Overview: The great thing about division play in my mind is a second chance at redemption against your hated rivals. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be looking for just that in a few hours against the Carolina Panthers, who did the Bucs 28-21 in a physical, hard-fought game that came down to a late Panther TD drive with less than one minute left in the game. This time, the circumstances are different. The Bucs are no longer floundering with journeyman QB Byron Leftwich or in-over-his-head QB Josh Johnson, nor are the Bucs still trying to jam Jim Bates' square peg into the personnel of a round hole. The Bucs have found some stability on both sides of the ball with their franchise QB Josh Freeman and a seemingly-rejuvinated Tampa 2 defense.
Both teams are currently fighting the injury bug with some key players that will factor into this game. For the Bucs, their shutdown corner Aqib Talib is battling a sore hammy that kept him out of practice this week and could limit his effectiveness in coverage against the great Steve Smith. With the Bucs looking to stop the run first, it'll be essential to have Talib stay with Smith in one-on-one coverage. Meanwhile, Carolina comes into the matchup with the inexperienced Matt Moore under center with Jake Delhomme ailing with a finger injury. DeAngelo Williams is also banged up and is likely to sit out, which would leave the Panthers with only the thunder (J. Stewart) out of their thunder and lightning matchup, which would be a HUGE boost for the Bucs.
Keys to a Buccaneer victory:
What can you say? A green Panther QB, a banged up starting RB, a pro-bowl calibur tackle on injured reserve. Things look tasty for the Buccaneers to step up and stop the run, especially since DeAngelo Williams has been listed as inactive for today's matchup. The every-down home run threat is basically gone, so look for the Bucs to be aggressive in their pursuit of the ball carrier against the not-nearly-as-fast-as-his-counterpart Jonathan Stewart, and try to force Matt Moore to beat them deep. Stewart won't make a lot of guys miss, so it comes down to fundamentals for the Buccaneer linebackers and safeties.... Tackle. Tackle. Tackle. It sounds simple, but this cat is a strong, physical back. If the Bucs can put Carolina in second/third and 6+, fortunes should favor the Bucs.
On offense, don't get cute. I'm going to get on my high horse here and say to Greg Olson: QUIT THROWING THE BALL ON 3RD AND SHORT, GUY. 3rd and 1, 2, 3. YOU SHOULD NOT BE THROWING THE BALL IN THESE SITUATIONS, AT LEAST MOST OF THE TIME! There, I feel better. This moreso even today. The Panthers rank 3rd in the NFL in passing YPG allowed. As strong as they are against the pass, they are equally as inept in stopping the run. Stick with Cadillac Williams. Give him a chance to be great today. Challenge your offensive line, which has not performed the way it should in run-blocking this season, to finally come out and be physical. Run the ball early, run it often. I'd love to see close to 55/45 pass/run today (pipe dream, but that would be smart).
Keys to a Panther victory:
Julius Peppers, Jon Beason, Na'il Diggs. This defense is not Philadelphia-esque aggressive with their blitz packages, especially since their pass rushing specialist, OLB Thomas Davis, is on IR, but these guys can get to the quarterback. The Dolphins and Saints have shown that if you rush Josh Freeman (especially with the way he's been carrying the football), he can cough up the football and turn it over. With Freeman's uncanny rookie ability to scan the field and find his targets coupled with the need to give their own limping offense as short a field as possible, look for the Panthers to take some chances and come after Freeman a bit more than normal.
On offense, play action will be incredibly important today with DeAngelo Williams on the shelf. With the threat of a long TD run on any given play virtually gone for today, the Buccaneers will undoubtedly be aggressive in their attempts to stop the run. Thus, first and second-down play action passes will be key to catch the Buccaneers off balance, which means the Panthers could finally.....
Get. Steve. Smith. Involved. I am simply floored how the Panthers underutilize this cat. If you've got a crappy quarterback that can't hit him deep anymore, design some plays for the guy. WR bubble screens. Back shoulder fades. Get him in motion against the zone defense and bring him off the line next to Dwayne Jarrett in the outside linebacker's zone, then break him off outside behind the corners on Sabby Piscitelli's side of the field while sending Jarrett on a go-route. Simply put: he's your weapon X and any half-competent quarterback should be able to find him.
What will happen: Yes, both teams might be reeling, but both teams REALLY want this game. Look for both teams to come out and try to establish their dominance on their respective offensive lines. The Bucs will sustain some long drives finally, with Cadillac Williams getting 16-20 touches for a near-100 yard game. The Bucs' offensive balance will keep the Panther defense confused and off balance. Matt Moore will find Steve Smith more than Delhomme would've, but Talib will show up big and the Buccaneer defense will bend but not break in the red zone. Bucs 20, Panthers 16.