3TFO: Panthers @ Buccaneers, Week 1
Trey Cunningham | 2012/09/06
Last year, the Panthers caught the Buccaneers in their 10-game losing streak and twice took them to the woodshed, sweeping them by a combined score of 86-35. That is embarrassing, as were many of Tampa Bay’s efforts last season. This is a new year, though, and the Buccaneers at least have home field advantage for the opener. Will things go differently, or will Carolina again dominate?
Let’s take a look at three factors that could determine who begins the season 1-0.
Josh Freeman and Cam Newton
While these two young QBs won’t literally be playing against one another, they will arguably play the biggest role in deciding who wins this game. Newton shocked the league last year, but will he be a victim of regression? The signing of Mike Tolbert may indicate that, despite scoring 14 rushing TDs in 2011, the front office doesn’t want to continue to risk Newton more than necessary. He will also hope to limit the interceptions (17 last year, with only 21 passing TDs) and improve his accuracy (60% on the year).
On the other side of the field is Freeman, who regressed along with the rest of his team. Freeman had to deal with some injuries, but that’s still no excuse for throwing 22 picks, an alarming increase from his total of six interceptions in 2010. Having a big target like Vincent Jackson should only help him improve, but his other weapons–including third-year receiver Mike Williams who dropped nine catchable balls last year–will need to do their part too.
Carolina’s Running Game vs. Tampa Bay’s Run Defense
The Buccaneers’ run defense was atrocious last season. Aside from Secret Superstar Michael Bennett, the other five defensive lineman to play over 300 snaps combined for a -23.6 run defense grade. When their season mercifully ended, they had allowed a league-worst average of 5 yards per carry. This was especially problematic against the Panthers, who rushed for a combined 433 yards and eight TDs (four from Newton). With the addition of the former Charger Tolbert, who scored eight rushing TDs last year, this running attack should only be more dangerous. Tampa may get lucky if Jonathan Stewart–the most elusive running back in the league last year–misses the game with an ankle injury suffered in the preseason, but they will still have their hands full. Will they let the upstart Panthers literally run all over them again?
Steve Smith vs. Aqib Talib
Steve Smith continues to be one of the most physical and entertaining wide receivers in the league; the fact that he jelled with Newton last season (79 catches, 1,394 yards, seven TDs, 16 forced missed tackles) only reaffirms his status as one of the best. Aqib Talib, despite off-field issues and some injuries, has been consistent, grading positive in pass coverage in the four years that we’ve been watching every play of every game.
Unfortunately, the matchup between these two didn’t materialize last season because Talib injured his hamstring four plays into their Week 13 game, and was on injured reserve when the rematch occurred. In 2010, with Jimmy Clausen throwing the ball, Smith caught five passes against Talib for 92 yards and a TD in two games, with Talib also managing a pass defensed. Assuming both can make it through the game healthy, the camera should be regularly checking up on this battle.