NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (1-0) at Carolina (0-1)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did something last week that it took them until November to achieve last season. When they serve as the opponent for the Carolina Panthers' home opener on Sunday, the Bucs can knock out two objectives that the 2009 team failed to meet until December - to win within the NFC South, and prevail away from Tampa.
The Bucs, predicted by most to finish with one of the NFL's worst records in 2010, put that talk aside for at least a week with a 17-14 come-from-behind victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Making the start after missing the latter stages of the preseason with a broken thumb, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman was 17-of-28 for 182 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the victory. A young receiving corps came through to help Freeman, with fourth-round rookie Mike Williams and former special teams ace Micheal Spurlock both catching touchdown passes. Spurlock's TD, which came on a 33-yard pass play from Freeman in the fourth quarter, provided the Bucs with the final margin of victory.
A much-maligned defense, playing without suspended cornerback Aqib Talib due to his violation of the NFL personal conduct policy, goaded the Browns into three turnovers in the contest. Cornerbacks Ronde' Barber and E.J. Biggers both recorded interceptions in the victory, and middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and first-round rookie tackle Gerald McCoy each forced fumbles.
The playmaking abilities of the Buccaneers cannot be music to the ears of the Panthers, who could be featuring a rookie quarterback on Sunday.
Week 1 starter Matt Moore was knocked out with a concussion in the late stages of Carolina's 31-18 loss at the New York Giants last week, and his availability for the Tampa Bay game will likely remain unknown until later in the week.
If Moore can't go, second-round rookie Jimmy Clausen (Notre Dame), regarded by most as the future of the franchise at the QB position, would get the start.
Clausen was not particularly sharp in his first NFL game, missing on both of his pass attempts after relieving Moore (14-of-33, 182 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT, 4 sacks absorbed) in the fourth quarter.
Carolina's vaunted running game was also a disappointment in the defeat, with neither DeAngelo Williams (16 carries, 62 yards) nor Jonathan Stewart (5 carries, 12 yards) gaining enough traction to fuel a Carolina win.
The Panthers did manage to intercept Eli Manning three times in the loss, with safety Charles Godfrey notching two of the picks as the unit turned the page on the Julius Peppers era.
Carolina has a 12-7 lead in its all time series with Tampa Bay, including a home-and-home sweep of last year's series. The Panthers earned a 28-21 win when they visited Raymond James Stadium in Week 6, and completed the sweep with a 16-6 home victory in Week 13. The teams embarked on a conventional home-and-home split in 2008. Tampa Bay last won in Charlotte in 2007.
Panthers head coach John Fox is 11-5 versus the Buccaneers as a head coach, while Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris is 0-2 against both Fox and the Panthers as a head man.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Though the performance of Freeman and the Bucs passing game a week ago was encouraging, offensive coordinator Greg Olson would like to get stronger production from the running game in order to take the pressure off the still- recovering QB. That Freeman threw five interceptions when he faced the Panthers last Dec. 6th is another mark in favor of running the football. Cadillac Williams managed just 75 yards on 22 carries against the Browns, while Earnest Graham spelled him with six carries for 10 yards and a potentially costly lost fumble. Fourth-round rookie Mike Williams was Freeman's most frequent target vs. the Browns, though his five catches totaled just 30 yards. Fellow starter Sammie Stroughter posted catches of 18 and 14 yards in the win, and tight end Kellen Winslow had four receptions for 32 yards against his former team. An offensive line that allowed three sacks of Freeman and enabled the backs to gain just over three yards per carry must be better on Sunday.
Though they played well in stretches against the Giants in Week 1, the Panthers defense was done in by the fact that it allowed more big plays than it made. The absence of Peppers from the pass rush was felt, as the Panthers had just one sack, that going to linebacker Dan Connor, with zero sacks or hurries by the team's defensive ends. Starting DEs Charles Johnson (4 tackles) and Tyler Brayton (1 tackles) will be seeking better success in Week 2. Cornerbacks Chris Gamble (3 tackles) and Richard Marshall (3 tackles) will have primary responsibility against Williams and Stroughter. The Panthers had slightly better success against the run, with linebackers Connor (13 tackles), Jon Beason (10 tackles) and James Anderson (9 tackles, 1 INT) all making their presence felt. The Giants averaged just 3.3 yards per rush in the opener.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Carolina may not have run the football particularly well against the Giants, but will expect to do so against the Bucs no matter who plays quarterback. DeAngelo Williams rushed for 152 yards in his lone appearance against the Bucs last season, while Jonathan Stewart totaled 110 and 120 yards in his two matchups against the club. Moore won his only start versus Tampa Bay a year ago, but did not throw a touchdown pass in the late-season Carolina victory. Seeking to help Moore avoid repeating that scenario will be starting wideouts Steve Smith (5 receptions, 75 yards, 1 TD) and Brandon LaFell (2 receptions, 22 yards). LaFell was targeted eight times in the loss to the Giants, which also served as the LSU product's formal debut with the team. A week after allowing four sacks and a concussion to their starting quarterback, the Carolina o-line must do a better job in pass protection this week. Injured tackle Jeff Otah (knee) is expected to remain out after missing the Giants tilt.
A Buccaneers team desperate to shore up the NFL's worst run defense of a year ago received high marks on that count against the Browns. Cleveland had 104 ground yards on the day, but 39 of those came on one Jerome Harrison run and the Browns averaged fewer than three yards per rush otherwise. McCoy was active in his formal NFL debut, tallying three tackles and forcing a fumble in the win. Behind him, linebackers Barrett Ruud and Geno Hayes logged eight tackles each. Given the absence of Talib, the secondary also held up well in the opener. Ageless cornerback Ronde' Barber recorded his 38th career interception (and first since 2008) in the win, returning it 64 yards to set up the Bucs' first touchdown of the day. Talib will return this week and is expected to start opposite Barber. A concerning element for Tampa Bay entering the season was the quality of the pass rush, and those concerns have not been diminished following a zero-sack performance in Week 1. Top pass rusher Stylez G. White was credited with five tackles and a quarterback hurry for the day.
Not a lot to recommend for fantasy purposes in this game, particularly on the Tampa Bay side where the young receiving corps figures to be inconsistent this season. Cadillac Williams is a possible flex option, but not a great one.
On the Carolina side, you have to put DeAngelo Williams and Stewart in the lineup given their history against the Bucs. Even in light of the uncertain QB situation, Steve Smith remains a credible start. The Carolina defense could also be worth taking a flier on, given that it intercepted Freeman five times the last time it saw him.
Though Moore's status will be big news in the lead-up to this one, the Panthers will look to run the football no matter who plays quarterback. This is a team that must go "ground and pound" if it wishes to have success in 2010, and it should find an accommodating opponent in the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay did a nice job against the Cleveland run last week, but the Panthers are much more sure of themselves in this realm and should be able to wear the Bucs down. Meanwhile, while Freeman did enough to get the win last week, he'll make a larger number of mistakes against a playmaking Carolina secondary.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 20, Buccaneers 10
09/15 18:21:13 ET