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Bucs at Panthers: Five keys to victory

Ryan Fitzpatrick is back to lead the Buccaneers into a divisional showdown against Carolina.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cincinnati Bengals
It’s Fitzmagic time (again).
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a chance to earn a big divisional win when the team travels to Carolina on Sunday. A victory would give the Buccaneers a positive (3-2) record in the conference while also putting them at 2-1 in the NFC South and 4-4 overall.

It would also give this team sizable momentum moving into the back half of a favorable schedule. Remember, there’s still half of a season left to play after the game against the Panthers. With Ryan Fitzpatrick back at the helm, Tampa Bay could get hot down the stretch if its turnover woes are solved. The main culprit of those woes, Jameis Winston, has been relegated to the bench.

Carolina enters this game undefeated at home on the back on one of the top defenses in the NFL. Coming off a last second loss a week ago in Cincinnati, the Bucs have a chance to put the defeat behind them and play spoiler to the Panthers.

1. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s return

Fitzmagic is back after four dreadful interceptions by Winston against the Bengals. His magic almost struck last week in relief of the struggling quarterback. Fitzpatrick led the Buccaneers to 17 points in the fourth quarter while tossing two touchdowns. Unfortunately, the defense came up just a little bit short.

While Carolina has a strong defense, Tampa Bay has a good offense of its own. The Buccaneers rank No. 3 in total offense and currently have one of the top passing games in NFL history, throwing for 376.3 yards per game.

The Panthers rank second worst in the NFL with just 10 total sacks in seven games and only have four interceptions. Fitzpatrick has a chance to take advantage of this defense through the air.

2. Limiting turnovers

After four turnovers a week ago, head coach Dirk Koetter elected to go back to his veteran signal-caller. Fitzpatrick has just five turnovers all season while Winston has doubled that with 10 of his own.

Fitzpatrick knows when to give up on a play and take a short loss or throw the ball away. Winston has been prone to forcing passes into coverage and trying to keep plays alive, which has led to some big moments but also a lot of sacks and turnovers.

Carolina has only forced seven turnovers in seven games. It’ll be important for Tampa Bay not to give them anything easy.

3. Starting fast on defense

Tampa Bay allowed just two points in the first half during its overtime win over Cleveland a few weeks back. Against Cincinnati, the defense surrendered 27 points in the opening half against a Bengals offense that was struggling entering the game.

They’ve shown that when they start fast they can have success, frankly, the defense just doesn’t do that very often. Despite Winston’s struggles, an 18-point halftime deficit is just too much to ask a team to overcome essentially every week.

In all four of their losses, the Buccaneers have faced a double digit deficit at halftime. 30-10 against Pittsburgh, 38-3 against Chicago, 24-13 against Atlanta, and 27-9 last week. They can’t afford for it to happen again against Carolina.

4. Forcing Cam Newton to make plays in the pocket

While Cam Newton is completing 66.4% of his passes right now while having thrown 13 touchdowns to four interceptions, I think he could be vulnerable if Tampa Bay can contain the pocket.

Spy your best linebacker, Lavonte David on Newton, have the defensive ends hold the edge, and make him work all afternoon. Newton is averaging just 6.92 yards per attempt, which ranks No. 25 in the NFL. Carolina hasn’t created many explosive plays on offense, with just 19 passes of 20 or more yards. For comparison, the Buccaneers have 34.

Newton is the Panthers second-leading rusher and has scored a team-high four touchdowns on the ground. It’d do wonders for this Tampa Bay defense if they contained him in the pocket and forced him to win the game with his arm, which isn’t something I’m convinced he can do.

5. Slowing down Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffery

Let me put it bluntly. Carolina doesn’t have very good receivers. Sure, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Buccaneers defense makes them look like superstars on Sunday, but trust me, they aren’t.

The Panthers have six players that have over 100 receiving yards this season. Four are receivers, the other two are McCaffery and Olsen, who has played in just four games.

Tampa Bay has been awful at covering tight ends and running backs in 2018. Want a recap? Alvin Kamara had nine catches for 112 yards and three total touchdowns in week one. Zach Ertz led the Philadelphia Eagles with 11 catches for 94 yards.

Vance McDonald had a career-high 112 yards receiving and his only touchdown of the season thus far in Pittsburgh’s week three win. Chicago’s Tarik Cohen torched Tampa Bay for 121 yards and score on seven catches in a blowout victory.

And it continues. Austin Hooper had one of his only two touchdowns on the season and added nine catches for 71 yards in week six. While Tampa Bay did better against Cleveland, David Njoku was second on the team with four catches for 52 yards and a touchdown. Last week, the Bucs let Joe Mixon rush 21 times for a career-high 123 yards and two touchdowns.

Yeah, it’s a long list, and if Tampa Bay wants any shot at a win on Sunday they’ll have to slow down a running back and tight end who are Carolina’s best play makers.