Here are my three key matchups for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on defense.
Ronde Barber vs Steve Smith
Steve Smith has finally been united with a good quarterback again, and he's taken off. The veteran wideout is arguably having his best season as a pro and has once again turned into a terrific deep threat. Unfortunately the Bucs will have to match up Ronde Barber on Steve Smith, and Barber is likely to be beaten by Smith.
In the last game, Steve Smith was held in check despite Aqib Talib's absence for most of the game, but that was more about Cam Newton's accuracy than it was about Smith's skills. Smith beat Barber at least once for what would have been a long touchdown, but Newton overthrew the veteran - much to his discontent.
All that to say: Ronde Barber can't let Steve Smith get behind him again. More problematically, perhaps, with Ronde Barber likely playing on the outside on Steve Smith in nickel packages, Albert Mack will play the slot. And if that happens, the Panthers could really gash the Bucs in the run game. As much as Barber has been a liability in run defense because of gap integrity, he was at least strong and crafty enough to make an impact in the run game at times.
Sean Jones and Tanard Jackson vs Tackling
Tackling has been a problem for the Bucs all season. In fact, it's been a problem for basically three years now. And this year, the Bucs' safeties are the worst tacklers on the team. While Sean Jones isn't horrible as a tackler and can at times play with power, Tanard Jackson has completely forgotten how to wrap up, hit or...well, do anything remotely physical on a football field.
That's a little odd, because Tanard Jackson used to be a hard hitter and a pretty good tackler. Somehow, he's turned into quite possibly the worst tackler I've ever seen. And I've seen Sabby Piscitelli. A lot. *shudder*
All that to say: the Bucs can't stop the Panthers by missing tackles. They're tough enough to stop when you're good at tackling.
Adrian Clayborn vs Jordan Gross
As usual, Clayborn will be key. Both in the run game and in the passing game. Clayborn has made his name as a pass rusher this year, but he's been inconsistent if promising as a run defender. To stop Cam Newton, the Bucs need him to beat left tackle Jordan Gross with regularity - something he couldn't really do the last time these two teams met.
More importantly, though, they need Adrian Clayborn to keep contain when Cam Newton is in the pocket. Newton gashed the Bucs on the ground the last time the two teams played to the tune of 55 yards. Those mostly came on scrambles, and those scrambles happen when Newton is able to break the pocket. The defensive line must get pressure on him, but they absolutely must keep him in the pocket.