NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (4-10) at Carolina (5-9)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Playing hard has been a continuing problem, according to Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris.
Losing has been an ongoing issue as well for the Bucs, who look to put an end to their eight-game slide Saturday on the road against the NFC South-rival Carolina Panthers from Bank of America Stadium.
Tampa Bay is coming off Saturday's lopsided 31-15 loss versus the Dallas Cowboys, one Morris deemed as unacceptable, disappointing and not good enough. Morris' 4-10 record may not be good enough to last another season, but then again the Bucs have endured many other losses of the recent ilk such as a 48-3 drubbing at the hands of San Francisco, a 37-9 bashing by Houston and a 41-14 setback against Jacksonville.
Even the Panthers enjoyed using the Buccaneers as a pinata in a 38-19 victory in Florida back on Dec. 4 in the first meeting between the teams. But the loss to the Cowboys added insult to injury for a Tampa Bay team that had huge expectations at the start of the season and will miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season. Morris said it was a bad night for protection up front and witnessed several individual breakdowns throughout the night.
"They were just lost last night," Morris said Sunday.
Morris' keys to winning are playing hard, smart and fast, and the Bucs failed to succeed in any of those categories. A need for execution generally starts with the quarterback and Josh Freeman is as guilty as any on the team for this latest mess. The Bucs have lost eight in a row for the first time since Nov. 8-Dec. 27, 1987 and haven't suffered nine losses in a row since opening the 1985 campaign with an 0-9 mark en route to a lowly 2-14 finish. Morris said Freeman didn't make enough plays and is mainly responsible for what goes on offensively. He then added that what goes wrong with the team is his issue.
Saving face and perhaps Morris' job are the biggest concerns right now for the Buccaneers, who have two road games remaining on the season against Carolina and Atlanta.
The Panthers are also playing out the string, but have more to be proud of than what their 5-9 record represents. While the Bucs have faltered after a promising 4-2 start, the Panthers have won three of their last four games following a 2-8 beginning.
Rookie quarterback Cam Newton has ignited the offense with both his arm and legs, and has his team near the top of the charts in most offensive categories. Newton, the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, helped put an end to Houston's franchise-best seven-game winning streak with Sunday's 28-13 victory. He passed for a season-low 149 yards and two TDs, and also scrambled seven times for an additional 55 yards. Newton didn't turn the ball over either and said protecting the football was key.
"I think that's the key to success for the Carolina Panthers offensively," Newton said after beating the AFC South-champion Texans. "I look at other quarterbacks across the league and when they do a good job of protecting the football that�s just the key to the win."
Newton is closing in on Peyton Manning's rookie mark for passing yards in a season (3,739 in 1998) and already owns 3,722 yards through the air. The 3,722 passing yards and 17 touchdown passes are the most by a rookie in Panthers history, surpassing the 2,931 yards by Chris Weinke in 2001 and 14 touchdowns by Kerry Collins in 1995.
Carolina has improved vastly from its 2-14 record from a year ago under first- year head coach Ron Rivera. Even defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has done a decent job even though his unit has been banged up this season. The Panthers' defense hopes to keep the pressure on Tampa Bay's floundering offense in the home finale before closing out the campaign at New Orleans.
Carolina has a 13-9 lead in its all-time series with Tampa Bay and defeated the Buccaneers for the fourth time in the past six meetings between the divisional foes with its previously-noted victory at Raymond James Stadium earlier this month. Tampa Bay did sweep the 2010 season set with the Panthers, however, following up a 20-7 triumph in Charlotte during Week 2 of that campaign with a 31-16 home verdict later on in the year. The Panthers had topped the Bucs at Bank of America Stadium in each of the two previous seasons and have swept a home-and-home series with Tampa Bay three times in their history, most recently in 2009.
Morris has gone 2-3 against Carolina during his career as a head coach, while Rivera took on both Tampa Bay and Morris for the first time as a head man in his team's Week 13 win.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Morris said it's Freeman's responsibility to get the offense in motion and the quarterback hasn't been able to do that, at least over the past eight weeks. Freeman (3,044 yards, 13 TD, 18 INT) passed for 148 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions against Dallas, and hasn't reached the 200-yard passing mark in three straight games. He had thrown a pick in his last four games, but coughed up a fumble for a third straight week. The Bucs, who are 18th in passing this season, match up well with Carolina's secondary. They managed just one first down and were outgained 279 yards to 55 in the first two quarters against the Cowboys before turning it on in the second half. Second- year wide receiver Mike Williams (701 yards, 3 TD) did not catch a pass for the first time in 30 games and has only three TD receptions this season. Perhaps since wideout Arrelious Benn (437 yards, 2 TD) was out due to a concussion, the Cowboys were able to key on Williams. Tight end Kellen Winslow (644 yards, 2 TD) leads the Bucs with 62 catches -- two more than Williams -- and posted 37 yards on four catches Saturday. LeGarrette Blount (758 yards, 5 TD) was held to 21 yards on nine carries for a Tampa Bay offense that is 27th in rushing yards (97.4 ypg) and 27th in points (17.6 ppg).
The Panthers still had trouble keeping the Texans from moving the football despite coming out in top. It seems the longer Carolina allows teams to hang around, the harder it gets to close out victories. Defensive end Greg Hardy (43 tackles, 4 sacks) and defensive tackle Jason Shirley (3 tackles, 2 sacks) both registered sacks on Sunday for the Panthers, who also equaled their season high with three takeaways. Linebackers James Anderson (123 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and Jordan Senn (50 tackles, INT) each had an interception and were involved in a fumble recovery on the game's opening possession. Sack leader and defensive end Charles Johnson (41 tackles, 9 sacks) was kept quiet on the afternoon and will have to change that Sunday against the Bucs. Johnson and defensive end Thomas Keiser (10 tackles, 3 sacks) each had a sack of backup Josh Johnson, who replaced an injured Freeman, in the first meeting earlier this month. Keiser also had an interception, while Hardy registered two of the four pass deflections. The Bucs will try to get their ground game in order against a Carolina defense rated 25th in rushing yards allowed. Blount was limited to 19 yards on 11 carries in the first matchup. Safety Sherrod Martin (58 tackles) and cornerback Chris Gamble (37 tackles) both have a team-high three interceptions this season.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Newton (3,722 yards, 17 TD, 16 INT) is a very confident player and wasn't intimidated by the Texans whatsoever in Sunday's win. The talented Newton threw for only 149 yards, but had a pair of touchdown passes to go along with 55 yards rushing. Newton had the Panthers, who have led in 13 of their 14 games this season, ahead by a 21-0 score at halftime and did not blow the comfortable lead by keeping the football in his teammates' hands. The win came one week after Carolina squandered a 23-7 halftime lead against the Falcons. Carolina is 10th in passing this season with 252.1 yards per game and fifth in total yards (393.1 ypg). It has been successful on 41-of-50 red zone tries. Running back DeAngelo Williams (717 yards, 5 TD) put the game out of reach with a 24-yard TD run early on in the fourth quarter and finished with 61 yards on a season high-tying 15 carries. Williams has rushed for 100-plus yards only once this season, while Newton's contributions on the ground have staked the Panthers to fifth in the NFL with 141.0 rushing yards per contest. Williams and Newton should have an easy go of it against Tampa's spotty run defense, while left tackle Jordan Gross returned to the lineup after being inactive with an ankle injury versus Atlanta. Wide receiver Steve Smith (1,299 yards, 6 TD) ended a three-game touchdown drought in Houston and tight end Jeremy Shockey (423 yards, 3 TD) has caught a pass in all 134 regular season games he has played. Smith has a catch in a team-record 73 consecutive games.
The Buccaneers have lost by double digits six times, with five of those lopsided finishes coming during their current losing streak. They allowed 399 yards of offense to the Cowboys, including 160 on the ground. Poor tackling and lack of focus enabled Dallas' Felix Jones to rumble for 108 yards on 22 touches. Tampa Bay is allowing 141.1 rushing yards per game -- good enough for 30th in the league -- and recorded two sacks on Tony Romo. Rookie defensive end and sack leader Adrian Clayborn (37 tackles, 8 sacks) posted one and DE Michael Bennett (36 tackles, 3 sacks) had the other. It will be difficult for the Bucs to post sacks on Newton since he's so elusive and strong, but the Bucs must find a way to pressure the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner. It could be another long day for the Bucs, who are 26th against the pass, 30th in both rushing yards allowed and total yards allowed and 31st in points allowed. It seems nearly every offense that comes in contact with the Bucs points begin to add up on the scoreboard. With Gerald McCoy, John McCargo and Brian Price sidelined with injuries, cornerback Aqib Talib (34 tackles, 2 INT) was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Safety Ronde Barber (74 tackles) still leads the unit with three picks and must contain Carolina's receivers.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Newton single-handedly gave the Bucs nightmares in the first meeting with three rushing touchdowns and 204 yards passing with a TD. The Bucs' defense is reeling right now and another sloppy performance could cost Morris his job. It will be interesting to see how Tampa Bay reacts to Newton and the Carolina offense this time around.
The Bucs didn't get much going with Blount running the football last weekend and will need their top back for this matchup. Carolina is 25th against the rush and will be hard-pressed to slow down the bulky Blount once again. Freeman didn't play in the first encounter with the Panthers because of a shoulder issue, but is back at full strength. His numbers, however, are not.
Both Tampa Bay and Carolina have put up similar numbers from their receivers this season. Smith is having a Pro-Bowl type campaign, while Williams' could have been better. One of the two units will have a breakout player this week and it's anyone's guess whose it will be since Smith posted 32 yards on two catches and Williams hauled in five passes for a game-best 93 yards.
The Panthers have been competitive throughout the 2011 campaign and only have five wins to show for it. Expect Carolina to make a serious run towards the playoffs next season and that quest has already begun and will continue this week with another win. Tampa Bay is a good team as well, but the future isn't as bright for the swash-buckling club that will find it difficult to contain the Panthers' offense once again. There's no question Morris knows how to inspire his players, but he can't be out on the field with them. Newton is playing at a high level right now and it appears there's no end in sight.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 24, Buccaneers 17
12/22 14:20:11 ET