We've gone through OTA's, training camp and four pre-season games. We've seen players arrive and be shipped out. We've seen hints of what we might have - but none of it has conclusively given us any indication as to what's coming on Sunday.
No fans, the 2012 New Schiano Order Buccaneers will be revealed to us at 4:25pm on Sunday afternoon when the Bucs host the Carolina Panthers in a showdown of NFC South bitter rivals.
We will finally see a taste of the offense that first time play caller Mike Sullivan will unleash. Can it be much worse that Greg Olson's? We'll see Schiano's myriad of blitz packages and attack defense the likes of which we haven't seen in the bay area before. It can't be as bad as Raheem's "Confusion/Tampa 2.1" defense that left his defenders more confused than their opponents.
We'll also see if Cam Newton can live up to all the attention and platitudes placed upon his shoulders after his record breaking rookie season. Is he going to be one of the game's greats? Or did he just benefit from the lockout in that teams had no time to study him as an opponent and they underestimated his ability to throw the football?
As we break down this football game - there's more we don't know than what we do. With that said, let's take a look at the matchups and look into our crystal ball as to how this game will turn out.
Series: Carolina leads 14-9
Last Meeting: Carolina 48, Tampa Bay 16
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Passing Game vs. Carolina Panthers Pass Defense
The Bucs have spent big money for the first time in a long time to help Josh Freeman take some of the weight off of his shoulders. Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson and veteran TE Dallas Clark join an arsenal that still includes Mike Williams and Rejus Benn. Also added to the mix is running back Doug Martin, who is an excellent receiver out of the backfield.
They'll face a Panthers defense that ranked 24th against the pass last season and didn't do much in the off-season to fix that. The Panthers are healthier than the last time the Bucs and Panthers faced each other and that's a plus. But the Bucs, at least on paper, appear to have some distinct matchup advantages in the Panthers secondary - which boasts Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn.
If Freeman can read through his progressions and find the open man, Tampa Bay can take advantage here. Part of that is protecting him and that will be job one of the Bucs offensive line.
According to ESPN's Pat Yasinskas, one of the noticeable things that dropped off in Freeman's play from 2010 to 2011 was his ability to handle the blitz. In 2010, when he was playing at a Pro Bowl level, Freeman loved the blitz, throwing for 14 touchdowns against 5 interceptions. In 2011, the blitz seemed to rattle Josh, as he dropped to just 4 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.
Expect the Panthers to bring the heat.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Rushing Attack vs. the Carolina Panthers Run Defense
Carolina did most of their work on the front seven. After being victimized by the running game to the tune of 4.6 yards a carry, the Panthers went to work on their linebacking core - drafting tackling machine Luke Kuechly in the first round of the NFL draft and saw the return of veteran linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason from injury.
DE Charles Johnson is also expected to not only contribute a pass rush but also provide some help against the run after getting the big pay raise by the Panthers.
Meanwhile, the Bucs offensive line took a major hit when they lost Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph for the season. It ruined plans for a dominant center of the offensive line featuring road grader and All-Pro guard Carl Nicks. Still, the Bucs have Ted Larsen, who has been an adequate starter in the league, to at least stop the bleeding.
The biggest addition to the Bucs' backfield is Doug Martin, who took away the starting gig from LeGarrette Blount. Martin is a complete back who can run with elusiveness as well as power. He has good speed and can catch the ball out of the backfield. He doesn't have to come off the field in third down situations.
Blount will still be a factor in the running game as he will be brought in to oppose the Bucs' offense's will on their opponents (similar to Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs).
Edge: Tampa Bay
Carolina Panthers Passing Game vs. the Buccaneers Pass Defense
If you look at the statistics in the pre-season, it may seem like it's more of the same for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on defense. However, those stats were skewed by poor play by the Buccaneers' third and fourth string players (many of which are no longer on the team). No, when the Bucs first teamers were on the field, they look solid in all phases of defense.
With that said, teams aren't exactly throwing the entire playbook at you. The Bucs have the return of Gerald McCoy to help with a surge in the middle. Raheem Morris has always said that McCoy was the most important cog to the Bucs defense. Tampa Bay was adequate last season when McCoy was in the lineup. Once he went down with yet another season ending injury, the defense seemed to fall off a cliff.
So McCoy's presence will be an improvement. Also improved is Tampa Bay's linebacking core. Mason Foster seems more comfortable as the man in the middle and is read/reacting much quicker than he had previously. Lavonte David has reminded more than a few of Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks and Quincy Black...well, let's stop there. In the secondary, Tampa Bay gets the return of Aquib Talib plus free agent addition Eric Wright to bolster their cornerbacks. First round pick Mark Barron made his presence felt in the pre-season and Ronde Barber, making his transition to Free Safety, seemed to adapt well.
All this is well and good - but you're facing Cam Newton - rookie who shattered records that have stood for ages, Cam is a force to be reckoned with not just as a runner, but a passer as well.
Ageless Steve Smith has had his share of big plays in the secondary against the Bucs over the years and Brandon LaFell had the longest touchdown in Carolina Panthers history (91 yds) against the Bucs last season.
Newton is a big, strong QB who is deadly when scrambling around making plays. The Bucs will attempt to throw everything they got at Cam - but will it be enough?
Carolina Panthers Rushing Attack vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Run Defense
We're not going to talk about what the Carolina Panthers did on the ground against the Bucs last season. No, it was probably two of the worst games the defense has played in the history of the franchise. A lot of that had to do with the players quitting on their coach and others, like McCoy, being injured. Whatever the reason - it was totally atrocious football.
With that said, Tampa Bay's first team unit has looked pretty darn solid against the run this pre-season. Mark Barron has helped a lot, coming down from his strong safety position to support the run. Foster reads the run quicker and doesn't get swallowed up as often as he did last year and Lavonte David seems to be a tackling machine. McCoy's return has allowed Michael Bennett to see more single matchups and he has made plays in the backfield.
Tampa Bay may not have to face Buc-Killer Jonathan Stewart in the opener as he continues to nurse an ankle injury.
Still DeAngelo Williams and free agent acquisition Mike Tolbert are more than capable and then there's Cam. You can be a stout against the run as you can be, but lose containment once on Newton and he can kill you.
Special Teams Matchup
Carolina chose unproven kicker Justin Medlock over veteran Olindo Mare for the kicking duties and placed their punting duties on rookie Brad Nortman.
The Panthers bolstered their return game with speedy Joe Adams, who electrified the Carolina faithful with a 34 yard punt return in his first NFL pre-season game.
The Bucs boast two of the best (and well paid) in the business, with veterans kicker Connor Barth and punter Michael Koenen.
Thrilling speedster Michael Smith takes over the kick return duties while Preston Parker will be your primary punt returner.
Edge: Tampa Bay
By the Numbers
- Carolina has won 5 of their last 7 meetings against Tampa Bay
- Carolina is 7-3 in the last ten games at Tampa Bay
- Carolina quarterback Cam Newton threw 4 touchdown passes and ran for 4 touchdowns in his two meetings with Tampa Bay last season.
- Tampa Bay enters this game on a 10 game losing streak.
- Bucs coaches are 3-5 in their debuts with Tampa Bay.
- Since 2001, College coaches making the jump to the NFL are 4-3 in their debut.
- Ronde Barber will make his 200th consecutive start.
- The Bucs did not sell out the game. It's the 16th time in their last 18 games the Bucs game will be blacked out locally.
It's a Bucs Life but what will that life be? We simply don't know. The Bucs' starting 22 can probably play with anyone in the league. This will be the strongest the team will be before injuries begin chipping away at their razor thin depth.
For a week one matchup, the Carolina Panthers are a good challenge and a barometer to see how of far the team has come under the new Schiano system.
The key will be the quarterbacks. Can Freeman return to form and is Newton a one year wonder?
We begin to get some answers on Sunday.
Picking the opener is always the toughest. It wouldn't surprise me to see a Buccaneer victory this week. However, I think Carolina might be a little farther along in the rebuilding process.
Pick: Carolina 23, Tampa Bay 17