As the season opener draws nearer, I thought I would take a moment to put down some quick hits on the game.
1. Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith
Bucs fans were calling for Tampa Bay to hire Lovie as far back as last October. Lovie Smith has always been highly thought of in Tampa Bay, going back to the mid 1990's when Smith was linebackers coach under Tony Dungy.
Sunday is a homecoming of sorts for Lovie. Emotions and energy will be higher than the typical season opener. This type of intangible should not be overlooked. The Panthers need a quick start to drain some of the excitement out of the sellout crowd.
2. Buccaneers Linebacker Lavonte David
Lavonte was drafted by the Buccaneers in 2012 and caught on quickly. Last season he was named an All-Pro. In many ways his progress mirrors that of Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Though David plays weakside linebacker, he can have almost the same impact on a game. Keep in mind that Lovie Smith coached up legendary Bucs WLB Derrick Brooks. David could see an increase in performance this season.
David had 12 total tackles against the Panthers in Tampa last year. He also recorded a sack on Cam Newton. This is worrisome for the Panthers, as blitz protection has been sub-par at best throughout camp and preseason. Which brings me to my next point...
3. Deangelo Williams
Deangelo is typically a strong runner against Tampa Bay. Last year he racked up 43 yards on only 8 carries, and had a really nice scamper for a TD. However, Williams has sometimes been a liability in pass protection. Considering Cam Newton's healing ribs and ankle, Ron Rivera may choose to have increased playing time for now healthy Jonathan Stewart. Stewart is not only a better runner than Williams, but also superior in warding off blitzing linebackers.
4. Obligatory Tampa Bay Cheerleaders Picture
5. Improved Panthers Interior Offensive Line
Last season Chris Scott and Travelle Wharton were the starting guards for Tampa Bay. Since then, Chris Scott was released and Wharton retired. Both were serviceable vets at best. This year, the Panthers have Amini Silatolu back from injury and promising rookie Trai Turner, effectively trading experience for youth. The payoff here will come late in the game, where a few yards of tough Mike Tolbert may be the difference in the game. Silatolu and Turner have the fresh legs, and could be the difference late in the game.
6. Special Teams
It seems like something big always happens in Tampa in terms of special teams play. Last year Colin Jones made it down field to make a play on the ball during a kickoff. (Jones is a special teams ace, 10 tackles last season on ST). But whether it is a turnover, a blocked kick or punt, a nice return, or a long field goal, you can expect something important to the outcome of the game will be on special teams this Sunday.
7. Thomas Davis vs Vincent Jackson
Last year in Tampa, Jackson was targeted 13 times by the quarterback. And why not, he is a huge target with reliable hands that has always been trouble for the Panthers. The good news for the Panthers is that linebacker Thomas Davis is coming off of what may be his best camp and preseason of his career. This opens up many possibilities for the Panthers in coverage. Davis, a former safety at UGA, has the speed, size, and coverage skills to man up with Jackson if needed.