CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WFLA) – After a frustrating showing in their season opener, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are right back on the field for a week two divisional matchup tonight against the Carolina Panthers.
Kickoff is 8:20 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Last Sunday, the Bucs fell 31-17 to the San Francisco 49’ers in a game that featured three interceptions returned for touchdowns. Unfortunately for the Bucs, quarterback Jameis Winston threw two of them, the second one sealing a road win for the Niners.
Tonight, the Bucs visit a traditionally difficult venue for NFC South teams, one that has given the Bucs plenty of trouble. This game will also feature a reunion with former Bucs defensive lineman Gerald McCoy, who was released by the team during the off-season program. The awkward exit was highlighted nationally after the Bucs signed free agent defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, giving Suh (McCoy’s) old number 93.
Here are three things to watch for tonight:
1. Will Winston settle in?
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians was quick to defend his quarterback following Sunday’s loss, noting that two of his three interceptions were the result of mistakes by others.
The point made sense but the final “Pick-6” occurred at the game’s most critical moment, with the Bucs trailing by one score and time running out in the fourth quarter. “Throw the ball in the dirt,” was the lesson emphasized by both Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, referring to the screen pass attempt that never developed.
Winston showed excellent decision-making during the preseason, tucking the ball and scrambling, going through the correct order or reads on receiver routes and protecting the ball if sacked. The final interception against San Francisco opened the door for criticism, however. Winston has not had to wait long for a shot at redemption on national television.
The Bucs passing attack was not at full strength in game one with wide receiver Mike Evans still feeling the effects of a late-week flu. Tight end Cam Brate had a bittersweet return to action after a calf strain. Brate performed well, hauling in two touchdown passes. Both wound up be taken off the board for holding penalties.
2. Is this ground game dangerous?
Perhaps the nicest result on offense for the Bucs, in the opener, was the emergence of running back Ronald Jones, who rushed for 75 yards on 10 carries.
Head coach Bruce Arians praised Jones during Monday’s News Channel 8 “Bucs with B.A.” interview, noting his ability to break tackles beyond the line of scrimmage. This was the same talk during training camp and the preseason. Against the 49’ers, Jones lived up to the hype. Arians said that Peyton Barber is the established starter and will remain that but he hopes to see the running game develop into a one-two punch with the “hot” back getting multiple carries to keep the momentum.
The Bucs offensive line deserves credit for the running attack that looks promising. Guard Alex Cappa performed well next to tackle Demar Dotson, creating noticeable holes for the backs. Tackle and guard duo Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet handled their side of the line without issues. The costly penalties came on passing situations, including the touchdown nullifying calls.
3. Same old Cam?
Last season, the Bucs defeated the Panthers in their meeting at Raymond James Stadium, on a day that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was clearly less than one hundred percent, as he played through a shoulder injury. Newton was lifted from the game prior to a final “Hail Mary” pass, a bad look for a team enduring a difficult season. After off-season surgery, Newton was pronounced as fit and ready to go for 2019. He avoided serious injury during the preseason when he suffered an ankle strain just two weeks before the Panthers season opener.
Against the Rams last Sunday, Newton was held in check much of the day, finishing without a touchdown pass. He was sacked three times but the Panthers run game, spearheaded by McCaffrey, cut a pair of 13 point deficits into a three-point game in the fourth quarter.
The rules are always the same for a healthy Cam Newton. Do not allow the Panthers to utilize the entire width of the field in their passing attack, wrap up running back Christian McCaffrey and do not let Newton slip away and become a runner. Newton’s balance within the offense has tortured Bucs defenses in the past, setting up big games for Panthers tight ends. It is a relentless attack with options.
Tonight, the new three-four scheme under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will be put to the test. Against the 49’ers, the Bucs defense earned excellent grades, controlling the run game and picking up where the preseason left off in forcing turnovers. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III returned an interception for a touchdown to get the Bucs their first lead of the game. The defensive backfield will likely have chances again to capitalize on bad passes, of Newton is under duress.
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