The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Carolina Panthers on Monday night, if everything goes according to plan. Both teams are 1-3, sharing second place in the NFC South after a very disappointing start to the season. Whoever loses this game may find themselves out of the division race entirely — while the winner will still have a chance of catching the division-leading Atlanta Falcons.
To win, the Bucs are going to have to play a lot better football than they’ve displayed over the past few weeks. Especially so on offense, which has been surprisingly turnover-prone. Let’s go through a few key matchups the Bucs need to win on that side of the ball.
QB Jameis Winston vs. LB Luke Kuechly
Jameis Winston has suffered from chronic slow starts throughout his NFL career so far. His first preseason game, his first regular season game, his first prime-time game — it took him about a quarter to play anything resembling good football in all of them. Will that carry over to his first Monday night game?
Luke Kuechly is the most likely player to benefit from Winston’s sloppy play, if he does have a slow start. The linebacker is the engine that makes the Panthers defense go, especially after they said goodbye to Josh Norman this offseason. Kuechly’s a highly athletic linebacker who can roam sideline to sideline in the running game, but he really makes his money in pass defense — which is why Winston is going to have to be aware of him at all times.
That’s been an issue for Winston this year, especially in recent games — he threw one pass straight to Aqib Talib because he didn’t appear to realize the cornerback was lurking underneath last week, for instance. Those underneath coverage players have been a problem for Winston throughout his career, so we’ll see if that’s the case this week, too.
LT Donovan Smith vs. DE Kony Ealy/Charles Johnson
Donovan Smith has had a weirdly up-and-down season so far. He was good in week one and three, and struggled in week two and four. I guess that means he’ll be good again on Monday night?
Whether he will be remains to be seen, but the Bucs do need him to have a good game in pass protection. Winston has been under constant pressure in his worst games this season, and that’s no coincidence. Pressure makes quarterbacks play worse — a pretty basic fact.
The problem here won’t really be Ealy or Johnson, either of whom could line up across from Smith, but rather Smith himself. When the left tackle is on, he can look like a shutdown lineman. When he’s off, though, he can be beaten by the simplest counter moves and made to look more like a lumbering closet than an athletic human being.
RB Jacquizz Rodgers vs. the Bucs’ anemic running game
The Bucs want to build their offense around the running game, but they keep asking Jameis Winston to throw the ball an obscene amount of times per game, mostly because the running game keeps faltering.
This week, the Bucs are likely to miss their top two running backs, with both Doug Martin and Charles Sims sidelined in practice so far this week. That leaves street free agent Jacquizz Rodgers to do the work, he of the career 3.7 yards per attempt.
That’s not encouraging, but Rodgers might actually represent a step up from Charles Sims, who’s much better as an outside runner and receiver than as the every-down back the Bucs need to carry the offense. Rodgers doesn’t need to be astounding, he just needs to be consistent and productive for one game. Is that too much to ask?