On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face off against possibly the most exciting rookie this season: Cam Newton. The first overall draft pick has had his ups and downs and has shown he's still a very raw passer, but he's also shown top notch ability as a quarterback. Completing 61% of his passes for 3,093 yards and 7.9 yards per attempt is ridiculous for a rookie. Add to that 464 yards on the ground and 22 combined passing and rushing touchdowns.
Of course, Cam Newton has also turned over the ball 16 total times, and he's slowed down in recent games But this is an electric rookie quarterback, and one the Bucs defense will struggle to contain. And we haven't even gotten to their running backs, their spread offense, or their zone read runs. So let's get to that.
Jonathan Stewart and Deangelo Williams have been amazingly productive this year in terms of average per run, but have not run the ball much. Both backs have combined for 980 yards on 201 carries for a 4.9 yards per carry. And the Bucs are fast turning out the worst run defense in the league. So that's not a good matchup. And it gets worse.
The Bucs run defense is bad because it has no discipline right now. The Bucs have the physical talent to be good - they demonstrate that by getting a lot of tackles for loss. In fact, their 59 combined tackles for loss this season are tied for fourth in the league. Brian Price leads the league with 9 tackles for loss. Talent isn't the issue: discipline is. People are out of their gaps, and fail to execute simple form tackles.
A great way to exploit a lack of discipline is to run zone read runs. The play that Tim Tebow is currently popularizing in the NFL and that is prevalent in college. And, of course, the Panthers run a lot of zone read scheme. Boy, this just keeps getting better for the Bucs defense. And I haven't even really touched the passing offense, where Steve Smith looks like it's 2004 all over again.
Still the Bucs do have a chance, if they can capitalize on turnovers and pound a very weak Carolina defense. In fact, the Panthers' defense may be the worst in the league and its run defense is perhaps even worse than the Bucs' run defense. Of course, there are two problems there: Josh Freeman has been inconsistent this year, both in terms of accuracy and reading defenses. He's had a few good games and he could always have one on Sunday, but he's had a bunch of really bad games too.
A bigger problem may simply be Freeman's availability for Sunday. Of course that would give Josh Johnson an opportunity to show off his skills for next year, but the last time he started a game was in 2009 and he looked horrific then. He has the skillset to be a successful quarterback, but at the time he could not handle any kind of pass pressure and looked extremely uncomfortable in the pocket. That has undoubtedly improved, but has it improved enough?
There is a tiny bright spot, at least: Mike Williams has played better in recent games and could have a big game against a very bad secondary. In addition, the Panthers are very bad against tight ends and really any position except slot receivers. So whichever Josh lines up under center doesn't need to have a big game for the Bucs to win.
But the Bucs would do well to stick to Legarrette Blount as the foundation of their offense. The past two games the Bucs have tried to return to that, with Blount getting 18 and 20 carries respectively. Yet Blount is still carrying the ball just 15 times per game on average, and that is simply not enough for a team that cannot consistently produce through the air and has a competent running game.
The question is: can the Bucs keep up with the explosive Carolina offense without relying too heavily on their passing game, and can Greg Olson feed Legarrette Blount repeatedly when it's working instead of going back to the pass? Pound, pound, pound should be the Bucs' motto on Sunday. If they do that and manage to force some turnovers, they have a good chance to win this game.
Ultimately, though, I think this game is coming at exactly the wrong time for the Bucs. While the Bucs need to rely on Blount it's impossible to hide your quarterback in the NFL, and whether it's Johnson or a banged-up Freeman under center they will have to make plays. If Freeman was fully healthy and certain to play, I would predict a Tampa Bay win. But unfortunately he is neither certain to play nor fully healthy if he does play, and that will hurt the offense.
The Bucs may also be able to shut down Steve Smith if Aqib Talib has another good day, but they have very little chance of stopping the run and that will certainly hurt. Tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey provide some extra matchup problems to round out the day.
I think this will be a shootout, but ultimately I see the Bucs losing their sixth straight game 35-30. What do you think?