Under the radar or as an underdog, the Bucs have thrived the first half of the season, going 5-3 to the surprise of most in the NFL. But coach Raheem Morris’ team will experience something new when they host the 1-7 Carolina Panthers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium — expectations.
This time, they won’t just be coming from inside the Bucs’ locker room. Tampa Bay will have to play as a favorite against an injury-depleted Panthers team. Carolina will be without starting quarterback Matt Moore, who has to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, as well as running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. The Panthers plan to start rookie Jimmy Clausen at quarterback. He has struggled at times getting the ball downfield to electrifying receiver Steve Smith. Mike Goodsen is expected to start at running back.
“When you’re playing teams, you prepare for their philosophy and how they’re going to play the game,’’ Morris said. “And their philosophy, as we know, is going to be their running game, play off the play-action pass and be ready to deal. So you’ve got to go out there and prepare for John Fox’s mentality and their coordinators and what they want to do and how they want to establish their game. That’s never going to change.”
Keys for the Bucs
• Start fast. The Bucs have been notoriously slow starters, giving up two touchdowns or more in the first two quarters of games against the Browns (14 points), Steelers (28), Saints (17), Rams (17) and Falcons (17). If the Bucs let the Panthers hang around into the fourth quarter, the pressure will once again be on quarterback Josh Freeman to pull it out again.
• Lock down Smith. He will be the best player on the field for the Panthers Sunday — maybe the best period. Smith will be in man-to-man coverage with Aqib Talib, who has been known to jump routes and is vulnerable to giving up some big plays.
Keys for the Panthers
• Run the football. The Panthers under Fox always have been a run-first team. It’s the way they’re built. It’s what they do best. And with a rookie at quarterback, expect a heavy dose of Goodsen running the ball. Goodsen is a capable back. Certainly, he’s not the same quality runner as Williams or Stewart, but the Bucs still rank 30th in rushing defense. Just ask Saints running back Chris Ivory, who made a name for himself by rushing 15 times for 158 yards vs. Tampa Bay.
• Build a bomb shelter. Freeman digs the long ball. The Bucs have five receivers who have caught passes of 40 yards or more this season. Both Mike Williams (five touchdowns) and Arrelious Benn can get vertical. The Panthers have to make Freeman and the Bucs take the long route.
If the Bucs want to continue Morris’ ‘race for 10,’ wins, they have to start the second half with a victory over Carolina, one of the worst teams in the NFL. The Bucs are better. The difference is at quarterback. Freeman looks like the real deal and has confidence in Williams, Benn and tight end Kellen Winslow. If LeGarrette Blount or Cadillac Williams can get anything on the ground, the Bucs should have their first easy win. Bucs 28-10.