Buccaneers - Panthers II: Big Dang Preview

Get off me! - Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The Bucs go for the sweep in Carolina but the Panthers have revenge and respect on their minds.

Hated divisional rivals Tampa Bay and Carolina renew acquaintances this week and its been a very different run for both squads since the season opener that saw Tampa Bay eek out a 16-10 victory.

The Bucs have suddenly become an offensive juggernaut, scoring 28 or more points in 5 consecutive games (a franchise record). Their defense has continued their week 1 success against the run by becoming one of the best in the league against rushers. The Bucs have won four of their last five and look to gain ground on division leading Atlanta.

Meanwhile, the Panthers - who were once a chic pick to be a playoff contender - have fallen on hard times. Cam Newton is stuck in a sophomore slump, they can't run the football and they've lost five of their last six games.

The question in this one is can the young Buccaneers handle success? It was easy being the underdog in most games but now they are a road favorite for the first time in quite some time. Carolina's never been an easy place for the Bucs to play and now the Panthers might be playing for jobs.

Slowing down the Bucs and dealing a critical blow to their playoff hopes would be a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season for Carolina.

Series: Carolina Leads 14-10

Last Meeting: Week One, Tampa Bay won 16-10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Passing Attack vs. Carolina Panthers Pass Defense

What a run for Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the past five weeks. The Free-chise has gone for 90-of-154 58% 1,467 yds, 13 touchdowns and 1 int, a 153.7 QB Rating. His team has scored 30 or more points in four of those five contests (and they scored 28 points in the other game). Its hard to explain what exactly turned the light bulb on for Freeman. Certainly, the bye week helped. He's been an entirely different quarterback since then and has developed confidence in his command of offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan's offense and in his two fantastic receivers - Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Both have a good shot at 1,000 yd receiving seasons and have combined for 11 touchdowns this season. The Bucs have seen their pass ranking rise to 15th in the NFL.

They'll be taking on a Panthers defense that held Freeman to his 2nd lowest output of the season at 138 yds passing. Carolina has been pretty decent in pass defense, ranking 16th. They have 25 sacks on the season, led by Charles Johnson's 8.5 sacks.

The Panthers haven't been overly opportunistic in the secondary, registering just 6 interceptions on the year (tied for 21st in the NFL)

Advantage: Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Rushing Attack vs. Carolina Panthers Run Defense

Little did Bucs fans know what they had in Doug Martin in Week One against Carolina. Martin had 106 total yards against the Panthers (95 on the ground) helping the Bucs offense move against a very stingy Panther defense. Of course, since that game Martin has become the talk of the NFL. He ranks second in the NFL with 1,158 yds from scrimmage and broke Walter Payton's 35 year old record for total yardage from scrimmage in a three game span. Since the offense's explosion in the last five games, Martin has averaged 123 yds per game and scored 7 total touchdowns.

The Panthers are in the middle of the pack in run defense, ranking 16th giving up 113 yds a game on the ground. They're led by rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly, who has 87 tackles (50 solo). The Panthers have been especially good the last five games, not allowing a 100 yd rusher during that span.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

Carolina Panthers Passing Attack vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pass Defense

The sophomore slump has Cam clearly in its clutches. After setting multiple NFL records, Newton has found the sledding much tougher in the second go around. In 2011, Newton scored 35 touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing) but has managed just 12 in 2012. His completion percentage has dipped three points to 57.2% and he leads the NFL with 9 fumbles. He's tied for throwing the 7th most interceptions in the league (10).

The good news for Newton is he'll be facing one of the two defenses to surrender 300 yds passing to him this season. Tampa Bay has been abysmal against the pass this year, surrendering a whopping 321.3 yds per game. In fact, the only thing the Bucs secondary has been good at is forcing turnovers. The Bucs are 3rd in the NFL with 15 interceptions. Rookie Leonard Johnson and ageless wonder Ronde Barber are tied for the team lead with 3 each.

Advantage: Carolina

Carolina Panthers Running Game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Run Defense

For the Panthers, they are in an odd place. A franchise that was so synonymous with running the football finds themselves with an inability to run it this season. Both stalwarts DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are averaging under 4 yards a carry and have just 3 touchdowns between them. In fact the only consistent rusher in the Carolina arsenal is their quarterback, who is averaging 5.4 yds a carry and leads the team with 4 rushing touchdowns.

Tampa Bay isn't a defense to get well against. The Bucs have the best defense against the run this season, surrendering just 80.1 yds a game. They're led by their fantastic rookie linebacker LaVonte David, who has registered 81 tackles (61 solo). The Bucs also hold their opponents to a league best 3.5 yds a carry.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

Special Teams

The Bucs have reliable kicker Connor Barth handling their field goal duties. After a mid-season slump, Barth is coming on, nailing 15 of 19 FGs this season with a long of 56. Michael Koenen handles the punting duties for the Bucs, averaging 44.0 yds a punt and pinning opponents inside their own twenty 15 times. Roscoe Parrish is averaging 7.8 yds a punt return while Regus Benn (when healthy) handles the kick return duties, averaging 23.5 yds a kick return.

Carolina has young kicker Justin Medlock. Medlock has made 7 of 9 kicks with a long of 45. Punter Brad Nortman is averaging 42.4 yds a punt and has pinned opponents inside their twenty 15 times. Joe Adams was handling the punt and kick return duties before entering coach Ron Rivera's doghouse. Carolina has tried a few different guys at the return duties but Adams may make a return this week.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

By the Numbers

  • Since becoming division rivals in 2002, there has been 7 sweeps of the season series. Tampa Bay has swept the Panthers twice with the last time coming in 2010.
  • Tampa Bay is 5-7 lifetime in Carolina.
  • Carolina has won 4 of the last 6 meetings on their home turf
  • Josh Freeman is 3-1 in his last four starts against Carolina, throwing 6 touchdowns and 1 interception.
  • Freeman has had a 100-plus QB rating in five straight games. The Bucs are 11-3 when Freeman has a QB Rating over 100.
  • Cam Newton just had three games this season with a 100-plus QB Rating. Carolina is 2-1 in those games.
  • Tampa Bay is averaging 28.9 points a game (3rd in the NFL), Carolina averages 18.1 pts a game (27th in the NFL).
  • Carolina surrenders 24 pts a game (21st in the NFL), Tampa Bay surrenders 23.2 points a game, (18th)
  • Tampa Bay is tied for the 3rd best turnover margin in the NFL (+11), Carolina is ranked 26th (-5)
Outlook:
This is a big game for the Bucs. Not only is it a division and conference game, it also shows the maturity level for this team. Good teams beat bad teams. This season, Tampa Bay is 4-3 against teams with losing records. With the Bucs coming in hot, it's easy for them to get full of themselves and think they're better than they are. Carolina has played close games against the Bears, Seahawks and Falcons. They also did what the Bucs couldn't - beat the Saints. They're not going to go quietly on their home turf, even with the writing on the wall for Coach Ron Rivera.

Cam didn't suddenly lose all of his talent and Steve Smith has been a Buc killer for a decade.

With all that said, the Bucs simply have too much firepower right now. Coach Schiano has his team focused and disciplined. There should be no let down against the Panthers or looking past Carolina toward the big matchup with Atlanta.

Many Buc players consider Carolina their biggest rival - there's no doubt they will be up for this game.

Prediction: Tampa Bay 28, Carolina 16
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