The Tampa Bay Buccaneers want their offense to succeed. Shocking, right? But without Jeff Tedford calling the plays, without a functional starting right guard, and facing a very tough defense that's going to be easier said than done. Let's look at the top three matchups the Bucs have to win if they want to beat the Panthers on Sunday.
G Patrick Omameh vs DTs Colin Cole/Star Lotulelei/Kawann Short
Patrick Omameh is the presumed starter at right guard, after he started there for the last three preseason games and was seen practicing with the first-string in training camp. And unlike the rest of his linemen, he's not a solid player. Omameh was an undrafted free agent a year ago, and struggled in preseason after beating out Jamon Meredith and Rishaw Johnson for the job.
And yet, the right guard position is crucial in any offense. Or as crucial as interior line positions get, anyway. The Bucs will doubtlessly try to help Omameh by shifting the center toward him, but there are plays and alignments where that doesn't do much. Most teams also try to run behind their right guard, which is probably what the Bucs will try to do, too -- and they want the running game to be the foundation of their offense. A weak performance from Omameh would be a major blow to those intentions.
The Panthers also have a strong group of interior linemen and will try to stress Omameh with last year's first-round pick Star Lotulelei, veteran Colin Cole, and last year's second-round pick Kawann Short. While none of them put up great sack numbers last year, Short and Lotulelei have flashed the explosive ability to give offensive linemen fits, and Omameh will face both of them at various points in the game.
RB Doug Martin vs LB Luke Kuechly
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to base their offense on Doug Martin and the running game. Huh. It feels like they say this every year. Doesn't always work that way, though.
Doug Martin's nemesis this week, assuming the Bucs' offensive line isn't a total disaster: Luke Kuechly. The linebacker's won Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in subsequent seasons, even though both of those titles should have gone to Lavonte David (J.J. Watt was also an acceptable alternative last year). But that doesn't mean Kuechly isn't a good player: he most certainly is.
Like David, Kuechly is outstanding at reading his keys and reacting to a developing plays. At times it feels like he knows what the play's going to be even before the ball is snapped. And that leaves him unblocked against running backs a lot. That's where Doug Martin comes in: he has to display the patience to let the blocking develop, find the room in the blocking scheme to get to space -- and then make Kuechly miss, who's usually already going to be occupying that hole.
Martin did a very good job of that two years ago, at least during the second half of the season, and the mighty stiff-arm is his best weapon in that regard. That, plus the ability to disappear in the trash of battling linemen, only to burst out where no defender sees him. Martin had a down season even before injuring his shoulder last year, but he should be able to bounce back. This game will be a good first test.
LT Anthony Collins vs DE Greg Hardy
Anthony Collins is supposed to be the savior at left tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Or at least, he's supposed to be a competent pass protector for Josh McCown and company. The Bucs aren't paying him franchise money, but he's getting plenty to be at least a solid player.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, the NFL is waiting for the legal process to play out before suspending Greg Hardy for his alleged domestic violence, and that means Collins is going to have one hell of a test in his first game in Tampa. Hardy's one of the best edge rushers in the game right now, and his power move is especially dangerous. Problematic for Collins, who's more of a finesse protector and can struggle against power rushes.
If Collins fails against Hardy, that won't be a real indictment of the price the Bucs paid for him. But it could easily decide the game.
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