The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are expected to have a strong defense this season, but to this point, those expectations are largely based on reputation and hypotheticals. When the Bucs take to the field against the Panthers in Week 1, they have a chance to set the tone for the season by shutting down a division rival with a banged-up quarterback and a lack of talent all over the offense. Here are the three key matchups that will ensure a dominant performance by the Tampa Bay defense.
Mason Foster and Mark Barron versus Greg Olsen
The Panthers may not have any receivers worth writing home about, but they have one of the best tight ends in the NFL in Greg Olsen. The former Miami standout is as consistent and reliable of a pass catcher as you'll find, and he's Cam Newton's security blanket.
The Buccaneers must account for Olsen, and that duty will fall to Mark Barron and Mason Foster more often than not, as Olsen tends to roam the middle of the field. Foster makes big plays in the passing game, but isn't the best athlete and can get caught out when asked to drop deep in coverage. Barron is a big hitter and seems to be dripping with potential, but has never consistently shown the pass coverage skills needed to justify his high draft position.
But more importantly, the Bucs linebackers and safeties must work well together and communicate to ensure that Olsen doesn't break free for big plays. The Panthers' tight end will get his fair share of short completions on Sunday, but they cannot afford to suffer a breakdown (like the ones we witnessed far too often last season) and let him run free into the second and third level of the defense.
Michael Johnson versus Byron Bell
The Buccaneers splashed the cash for Michael Johnson this summer, and he failed to excite during the team's preseason campaign. The former Cincinnati defensive end didn't consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks, and there were growing concerns that his lack of sacks in 2013 may carry over into his time in Tampa.
Johnson did face some decent left tackles in the preseason, however, and there were a good amount of stunts that we may not see as frequently in the regular season. Those excuses will be immediately put to the test for Johnson, as he faces Byron Bell.
Bell allowed the most sacks, hits and hurries on the Carolina offensive line a year ago (according to Pro Football Focus) as the right tackle, yet he shifts to left tackle to replace the retiring Jordan Gross. He's a below average player who shouldn't stop Michael Johnson on a regular basis.
If Johnson doesn't win his matchup against Bell consistently, the Buccaneers may be in for a long season. The big-money free agent must prove what he can do in an easy Week 1 matchup.
Gerald McCoy versus Trai Turner and Amini Silatolu
Gerald McCoy is the best player on the Buccaneers, and when faced with opposition like Trai Turner and Amini Silatolu, he must have a dominant performance.
The Panthers do have a good center in Ryan Kalil, but the third-year Silatolu did not fare well against the Bucs in 2012, while the rookie Turner will be seeing his first real NFL action against McCoy in Week 1. Lovie Smith's scheme will work to get McCoy free, which means moving him from side to side and terrorizing both of these guards all afternoon.
Interior pressure is a nightmare for quarterbacks, especially quarterbacks with aching ankles and tender ribs. Cam Newton may be very quick to drop his head and scramble on Sunday, which means the type of pressure McCoy provided in the preseason could be truly game-changing against Carolina. It may not matter who Newton's receivers are if McCoy is able to beat Newton to his spot on his dropbacks.
There's little doubt in my mind that McCoy will have a great game on Sunday. But the question is, how great can he be? He's grown as a player every year, and is in a scheme that should bring him even more success. Will Week 1 be the start of a Defensive Player of the Year campaign for the Bucs' face of the franchise?