

With so much of the Buccaneers offensive line hurt or struggling, someone needs to make a big splash.  Maybe this week that’s Marpet, the player out of Division III Hobart who turned everyone’s head during the predraft process.  He’s shown flashes of his potential—solid quickness and strength, coupled with solid technique.  Holding Short to a standstill would be great for Tampa Bay’s chances.

Carolina OTs Michael Oher and Mike Remmers

The middle of Carolina’s offensive line looks very solid, so it’s up to the tackles to continue to improve their game.  Oher had his best game in a Carolina uniform last week, handling Kasim Edebali and holding up well in coverage. 

He’s been an improvement over Byron Bell, albeit not as large of one as Panthers fans may have hoped.  Oher will be looking to string two solid games together and build on the momentum he had last week.

Meanwhile, Mike Remmers will get a healthy dose of league-leading pass-rusher Jacquies Smith.  Smith was quiet last week but still made four sacks in just three games.  Remmers has allowed more pressure this year than he did during his surprisingly good run during the Panthers’ winning streak at the end of last season, but he’s settled into a groove as a reliable tackle. 

No one’s going to confuse him for a Pro Bowler or anything, and this may still be Daryl Williams’ job in the long run, but Remmers provides passable play at the position and has been a massive step up over Nate Chandler.

The Panthers don’t need Remmers and Oher to look amazing; they just need them to be better options than what they had last year.  So far, so good.

Tampa Bay DE Jacquies Smith

Speaking of Smith, he’ll be looking to rebound after being shut out against Houston.  PFF recorded no pressures of any kind against the Texans, which is always an embarrassing stat for someone who is basically only a pass-rusher.

Still, the NFL sack leader impressed two weeks ago against New Orleans, bringing down Drew Brees three times.  He also forced a couple of fumbles and forced Brees into a bad pass that was intercepted.  When he’s firing on all cylinders, he has the possibility to alter a game.  If he has a game like he did two weeks ago, Newton will have to pull off several of his patented escapes to pull out a win here.

Carolina DE Jared Allen

Jared Allen won't be chasing down Cam Newton anymore.
Jared Allen won't be chasing down Cam Newton anymore.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

How will Jared Allen do moving to Carolina?  He’s been all right in a role as an outside linebacker in Chicago’s 3-4, even though he hasn’t picked up a sack yet this season.  However, he’s clearly more comfortable as a 4-3 defensive end.  He admitted as much to the Charlotte Observer, saying that a “weight has been lifted.”

Is it enough of a weight for the 33-year-old Allen to get back to the form he flashed in 2013 and earlier?  If so, Allen’s a tremendous add for the Panthers.  One way or another, the Panthers needed to do something with Charles Johnson out for two months, and you have to appreciate the move to get Allen.  They're being proactive and acknowledging a problem that needs to be solved, rather than sitting and waiting to see what could happen.

Prediction

Tampa Bay seems to be on the right track to recovery after its 2-14 season last year, but that’s a long road, and it's just not a good enough team yet to beat the Panthers in my estimation.  Its running game of Charles Sims and Doug Martin isn’t anything to be particularly afraid of, and Winston has had more growing pains than fellow rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota.

The Tampa Bay defense has some promising young players as well, but they can’t cover the entire field by themselves.  If the Panthers use Greg Olsen up the slot, they should be able to find plenty of holes for Newton to have another good passing day, and the quarterback is on fire as a runner.  There’s just a talent gap between the two teams.

Add in supporting facts—the Buccaneers haven’t won at home since 2013, the Buccaneers couldn’t beat the same Texans team Carolina dispatched a couple of weeks before, Tampa Bay’s 32nd-ranked offense, according to Football Outsiders, and its struggles in the kicking game over the past couple of weeks—and it becomes hard to picture Tampa pulling off the upset.

It won't be as big of a blowout as all those facts suggest, however.  Tampa Bay is a young team with potential, and there’s the chance that young players such as Winston, Evans and Alexander will surprise people.  It’s more likely to think Tampa will win at home than if this game were in Carolina.

Still, Carolina will win its fourth consecutive close game of the season.  That would be a good spot to sit at entering the bye week, tying the best start in franchise history.

Final score: Carolina 23, Tampa Bay 17.

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Carolina Panthers.  Follow him @BryKno on twitter.

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