NFL Preview - Carolina (3-8) at Tampa Bay (4-7)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Turnovers and penalties will keep most teams from reaching their maximum potential. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers know it all too well, and the current five-game losing streak in which they are embroiled in has put a severe damper on postseason aspirations.
The Bucs will try yet again to stop the bleeding when they entertain the NFC South-rival Carolina Panthers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris still has a positive outlook on his team's disastrous situation and said both the players and coaches remain committed to growing as a football team.
"We gotta play better. The guys gotta step up," Morris said. "We gotta play better up front. We gotta play better at linebacker. We don't make excuses. No excuses, no explanations. I don't see any quit in these guys."
Tampa Bay's players can easily pack it in with a lowly 4-7 record, though they surely want to find a way to win and save face in what has been a topsy-turvy 2011 season. A 3-1 start to the campaign has turned into six losses over the last seven contests, and the Bucs hope to stop a two-game slide as the host as well.
The Buccaneers fell to 1-4 away from home with last Sunday's 23-17 loss at Tennessee that was mired by five turnovers, including four fumbles. Quarterback Josh Freeman threw an interception and also coughed up the ball on 4th-and-1 from the Tennessee 25-yard line with less than a minute to go in the game.
"At that point in the game it can't happen," Freeman said of his miscue. "That turnover made things difficult. "We're in this business to win football games. [Last week] we let one slip away. It's really a shame that we couldn't execute better."
Freeman went on to add that the Buccaneers are a better football team than what their record portrays. But as two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Bill Parcells said years ago, "you are what your record says you are." And the Bucs are three games under .500 and appear headed for another missed opportunity on a postseason berth.
Carolina is a game behind Tampa Bay for third place in the division standings and is coming off its first road victory of the season in its fifth try, a 27-19 victory against the winless Indianapolis Colts.
The Panthers ended a three-game losing streak with a solid defensive effort and got a pair of crucial interceptions from safety Sherrod Martin and cornerback Chris Gamble. Martin sealed the win with a pick in the end zone to halt any Indianapolis comeback and help the Panthers end a franchise-worst 12- game road losing streak. Carolina had last won away from home on Dec. 27, 2009, a 41-9 victory over the New York Giants.
"I give all respect to those guys in the room, because they've gone through so much," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "For us to get this one is important, and it's something we hope we can build off of and use as a springboard as we go forward."
Rivera's group has been competitive in nearly every single game this season, save a 30-3 debacle versus Tennessee on Nov. 13, and now has its sights set on winning back-to-back games for the first time since closing out the 2009 schedule with three straight victories. The Panthers will play their third road game in a row Sunday in Tampa.
The Panthers are aware that the Bucs had trouble stopping the run against the Titans, who amassed 202 rushing yards and got 190 on 23 carries from Chris Johnson. Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton likes to run as much as possible and is closing in on a few records. The 2011 No. 1 overall draft pick has 10 rushing touchdowns on the season, just two shy of matching the NFL single-year record set by Steve Grogan in 1976. Newton already holds the rookie record for rushing scores and also needs 647 passing yards in the final five weeks to break Peyton Manning's rookie mark of 3,739 set in 1998.
Newton's coach hopes the recent winning trend will continue for his starting quarterback and the rest of the young team.
"It's all about [Newton] growing and developing as a football player, and that'll help us as a football team and I think the whole idea of drafting Cam and developing Cam is for the future of this franchise," said Rivera. "That young man can be here as long as we can have him if he stays healthy. He's an explosive football player that makes dynamic plays. I think that's important."
Building on a win with another victory this week would be important for the Panthers as well.
Carolina has a 12-9 lead in its all-time series with Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers took both meetings between the two NFC South inhabitants last year for their first season sweep of the Panthers since 2002. Tampa ended a three- game losing streak to Carolina with a 20-7 victory in Charlotte during Week 2 of the 2010 campaign, then dealt the Panthers a 31-16 defeat at Raymond James Stadium later in the year. Carolina did earn a 28-21 decision over the Bucs in Tampa in 2009 and has won six of its last eight tilts as the visitor in this set.
Morris has gone 2-2 against Carolina during his career, while Rivera will be facing both Tampa Bay and Morris for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Regardless of their 3-8 record and last-place tag in the NFC South, the Panthers have a bright offense led by Newton (3093 passing yards, 12 TD, 14 INT) and the re-emergence of wide receiver Steve Smith. Carolina is sixth in rushing this season with an average of 135.3 yards per game thanks in part to the young legs of Newton, who has 464 rushing yards and a team-leading 10 scores this season. He had no touchdown passes or interceptions against the Colts, just one week after being picked off four times in a loss at Detroit, and completed 74.1 percent of his passes -- the second highest completion percentage by a rookie quarterback in team history -- last Sunday. Newton is averaging 51.4 rushing yards over his last five games and will give the Bucs a handful on Sunday. DeAngelo Williams (540 rushing yards, 3 TD) leads the team in rushing, but only has one 100-yard performance on the season. He and fellow running back Jonathan Stewart (442 rushing yards, 2 TD) combined to rush for 139 yards and two touchdowns on 25 attempts against the Colts. Smith (59 receptions, 1060 yards, 5 TD) posted a team-high 68 yards on three receptions last week to reach the 1,000-yard receiving plateau for the sixth time and needs 18 catches to pass Muhsin Muhammad for the most in team history.
Tampa Bay's defense has struggled mightily all season, but Morris believes it's on the mend. His squad is 28th in pass defense, 29th in points allowed, 30th in run defense and 31st in yards surrendered. The Buccaneers have to be aware that the Panthers accumulated a season-high 201 yards rushing on 35 attempts -- an average of 5.7 yards per carry -- last Sunday. Carolina has totaled more than 100 yards rushing in nine straight games, and the Bucs will need to put a stop to it. Johnson burned the Bucs on the ground a week ago and now they'll have to devise a scheme against Newton, Williams and Stewart. It's usually not good when defensive backs lead the team in tackles, as safety Sean Jones (66 tackles, 1 sack) and cornerback Ronde Barber (59 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) sit atop the stat sheet in stops. Middle linebacker Mason Foster (53 tackles, 2 sacks) may serve as a spy on Newton just in case the rookie opts to break the game open with his feet. Morris said defensive tackle Brian Price (20 tackles, 3 sacks) is hampered by an ankle injury and his status for Sunday is uncertain. Fellow lineman Albert Haynesworth (10 tackles) has served as a nice cog up front since being picked up in midseason and rookie end Adrian Clayborn (24 tackles) leads the team with five sacks.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Freeman (2,715 passing yards, 12 TD, 16 INT) had a costly late turnover against the Titans and is having a frustrating season for the Bucs, who are 12th in passing (238.5 ypg) and 15th in total offense (340.2 ypg). The young quarterback said the 4-7 record is not a reflection on the team's talent, though some would argue otherwise. Penalties and a failure to protect the football have haunted the Bucs all season long, and last Sunday's sloppy conditions in Nashville were no help. Second-year wideout Mike Williams (52 receptions, 3 TD) is starting to show signs of the level he displayed during his rookie campaign in which he compiled 964 yards and 11 touchdowns on 65 catches. He is tied with tight end Kellen Winslow (52 receptions, 2 TD) for the team lead in receptions. Tampa Bay's Williams has also scored in back-to-back games after going eight weeks without sniffing the end zone, while Winslow should have an impact on Carolina's 24th-ranked pass defense by creating problems underneath and in man-to-man coverage. The offensive line has allowed two sacks in each of the past two games and just eight over the previous three. The unit has also blocked well for LeGarrette Blount (644 yards, 4 TD), who's on pace for another 1,000-yard season. He ran for 103 yards on 20 carries last Sunday and has hit the century mark in consecutive weeks.
The Panthers had to clamp down late in order to fend off the Colts, as Martin (48 tackles) added to his total of three interceptions on the season. Gamble (25 tackles) also has three picks on the year for a Panthers team that has struggled on defense most of 2011. The Panthers are 31st in points allowed (27.7 ppg) and 24th in yards permitted (370.1 ypg). Freeman has thrown plenty of interceptions this season, though, and the Panthers will be waiting for him to make another mistake Sunday. Carolina may have trouble with Blount, as it is 28th in run defense, yielding 137.5 yards per game on the ground. Indianapolis had just 105 yards rushing in defeat last week, however, and Panthers linebacker Dan Connor (52 tackles) credited defensive coordinator Sean McDermott for devising a solid plan. Connor has the luxury of playing the middle alongside leading tackler James Anderson (97 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Omar Gaither (30 tackles, sack), who's considered the weak link of the three and will have to step up his game if he suits up Sunday. He was inactive against the Colts with a knee injury and questionable to return this week. Winslow is a proven target that could give Carolina matchup problems as well. End Charles Johnson (32 tackles) has a team-best eight sacks and leads the Panthers' pass rush.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Now that their team-record road losing streak is in the past, the Panthers can breathe a sigh of relief. But will that translate into another win at Tampa on Sunday? If the Newton-led offense remains potent, it will be tough for the hosting Bucs to keep up with all of their issues stopping the opposition.
Freeman said the Bucs' 4-7 record is a poor reflection of how good this team really is. He may be in a bit of denial, but still has to play better on game day to prove his words. As Freeman goes, the Buccaneers usually go, as having an effective Blount means nothing unless Tampa Bay can get the ball moving through the air against a mediocre Carolina secondary.
There's an NFL Films clip of former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher telling linebacker Greg Lloyd to "rush the quarterback." Both teams must do that often on Sunday in order to have any success. Johnson is Carolina's best penetrator, while Tampa Bay's Clayborn is doing his job as a rookie. Keep an eye out for both of those monsters on the defensive line.
The Bucs are not mathematically eliminated from postseason contention just yet, but they can kiss an NFC South title goodbye now that they have dropped five in a row. Tampa Bay has been mostly competitive this season, but in order to avoid losing six straight for the first time since opening the 2009 campaign with an 0-7 record, Freeman will have to protect the football at all costs. Luckily he'll have Blount to rely on, but the pass attack needs to get in check by Sunday's kickoff. Newton has lived up to his self-proclaimed billing as Superman, only this time he'll show up as Clark Kent.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 23, Panthers 16
12/01 10:19:19 ET