NFL Preview - Carolina (1-7) at Tampa Bay (5-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Though both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers used similar approaches to this 2010 NFL season, the results thus far couldn't be any more different.
While the Panthers have put together their worst record after eight games in nine years, the up-and-coming Buccaneers enter Sunday's matchup between the two NFC South inhabitants from Raymond James Stadium seeking to build off a very encouraging first-half performance.
Tampa Bay stayed the course with its sweeping youth movement despite a three- win season in 2009 and has started to reap the benefits of what it has sown, as the Buccaneers have already eclipsed last year's victory total and re- emerged as a potential playoff participant by registering a 5-3 record at the midway point. The team enters this week's play just one game behind front- running Atlanta in the competitive NFC South standings.
The centerpiece of the rebuilding process has been second-year quarterback Josh Freeman, whose uncanny poise and leadership qualities have helped accelerate Tampa Bay's turnaround. The new-look offense has also gotten significant contributions from a pair of rookies, with wide receiver Mike Williams quickly developing into Freeman's No. 1 target and LeGarette Blount taking over as the team's lead back.
A favorable schedule has also played a part in the Bucs' improvement, as all five of their wins have come against opponents currently at .500 or below. That includes a 20-7 verdict over the Panthers in Charlotte back in Week 2.
Tampa Bay hasn't achieved the same success when facing higher-caliber foes, having been handed losses by heavyweights Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Atlanta by a combined 96-40 score. The Buccaneers dropped a 27-21 decision to the division-rival Falcons a week ago.
Carolina, which also opted to go a cost-conscious route constructed around a lightly-seasoned signal-caller during its offseason, figures to provide a good opportunity for the Bucs to get back on track. The Panthers have lost seven of their initial eight contests for the first time since a forgettable 1-15 campaign in 2001 and sport unquestionably the NFL's worst offense, sitting at the bottom of the league in total yards and passing yards while averaging an anemic 11 points per game.
The Panthers' already-punchless attack has been weakened even further by a rash of injuries to key players. Starting quarterback Matt Moore sustained a season-ending torn labrum in his throwing shoulder during last Sunday's 34-3 shellacking by New Orleans, while running backs DeAngelo Williams (foot sprain) and Jonathan Stewart (concussion) aren't likely to suit up this week as well.
Struggling rookie Jimmy Clausen will take Moore' place for Sunday's tilt, with little-used sophomore Mike Goodson slated to serve as the lead ball-carrier.
Tampa Bay will be shooting for its first season sweep of the Panthers since 2002, the same year the Buccaneers captured their only Super Bowl title.
Carolina has a 12-8 lead in its all-time series with Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers ended a three-game losing streak to the Panthers with the above- mentioned 20-7 victory in Week 2. The Panthers swept last season's home-and- home set between the teams, earning a 28-21 win when they visited Raymond James Stadium and coming through with a 16-6 decision in Charlotte this past December.
Panthers head coach John Fox is 11-6 versus the Buccaneers as a head coach, while Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris is 1-2 against both Fox and the Panthers as a head man.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
One positive to take from last week's lopsided loss to the Saints was that the Panthers were able to amass a season-best 127 rushing yards, and they'll need to run the ball effectively to have a chance on Sunday. Unfortunately, the team will have to turn to the bottom of the depth chart with DeAngelo Williams expected to miss a third straight game and both Stewart and reserve Tyrell Sutton also doubtful after getting hurt against the Saints. Goodson (50 rushing yards, 17 receptions), who owns just 99 career rushing yards to his credit, will make his first NFL start in the revised backfield, with recent practice-squad signee Josh Vaughan the probable understudy. Fox will counting on one of the two to step up and help alleviate the burden on Clausen (501 passing yards, 1 TD, 4 INT) as the rookie continues his trial-by-fire experience. The former Notre Dame star is completing just 46.8 percent of his passes and was a woeful 8-of-18 for 47 yards and an interception upon relieving Moore last Sunday. The Panthers do possess a top-tier wide receiver in four-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith (27 receptions, 2 TD), but the remainder of the corps is raw and unproven, with rookies David Gettis (20 receptions, 2 TD) and Brandon LaFell (17 receptions, 1 TD) each forced to important role. Carolina netted just 278 total yards in its September loss to the Bucs, still 34 more than the offense's season average.
Goodson will have a favorable matchup in his chance to impress, as the Tampa Bay defense is surrendering 147 rushing yards per game (30th overall) and a woeful five yards per carry on the season. The Buccaneers do have a pair of quality linebackers in middle man Barrett Ruud (60 tackles, 1 INT) and weakside starter Geno Hayes (42 tackles, 1 INT) on the roster, but a young and undersized front line has too often been pushed around at the point of attack. The team has been much tougher against the pass, with playmaking cornerback Aqib Talib (24 tackles, 5 INT, 6 PD) headlining a secondary that's helped the Bucs tie for the league lead with 14 interceptions. Veteran Ronde Barber (48 tackles, 2 INT, 5 PD) is a savvy and accomplished coverman on the opposite side of Talib, while rookie free safety Cody Grimm (42 tackles, 2 INT) has shown flashes of being an impact player since being inserted as a starter in Week 3. Though Tampa has generated a league-low six sacks on the year, four came in its early-season victory over Carolina. Situational end Tim Crowder (15 tackles) came up with two of those takedowns that afternoon.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Tampa Bay has hardly been an offensive machine, as its No. 21 ranking in total yards (316.3 ypg) will attest, but the unit has been fairly efficient and displayed a knack of rising to the occasion, with the composed Freeman (1722 passing yards, 10 TD, 5 INT) having orchestrated four wins in which the team has trailed in the fourth quarter this season. The Buccaneers have also gotten more of a spark from the running game in recent weeks, with Blount (268 rushing yards, 3 TD) averaging a healthy 5.2 yards per carry in three games since supplanting declining vet Carnell Williams (225 rushing yards, 27 receptions, 1 TD) as the feature back. Mike Williams (36 receptions, 559 yards, 5 TD) has given the passing attack a dangerous field-stretching presence, with the rookie hauling in a long touchdown pass from Freeman in consecutive weeks and averaging better than 21 yards a catch over his last three tests. The Panthers will also need to pay attention to tight end Kellen Winslow (33 receptions), who posted a season-best 83 yards on four grabs in the teams' earlier meeting. The Bucs have been banged up across the offensive line as of late, but starting center Jeff Faine (quadriceps) and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood (knee) are on track to return after missing four and two games, respectively, with injuries.
Carolina does have a defense capable of putting the team in a position to win, as the group held three straight opponents under 300 yards before giving up 408 to the high-powered Saints last week. The Panthers have been particularly stingy against the pass, as Freeman found out in an off-target 12-of-24, 178- yard showing in Week 2. Cornerback Chris Gamble (32 tackles, 8 PD) and versatile strong safety Charles Godfrey (43 tackles, 4 INT, 5 PD) headline a solid secondary that's yielded the fifth-fewest yards through the air (190.3 ypg) this season, quite an achievement when considering the Panthers don't have a proven pass rusher up front. The linebackers will undergo a shuffling in the wake of Dan Connor's season-ending hip fracture suffered in the New Orleans game, with two-time All-Pro Jon Beason (62 tackles) shifting from the weak side into Connor's old spot in the middle and special-teamer Jordan Senn elevated to a starting position. Leading tackler James Anderson (77 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) remains locked in on the strong side, where he's had an excellent season.
There's not a whole lot to choose from for fantasy players here, but the running backs on both sides both bear watching. The Buccaneers should give Blount plenty of work come Sunday, making the rookie a worthy selection, while Goodson becomes an intriguing waiver-wire pickup that'll be going up against a Tampa defense that's rather soft against the run. He may be the only member of the Carolina offense that merits consideration, though. Clausen is a definite red flag whose presence limits the potential for Smith and the rest of the receivers, and the Panthers don't score enough for steady kicker John Kasay to be activated. The Buccaneers defense becomes an attractive choice this week, however, and Mike Williams warrants a look at the wide receiver position. Hold off on using Freeman if possible, though, and Winslow's a risky play despite a pretty productive game against Carolina back in September.
The Buccaneers may have their skeptics due to the absence of a signature win, but they're still well ahead of the Panthers in their development at this stage. Carolina was a major liability on offense even with all its working parts in place, and the absences of Moore, DeAngelo Williams and Stewart will likely further stall the NFL's lowest-scoring team. On the flip side, Tampa Bay is beginning to get healthy again on the offensive line, which should help enable Morris' squad to control the clock and wear down a Carolina defense that figures to be on the field an awful long time on Sunday. The Bucs rarely produce style points, but another methodical victory seems like a good bet.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 20, Panthers 10
11/11 15:17:33 ET