NFL Preview - Carolina (1-3) at Tampa Bay (0-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Carolina Panthers showed determination and resilience in winning their first game of the season last Sunday, the kind that the club could use a springboard if it hopes to save its season. The winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't care how they do it, they just want to be coming off a victory for once.
Carolina, though, would prefer to keep Tampa Bay without a victory and hand the team its worst start in 24 years in this Sunday's meeting at Raymond James Stadium.
Fresh off a 12-4 season in 2008, the Panthers dropped their first three games of 2009 -- getting outscored by an 87-37 margin -- before a much-needed bye week. Things didn't get off to a great start last weekend either, as rested Carolina fell behind by a 17-2 score versus the Washington Redskins.
However, behind the will of quarterback Jake Delhomme, the Panthers scored 18 unanswered points en route to a 20-17 win and a 1-3 record. Although Jonathan Stewart's eight-yard run was the game-winner, Delhomme also threw a touchdown pass in the game, converted a two-point conversion try with a pass to Steve Smith, and later iced the win by converting a 3rd-and-8 with his legs that allowed the Panthers to run out the clock.
Carolina still has much work to do if it wants to catch the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints (4-0) and even the second-place Atlanta Falcons (3-1), so the team needs to avoid a letdown versus the 0-5 Buccaneers.
That didn't happen last year.
On the way to their NFC South title, the Panthers were coming off wins in Weeks 4 and 5 in which they outscored their opponents 58-9, but were then waxed in Tampa Bay by a 27-3 count.
The Buccaneers would love a repeat. Although they have showed some progress since going with Josh Johnson at quarterback over Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay still gave up some big plays on defense last weekend versus the Philadelphia Eagles and also saw wideouts Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton drop a number of passes in a 33-14 loss.
Young head coach Raheem Morris wasn't too happy about his wide receivers failing to help out their young quarterback, not surprising since he is still without his first victory as a NFL head coach.
The Buccaneers, who have lost nine straight games dating back to last season, hasn't started a season 0-6 since 1985, when the Leeman Bennett-led squad began 0-9.
Carolina has a 10-7 lead in its all time series with Tampa Bay, including a conventional home-and-home split last season. The Buccaneers were 27-3 winners when the teams met at Raymond James Stadium in Week 6 of last year, and the Panthers returned the favor with a 38-23 primetime win in Charlotte during Week 14. Carolina's last win in Tampa Bay came in 2007, a 31-23 triumph in what was a meaningless regular season finale for the playoff-bound Buccaneers.
Carolina head coach John Fox is 9-5 versus the Buccaneers as a head coach, while Morris will be meeting both Fox and the Panthers for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Though Delhomme (782 passing yards) has taken a lot of heat due to his eight interceptions to just three touchdown passes, he has gotten little help from his running game as well. One of the top-ranked units in the NFL last year, the Panthers are just 23rd on the ground this year at 97.3 yards per game. DeAngelo Williams (220 rushing yards, 2 TD) totaled just 40 yards on 18 carries against the Redskins, while Stewart (138 rushing yards, 1 TD) had just 39 yards on 10 carries in addition to his score. Stewart, who ran for two touchdowns in his last game versus Tampa Bay, has been bothered by an Achilles injury all season, an ailment that caused him to miss practice time this week. He should be able to play in this one assuming he doesn't suffer a setback, however. Delhomme will need him, like he will need his offensive line to play better. The Panthers signal-caller was sacked three times by Washington and has been taken down 10 times for the year. Smith (20 receptions) and Muhsin Muhammad (19 receptions) both had five catches last week, with Smith leading the way with 65 yards. Tight end Jeff King (7 receptions, 1 TD) caught Delhomme's lone touchdown throw. Delhomme is 8-2 in 10 career starts versus the Bucs.
The Buccaneers will try to duplicate the success they had in sacking the Eagles' Donovan McNabb, as they got to the quarterback three times last week. More specifically, Jimmy Wilkerson (20 tackles, 5 sacks) got to McNabb, as the defensive end had all three takedowns to set a new career high. Still, that pressure didn't stop McNabb from throwing for 264 yards and three touchdown passes, with two of those scoring strikes going for 40 yards or longer. Tampa Bay, which ranks 28th versus the run (152.6 ypg) and 21st against the pass (227.2 ypg), did hold Philadelphia to 76 yards rushing, though the Eagles did score once on the ground. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud (49 tackles) led the way with nine tackles versus the Eagles, while Wilkerson finished with six tackles and a forced fumble. Wilkerson, though, was limited in practice early this week because of a knee issue. Safety Tanard Jackson made his first appearance of the season against the Eagles after missing Tampa Bay's first four games due to a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He did not start, but made three tackles.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Johnson (382 passing yards, 3 TD, 4 INT) was not on a leash in his second- career start, as he fired 50 passes against the Eagles and completed 26 of them for 240 yards, though he was picked off three times. He found quick chemistry with Kellen Winslow (26 receptions, 4 TD), completing nine passes to the tight end for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Bryant (12 receptions, 1 TD), who had a career-high 200 yards and two touchdowns in his last game versus Carolina, added five catches for 62 yards and Clayton ended up making three catches for 25 yards. Tampa Bay has had to go to its passing game more than it would have liked this year due to playing from behind a lot, and the team ranks just 26th on the ground with 94.6 yards per game. Johnson led the Buccaneers with 40 yards on five carries versus the Eagles, with running back Derrick Ward (133 rushing yards, 1 TD) adding 37 yards on six carries. Fellow back Cadillac Williams (199 rushing yards, 1 TD) was limited to eight yards on 10 rush attempts. Ward ripped off a career-high 215 rushing yards versus the Panthers on December 21, 2008 while with the Giants. Tampa Bay's offensive line could have center Jeff Faine back for this contest. Faine was a full participant in practice on Wednesday after having not played since Week 1 because of a triceps injury.
The Panthers will look to get on track in defending the run this Sunday, as they are allowing 155.5 yards per game on the ground. That ranks the club 30th in the league. Teams being able to run on Carolina explains why they are only throwing for 165.8 yards per game against them, which makes the Panthers the second-best pass defense in the NFL. Carolina's defense held struggling Washington to just 198 yards of offense, including just 74 on the ground. Linebacker Thomas Davis (40 tackles, 1.5 sacks) also pulled running back Clinton Portis down in the end zone for a safety. The Panthers were even better versus the pass, limiting Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell to 145 yards on 17-of-23 throwing while sacking him five times. Defensive end Julius Peppers (14 tackles, 3 sacks) led the way with two sacks, while linebacker Jon Beason (31 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), Davis and Everette Brown all got to the quarterback once. Beason led the team with 10 tackles, while safety Chris Harris made seven stops in his first game of the season after missing time due to a knee injury.
Fantasy matchups won't be won or lost based on this contest. The Panthers feature few options outside of Smith, though DeAngelo Williams' value goes up if Stewart is out or limited. Delhomme has been a turnover machine and can't be trusted, even against the Buccaneers' poor defense. Carolina's defense is worth a look, as it is coming off a good performance versus Washington and draws a good matchup this weekend.
For the Buccaneers, Johnson is worth keeping an eye on but is a risky play. However, his favorite targets appear to be Bryant and Winslow, with Winslow a must-start. Carolina's poor run defense makes Cadillac Williams and Ward worthy plays, but Tampa Bay has struggled on the ground. The Bucs' defense is a risky play as well.
The Panthers draw the perfect opponent in their quest for back-to-back wins, at least on paper. On the other hand, the Buccaneers probably see this as one of their best chances to find the win column before their November 1 bye. Tampa Bay has a host of players who have torched the Panthers before and was able to record a big home win versus Carolina last year, but the Panthers are coming off a big win and have the better club. Tampa Bay is rebuilding, but it is time for Morris to show he can get his team ready to win a game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 14, Panthers 13
10/15 18:53:31 ET