The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday afternoon in a Week 4 match up that could provide an early season shake up in the NFC South. The Panthers enter the game at a perfect 3-0, while the Bucs currently sit at 1-2. Both teams are 1-0 in the NFC South, sharing a common victory over division rival New Orleans.
Tampa Bay comes into this match up trying to break a ten game home losing streak. Currently, the longest home losing streak in the NFL. The Bucs have not won a game at Raymond James Stadium since 2013. More importantly, Tampa Bay has not defeated Carolina since 2012, losing four straight to the defending NFC South champion Panthers.
Carolina at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Carolina -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Tampa Bay on 3rd Down
If the Buccaneers stand any chance of winning against the Panthers, they must improve on third down on both sides of the football this week. Through 3 weeks, Tampa has converted third downs into first downs on just nine of 40 attempts, which is a pathetic 22 percent conversion rate. Opposing defenses have provided plenty of pressure on third down for Jameis Winston so far this season forcing the Bucs’ rookie quarterback into poor throws and poor decision-making in general. You can fully anticipate that Carolina will attempt to continue the trend in week 4.
Conversely, the Tampa Bay defense has allowed Tennessee, New Orleans, and Houston to collectively convert on 46 percent of their third down plays. Only five other NFL defenses have been worse on third down. And let’s face it, the Bucs haven’t exactly faced a who’s who of NFL offenses to this point. Cam Newton and the Panthers' offense is arguably their biggest test to date.
The Panthers rank mid-pack in the NFL in converting and stopping third down conversions, so Tampa has a reasonable shot at getting on track, especially on the offensive side of the ball going against a banged-up Panthers defense.
2. The Carolina Rushing Attack vs. The Tampa Bay Rush Defense
Both teams have faced fairly weak competition to this point, but considering that they already share two common opponents in Houston and New Orleans through the first three games, the statistics heading into this matchup are quite relevant.
Those statistics provide insight that bear one fairly obvious conclusion. The Buccaneers will struggle to stop the Carolina run game. The Panthers currently rank sixth in the NFL in rushing at 132 yards per game. The Buccaneers rank 30th in the NFL in stopping the run, allowing 138 rushing yards per game. The Tampa defense is coming off of a loss to Houston in which they allowed the Texans to dominate the time of possession with the run game en route to giving up 186 rushing yards and that was without Arian Foster. Even Titans running back Bishop Sankey averaged 6.2 yards per carry against the Bucs' porous defense.
The bottom line is that if Tampa Bay cannot not slow down Blue and Sankey, how are they going to slow down Newton and Jonathan Stewart? The answer is simple, the Bucs will not. The challenge becomes even more daunting when you take into account that Tampa Bay’s All-Pro DT Gerald McCoy is currently nursing a shoulder injury.
3. Carolina’s Pass Rush?
At this point, there are more questions than answers regarding Carolina’s pass rush coming into this game, but it is definitely worth paying attention to. The Panthers’ addition of the NFL’s all-time sack leader, DE Jared Allen, will likely be the most heavily scrutinized aspect of the day.
It’s no secret that Panthers head coach Ron Rivera likes to employ an aggressive pass defense, and it’s even less of a secret that Rivera will try to bring as much pressure as possible against the Buccaneers' rookie signal-caller on Sunday.
The question is, how well will Winston and the Tampa Bay offensive line respond? So far, they have not fared very well against opposing pass rushes, which can be documented by the aforementioned difficulty to move the chains on third down. The Bucs have also allowed seven sacks in the first three games, which isn’t terrible, but it isn’t exactly good either.
There are also no guarantees that Carolina will be effective with its pass rush. The addition of Allen to replace the injured Charles Johnson could help, but Allen is not exactly in the prime of his career. It may be even more of a challenge if the Panthers' star linebackers, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, are unable to play on Sunday. Kuechly is still battling concussion systems and is a long shot to play this week, while Davis remains questionable with a pectoral injury.
If Carolina is unable to get a healthy pass rush going against the Buccaneers, Winston and the Tampa offense should be in for a successful day. Given time, Winston could have a field day with deep threats Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. On the contrary, If Carolina is able to bring the pressure, look for yet another underwhelming performance by the rookie quarterback and the Tampa Bay offense.
There has been a fairly simple formula in how to defend the Buccaneer offense. You stack the box on first and second downs to slow down running back Doug Martin. You then follow up by bringing pressure and varying your coverages on third down to force young Winston into a mistake or short throw. So far, this has worked like a charm for opposing defenses, an inferior Saints unit being the lone exception. If the Panthers can successfully employ this strategy on Sunday, they will win the game. However, that may be easier said than done with key injuries, and an aging Allen applying the heat.
The key for the Buccaneers is limiting mistakes, limiting pressure on their young quarterback, and converting third downs. They must also limit penalties which have killed them so far this season. Tampa Bay has already accrued 33 penalties in three games, the most in the NFL. You are not going to win many games averaging over 10 penalties per game.
The Bucs also have a tall order in stopping Newton and the Carolina offense. This is likely the deciding factor in the game. Even if Tampa Bay manages to play well on offense, which is questionable at best, it is difficult to see them slowing down Newton enough to come out on top. Thus, bringing the Tampa Bay home losing streak to 11.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Buccaneers 21
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS