Just like last year, the Bucs have started the season 0-1 and have a chance to get to .500 with a big matchup against the division rival Carolina Panthers.
This Panther team is different from last year’s squad, however. Carolina fired Ron Rivera and released Cam Newton in order to make way for Matt Rhule and Teddy Bridgewater in the offseason. The defense is completely re-tooled after the team spent all seven of its draft picks on defense in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The end result in Week One was a loss for the Panthers, but they showed plenty of promise and things to build upon. If the Bucs aren’t careful, they could find themselves in a dog fight this weekend.
But with all that aside, let’s dive in and find out how the Bucs can beat the Panthers in Week Two and get to 1-1 on the season.
Using up-tempo pace on offense
Tape study and analytics certainly help when preparing for an opponent, but simply listening to an opponent has to say after a loss can pay off in a big way.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule didn’t mince words when he talked about the Raiders’ up-tempo offense and how it affected the Panthers’ young defense in Week 1.
“We told the guys, ‘Hey, they’re gonna come out and go (fast) tempo the first 15 to 20 plays of the game,’ just reading the tea leaves and knowing who they are. And that’s exactly what they did,” Rhule told reporters after the game. “So I think that can lead to guys starting to hurry on defense, guys starting to rush.”
Even linebacker Tahir Whitehead noticed the difficulty in matching the Raiders’ pace.
“It’s really a matter of when teams are going up-tempo a few times, they’re getting up to the ball and we’re just lollygagging a bit and really not matching that tempo,” Whitehead said. “It really falls back on us. We just have to execute our stuff that much better.”
This makes a ton of sense. The Panthers have a young defense trying to run a new system under defensive coordinator Phil Snow. Incorporating an up-tempo pace on offense —especially one like Bruce Arians’— should have the same effect on the Panthers in Week 2.
The Raiders also used a variety of formations and a lot of play action to help keep the Panthers’ defense honest and out of rhythm. The Bucs need to kick up the tempo and vary the playcalling at some point in the game. Doing this would allow them to script some plays and hopefully get out to a quick start against a vulnerable Panthers defense.
Get the running backs involved, especially in the passing game
There’s a major advantage to be had, here.
Not only did the Panthers tie for the most touchdowns allowed on the ground in Week 1 (3), but they also allowed the 13th-most rushing yards (133), which is a rather large concern. We know how the Bucs love to keep things balanced, so there’s room for success in terms of a ground game.
But to make things worse, the Raiders’ backs also piled it on in the passing attack. Per Sports Info Solutions, Oakland attempted the sixth-most passes to running backs and as a result, the Panthers tied for allowing the third-most completions (8) and the third-most receiving yards (85) to running backs in Week 1. In terms of efficiency, the Panthers were the eighth-worst defense in EPA/att (.31) when targeting running backs in Week 1.
This is important when you consider the current health of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Evans has dealt with a hamstring issue all year, but participated in a full practice session on Friday. Godwin, on the other hand, will miss the game after suffering a concussion in the Saints game.
It’s a good thing Scotty Miller set career-highs in both receptions and receiving yards last week with a 5/73 mark and it’s also a good thing that the Bucs have capable receiving targets at the tight end position, but Tampa Bay will have to look elsewhere if the Panthers are able to limit the former receivers.
So why not get the backs involved?
For starters, the Panthers’ linebackers aren’t very good in coverage. The Bucs have two good receiving backs in Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette, so that creates an advantage right off the bat. The Bucs can use their receivers to open space for the backs a la the Raiders last week.
The first completion to a running back didn’t happen until 9:50 in the second quarter, but the Raiders made throwing to its backs an integral part of the game plan from that moment on. Oakland attempted eight of 10 attempts in the second half, completing seven of them for 81 yards, the most in the second half for any NFL team in Week 1.
Even without Godwin, the Bucs have the personnel to get this done. When you add in the fact that Kawann Short and Yetur Gross-Matos will also miss this game, then it becomes even more clear that the Bucs need to get their backs involved this week.
The NFL is all about exploiting matchups. This should be a matchup that the Bucs go after in Week 2.
Contain Teddy Bridgewater and create pressure/force turnovers
Obviously, the No. 1 thing to do on defense is to contain Christian McCaffrey, but we’re going to talk about another couple of key factors in order to spread the conversation out a bit more.
Don’t get me wrong, Bridgewater is no Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, or Michael Vick. He is, however, a very opportunistic runner who knows how to extend plays/drives with his legs.
Bridgewater finished the matchup against the Raiders with four carries for 26 yards. As I said earlier, it’s more about the opportunity than the stat line. Three of those carries went for 20 yards —including a 13-yard scramble on 1st and 10— on two separate drives and helped the Panthers cash in on nine points. The other scramble went for six yards on a 2nd and 10 and allowed the Panthers to kick a field goal right before halftime. So, in all, Bridgewater’s legs helped the team score 12 points.
His ability to find room to run can easily turn a good situation like a 2nd and 10 into a 3rd and 1 if he doesn’t pick up the first down. The Bucs will need to be aware of this and it really helps that they have two really athletic/fast linebackers in Lavonte David and Devin White. Carolina will use McCaffrey over the middle a lot, which will help clear out room for Bridgewater to run if need be. The Bucs could spy with David or White and have the other trail McCaffrey, which will be a big help. Not many teams have that luxury.
The other mission defense is easy: Create pressure and turnovers.
The Bucs finally took down Drew Brees last week, but overall, the pressure wasn’t really there. Tampa Bay’s pass rush owned the Panthers in both meetings last year while the Panthers traded for Russell Okung, they also traded away guard Trai Turner. A questionable interior became even more so after the move.
Vita Vea was a huge part of Tampa Bay’s pass rush in 2019 even if it didn’t show up on the stat sheet. He’ll be matched up again with Matt Paradis, whom Vea beat regularly last year.
As for turnovers, the Bucs specifically talked this week on how they need to get better at forcing them. That challenge will be a bit tougher with Bridgewater, who has never really turned the ball over throughout his career.
Bridgewater has thrown 16 touchdowns to just four interceptions in his last 10 starts and you have to go all the way back until Week 14 of the 2015 season in order to find the last time he lost a fumble.
While it may not be easy, it has to get done this week.
What do YOU think the Bucs need to do to beat the Panthers? Let us know in the comments below!