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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (1-10) at Carolina (4-7)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox has stuck with Jake Delhomme all season despite the quarterback's struggles, an injury may finally be forcing his hand.
Delhomme could be a spectator when Carolina hosts the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium this Sunday because of a broken finger suffered on his right throwing hand last weekend.
Delhomme suffered the injury in a 17-6 loss to the New York Jets, when he completed 14-of-34 pass attempts and was picked off three times prior to getting hurt late in the fourth quarter. He added another pick after the injury to give him 18 interceptions on the season, though just five of those have come in the last five games. That total is tied for the second-most in the league.
Delhomme was unable to go when the Panthers reconvened for practice on Wednesday, with backup Matt Moore instead taking the reps with the first team. Moore would be in line for his first start since December 30, 2007 if Delhomme can't go on Sunday.
Interestingly, that start by Moore was a 31-23 victory over the Buccaneers in which he threw for 174 yards on 15-of-24 passing with two touchdowns and an interception.
DeAngelo Williams ran for two scores in that game, as the Panthers ran the ball 37 times to Moore's 24 pass attempts. That would likely be the case again this weekend, though both Williams (ankle) and fellow back Jonathan Stewart (Achilles) missed practice time this week. Fullback Brad Hoover (ankle) was also out.
Williams has yet to miss a game this season, but could be a game-time decision on Sunday. Stewart, meanwhile, has been in-and-out of practice all year due to his ailment, but has also played in all 11 games and is expected to take part in this contest.
That will be key for Carolina (4-7), which totaled 267 rushing yards in a 28-21 victory over Tampa Bay on October 18. Williams had 152 of those and scored twice, including the game-winning touchdown with 29 seconds left that capped a 16-play, 80-yard drive that featured 15 run plays and ate up 8:04 of clock.
That loss to Carolina was part of Tampa Bay's season-opening seven-game slide that finally ended with a home win over Green Bay on November 8. The Buccaneers (1-10) have lost three in a row since and are coming off a heart- breaking 20-17 loss in the final minutes to the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday.
Quarterback Josh Freeman completed an eight-yard touchdown pass to Cadillac Williams early in the third quarter to give the Bucs a 17-10 lead, and Tampa Bay entered the fourth holding a four-point advantage.
Tampa head coach Raheem Morris took a gamble in the final quarter, sending kicker Connor Barth out for a 51-yard field goal late in the game. Barth missed and the Falcons got the ball back with 2:30 to play.
Atlanta drove deep into Tampa Bay territory and found itself with a first down at the Bucs' five-yard line thanks to a defensive holding call on cornerback Derrick Roberson. On fourth down, Falcons quarterback Chris Redman found receiver Roddy White for a touchdown with 23 seconds to play.
The setback was Tampa Bay's 14th in its last 15 games, and the club fell to 0-5 on the road this season.
Carolina has a 11-7 lead in its all time series with Tampa Bay, including a 28-21 win at Raymond James Stadium in Week 6. The teams embarked on a conventional home-and-home split last season, with the Buccaneers coming up 27-3 home winners in Week 6 of last year, and the Panthers returning the favor with a 38-23 primetime win in Charlotte during Week 14. Tampa Bay last won in Charlotte in 2007. The Panthers will be gunning for their first home-and-home sweep of the Bucs since 2006.
Fox is 10-5 versus the Buccaneers as a head coach, while Morris is 0-1 against both Fox and the Panthers as a head man.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Freeman (793 passing yards, 7 TD, 5 INT) bounced back from a four-turnover game versus New Orleans two weekends ago to throw for 250 yards and two touchdowns versus the Falcons. He also connected on a 42-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Bryant, who was playing in his second straight game after missing two in a row with a nagging knee injury. Bryant (22 receptions, 3 TD) ended with three catches for 91 yards, and Tampa Bay hopes that he can build some chemistry with Freeman to improve upon the team's 29th-ranked offense (274.8 yards per game). Tight end Kellen Winslow (54 receptions, 5 TD) added seven receptions for 81 yards, giving him 23 catches in four games since Freeman became the starter. Wide receiver Michael Clayton (14 receptions, 1 TD) suffered a knee injury on the first play of the Atlanta game and will be inactive this week. That could mean more time for wideouts Sammie Stroughter (24 receptions, 1 TD) and Maurice Stovall (14 receptions, 1 TD). Stroughter made three catches and returned a kickoff 97 yards for a score versus the Panthers in October. Cadillac Williams (480 rushing yards, 3 TD) ended with 30 yards on 10 carries last weekend and Derrick Ward (272 rushing yards, 1 TD) added 29 yards on 13 attempts for the Bucs, who rank 23rd in the NFL with 98.2 yards per game on the ground.
Freeman will get his first look at the Panthers' secondary this weekend, as it was now-backup Josh Johnson who started that October meeting. Carolina is allowing just 181.3 yards per game through the air, which ranks third in the NFL. The Panthers faced another rookie quarterback in the Jets' Mark Sanchez last weekend, holding him to just 154 yards on 13-of-17 passing. New York did post 139 yards rushing against the Panthers, including 75 on 25 carries by Thomas Jones. Carolina ranks 26th in the NFL in run defense, yielding 131.5 yards per game. The Panthers attempted to mob Sanchez, as four players were credited with getting a piece of the quarterback. Defensive end Tyler Brayton (38 tackles, 4 sacks) led the way with 1 1/2 sacks, while ends Julius Peppers (33 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Everette Brown (15 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and defensive tackle Damione Lewis (26 tackles) were credited with a half-sack each. Peppers ranks 11th in the NFL in sacks and has 14 1/2 in 14 meetings with Tampa Bay, while Lewis had a sack and forced fumble in his last home game versus the Bucs. Cornerback Chris Gamble (39 tackles, 2 INT) had an interception versus the Jets, Carolina's 12th of the season. Linebacker Jon Beason (96 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) led the Panthers with 17 tackles, while linebacker James Anderson (30 tackles) added 10.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Even if Delhomme (2015 passing yards, 8 TD) is able to play this Sunday, it is likely the Panthers will go run heavy, as they probably will if Moore starts. That also depends on how lingering injuries hold up for DeAngelo Williams and Stewart. Williams (1022 rushing yards, 7 TD) was held to just 40 yards on 16 carries against the Jets, while Stewart (544 rushing yards, 6 TD) had 35 yards on nine run attempts. Still, Carolina ranks fourth in the NFL with 151.5 rushing yards per game. However, the team has had trouble translating that into points, as Carolina is scoring just 18.1 points per game, 23rd in the league. That hasn't been the case versus Tampa Bay, as Williams has 459 yards and six touchdowns in his past three games versus the Bucs and Stewart has 225 yards and three scores in his last two against them. Tight end Dante Rosario (20 receptions, 2 TD) had four catches for a team-best 62 yards last weekend, while wideout Dwayne Jarrett (12 receptions) added two catches for 43 yards. He did have a 28-yard touchdown catch wiped out on offensive pass interference, while wide receiver Steve Smith (46 receptions, 4 TD), who ended with one catch for five yards versus the Jets, appeared to make a 10-yard scoring reception that was overruled on video replay due to lost possession.
Tampa Bay is yielding 370.9 yards (26th overall) and 28.5 points (31st overall) per game, but it did hold Atlanta under both of those marks last weekend. The Falcons managed just 20 points and 297 yards versus Tampa Bay, which registered six sacks in the loss. Defensive end Stylez White (31 tackles, 5.5 sacks) led the way with 2 1/2 sacks and fellow end Tim Crowder (28 tackles, 2.5 sacks) added a sack-and-a-half. Corner Ronde Barber (49 tackles, 2 sacks) and linebacker Quincy Black (60 tackles, 1 INT) also had a sack each. Black ended with 10 tackles versus the Falcons, while linebacker Barrett Ruud (97 tackles, 1 INT) led the way with 11 stops and forced a fumble that Crowder recovered. Ruud and safety Tanard Jackson (42 tackles, 3 INT) both had interceptions the last time the Buccaneers faced the Panthers, with Jackson taking his 26 yards for a touchdown. Jackson has three picks in his last six games, taking two of those back for scores. Tampa Bay hopes to have corner Aqib Talib (39 tackles, 5 INT) for this game after he left last weekend's contest in the fourth quarter when aggravating a hamstring injury. The Bucs lost some secondary depth earlier this weekend, when corner Torrie Cox was placed on injured reserve because of a hip ailment.
Freeman has been giving fantasy owners of the future some hope for his 2010 season, and he could be a deep sleeper candidate given the matchup. Though the Panthers have good numbers against the pass, part of that is because they can't stop the run. That could mean Cadillac Williams is set for a big game, but the Buccaneers have had trouble establishing the run all year. While there are no sure bets on Tampa Bay, Freeman, Williams and Bryant are sleeper picks. Barth has shown good range and Morris obviously will allow him to try long field goals, so he could actually be the Bucs' best fantasy weapon this weekend.
DeAngelo Williams and Stewart appear to be line for a lot of work this weekend, though Williams owners will need to monitor his injury on Sunday. Either way, Stewart could end up out-producing Williams if the latter's ankle injury acts up. Even if he was healthy, Delhomme has not fantasy worthy and Moore is not a better option. That obviously hurts Smith and fellow wideout Muhsin Muhammad's value. Carolina's defense is a risky play, even against a Tampa Bay offense.
Many thought that the Panthers would be in contention for a division title at this point of the season, but injuries and poor play have derailed that train. Instead, the Panthers are in the same boat as the Buccaneers, looking towards 2010. That makes this a tough game to predict, especially with the uncertain ailments surrounding Delhomme and DeAngelo Williams. That will likely make this another close contest between the NFC South bottom-feeders, though the Panthers will likely use their advantage in running the ball to pull out another close one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 17, Buccaneers 13
12/03 18:50:54 ET