Buccaneers vs. Panthers 2016 preview: Carolina tries to dig out of deep early-season hole
It's gut check time for the Panthers and Bucs, who are both 1-3 heading into Monday night's NFC South encounter.
To say that the Carolina Panthers are in trouble might be an understatement. Just one year after going 15-1 and reaching the Super Bowl, the Panthers find themselves at 1-3, with a crumbling defense and an injured Cam Newton. They'll try to turn things around on Monday Night Football, when they host a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that is also struggling at 1-3.
Newton remains in concussion protocol after taking yet another huge hit in Week 4. While running into the end zone on a two-point conversion attempt, Newton got concussed on a helmet-to-helmet hit (which wasn't flagged since Newton was deemed a runner on the play) and sat out the rest of the Panthers' blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Derek Anderson will get the start since Newton is not cleared to play.
Perhaps a week off will be a blessing in disguise for Newton, who's been taking punishing hits all season thanks to poor offensive line play. Through four starts, Newton has absorbed 12 sacks, tied for fifth-most in the league, and he may have had even more had he not missed most of the second half last week. The running game is stagnating without Jonathan Stewart and Kelvin Benjamin has been invisible in recent weeks, recording just three catches for 39 yards and a garbage time touchdown the past two games.
However, the Panthers' biggest concern has to be the defense, specifically the secondary. GM Dave Gettleman's decision to rescind the franchise tag on Josh Norman is proving to backfire, with the pass defense getting torched by Julio Jones in Week 4. Bene Benwikere was utterly helpless watching Jones sprint by him en route to 300 receiving yards, and the Panthers released him on Friday. James Bradberry is now dealing with turf toe and will be out this week, so the Panthers' secondary is already down to bare bones at depth. That's bad news with Mike Evans lining up on the other side.
Of course, the Bucs have plenty of problems themselves, with the big one being Jameis Winston's turnover woes. After a promising Week 1 win over the Atlanta Falcons, last year's No. 1 overall pick has sharply regressed with seven interceptions and two lost fumbles over the last three games. He's now on pace for 32 interceptions, an alarming number after Winston had just 15 in his rookie year. It's gotten to the point where head coach Dirk Koetter admits he's "very concerned" about Winston.
Normally when you have a young quarterback struggling with ball security, you double down on the running game to try and build his confidence back up. Unfortunately, the Bucs don't quite have that luxury with Doug Martin set to miss another game with his hamstring injury. Charles Sims was filling in as the starter in Martin's absence, but he's also missing practice with a knee injury and could be questionable to play on Monday. If Sims can't go, the job falls to career journeyman Jacquizz Rodgers. It's a daunting situation for the Bucs and they'll need Winston to play better if this offense hopes to stay on the field and score points.
The offensive injuries are extra concerning because Tampa's defense is showing few signs of progress, ranking 18th in yards allowed per game and giving up 32 points a game, second-worst in the league. In addition, stalwart defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has a calf injury and may not play this week, depriving Tampa of one of its few elite playmakers on that side of the ball.
Although the season is still early, it's fair to say this is a must-win game for both teams. Falling to 1-4 would essentially take them out of the running for the division title and make a path to the playoffs much harder. That sense of urgency, along with the divisional rivalry, should make this game compelling viewing, even with most of the top stars expected to sit.
Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Place: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
Announcers: Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
The Panthers opened as 6.5-point favorites on OddsShark, though most sportsbooks don't have betting lines due to the uncertainty of Newton's status.
With so many key players either out or questionable, this game is basically a war of attrition. To that end, I may just lean towards the home team here. For all of the Panthers' troubles, they still have the best defensive player on either team in Luke Kuechly. If Newton is inactive, Ron Rivera should dial up a risk-averse game plan for Anderson and rely on his front seven to bully around Winston, which is doable even if Evans breaks big plays against the makeshift secondary. The game may ultimately come down to which team has the ball last. Panthers 20, Bucs 17.