Out of twenty nine total meetings, the Carolina Panthers own the difference at 18-11, including winning four straight against their NFC South rival in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Panthers also enter this week four match up at 3-0 for the first time since 2003, which also happens to be the year the Panthers made the Super Bowl. Carolina started that year 5-0 with a week three bye. But Panthers fans should know this division match-up is rarely an easy win for either team. Here are some things to keep an eye on for the Panthers to pull off the road win and advance to 4-0.
A healthy and in uniform Cam Newton will be the biggest thing the Panthers have going for them this Sunday. Newton missed both games against the Bucs last season because of two separate injuries, one stemming from a player falling on him in the preseason and the other from a car wreck later in the season. Derek Anderson stepped in for the injured Newton and played well, leading the team to victories in both games.
Newton is coming off one of the best games of his career last week against the New Orleans Saints, regularly going through his progressions, hitting both Ginn and Olsen for big plays, and also hitting his check downs for positive yardage when there was nothing there or the play broke down. Perhaps the biggest thing Newton has matured in is his pre-snap reads of the defense. Last week, Newton made a quick audible at the line after seeing the defense stacking the box for a Stewart run and changed the play to a play action bootleg where he walked in from 13 yards out untouched.
The Panthers recent trade for Bears' pass rusher and NFL active sack leader (134) Jared Allen has created a lot of buzz in Panther Nation. Fans are hopeful Allen will kick start what has been a non existent pass rush the last two weeks. Allen is coming from a Bears defense that lined him up at linebacker in a 3-4 set, which didn't really suit his style. He did his best damage when in Minnesota when he put his hand in the dirt in a 4-3 scheme. Gettleman is banking that Allen's production decline was because of the defense he played on and the scheme that ir ran. It's why they got him really cheap, and why it may pay big dividends. With Charles Johnson on IR and ineligible to return at the earliest Thanksgiving game in Dallas, the front office knew something had to be done. This is a Gettleman trade mark deal, low risk with potential for high reward.
Josh Norman's Biggest Test
Josh "No Man's Land" Norman will go toe-to-toe with the Bucs top wide receiver Mike Evans. He's the biggest challenge Norman has faced this season, literally. Evan's is likely to get a lot of work too if it's anything like last week where Jameis Winston targeted him a whopping 18 times. Evans has a massive frame with speed and can go up and catch the ball at it's highest point. Norman is also coming off a big day where he made one of the biggest and easily the most athletic interceptions of his career, jumping and getting full extension for the pick in the end zone late in the game to seal the Panthers first division win on a ball where, if completed, would have probably lost them the game.
Will Luke Kuechly Play?
A lot of discussion is still focused on whether Luke Kuechly will be playing as he still hasn't made it back to practice and cleared his concussion protocol for two weeks. The Panthers are likely being extra cautious with arguably the best linebacker in the NFL to make sure he is ready when called upon. They may hold him out this week as well with the bye week coming up next week to ensure he is ready when the team travels to Seattle for a big match up. Personally, I am fine with that; Kuechly has been itching to get back on the field and what better game to let him let it all go than the Seahawks road match-up. Nothing personal against Tampa Bay, but with a rookie quarterback who has (rightfully so) been turnover prone and AJ Klein filling in well in the meantime, just give him all the time you can.
Will the Rushing Attack Ever Emerge?
We are still waiting on the ground game to make an impact. Jonathan Stewart hasn't done much with the carries he's gotten. It may be time to start working rookie Cameron Artis-Payne in for a solid snap count to generate a different look for the opposing defense and give the running game a spark. Artis-Payne had a really good preseason, but Carolina's staff have seemed to have forgotten his number. Artis-Payne wasn't even active in week two. If Carolina can't move the ball on the ground against the Bucs, there are some real problems. The Bucs have allowed 138 yards/game this season, so if there's ever a time to jump start the rush game, this is the week.
Ultimately, I think this will be a game that could be close on the score sheet, but should not be on the field. The Panthers will need to get pressure on rookie quarterback Winston early to prevent him establishing confidence and rhythm. The Texans had success running the ball last week against this Bucs defense and as I stated above it would be nice to see ours finally break the ice just before the bye week. Look for Olsen to have another solid day and maybe Devin Funchess to get his first NFL receiving touch down as well. (You heard it right here on C3 first!)
Final Prediction- Panthers 24, Buccaneers 13
By Tripp Morgan
Follow on Twitter @TrippMorgan6