After winning 15 consecutive games and making it all the way to the Super Bowl last season, the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers find themselves in unfamiliar territory as they limp into Week 5 with a 1-3 record and a two-game losing streak. The Carolina defense was completely dismantled by Atlanta last week, giving up 48 points and helping Matt Ryan and Julio Jones into the NFL record books. To make matters worse, reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton suffered a concussion that will keep him out of tonight’s game. The Panthers also will be without starting running back Jonathan Stewart and starting left tackle Michael Oher once again. Shorthanded Carolina will attempt to get things going in the right direction, as the three-time defending NFC South champions host Tampa bay in a Monday night divisional showdown
The Buccaneers are also trying to overcome a disappointing start to their 2016 campaign. They also enter tonight’s game at 1-3 following a 27-7 blowout loss at home to the Broncos last week. The Bucs have dropped their last three games and will be missing some key players due to injury. Both starting defensive tackles are out, including Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, while the team’s top two running backs — Doug Martin and Charles Sims — are both unlikely to play as well. The injuries will not help Tampa Bay’s efforts to end a six-game losing streak to the Panthers, a stretch that dates back to 2012.
Tampa Bay at Carolina
Kickoff: Monday, Oct. 10 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Carolina -4
Three Things to Watch
1. The Tampa Bay Run Game vs. the Carolina Run Defense
The Buccaneers’ offense has certainly had its struggles so far in 2016. One of the primary reasons being their inability to effectively run the football. Tampa Bay currently ranks No. 25 in the NFL in rushing, averaging just 82.5 yards per game. They have yet to surpass 90 yards on the ground in a game, and have just one rushing touchdown (Charles Sims) thus far. In fairness, the Bucs’ backfield has been hit pretty hard by the injury bug, but even when Pro Bowler Doug Martin was healthy, he was averaging just 3.3 yards per carry.
While the Carolina defense has been fairly generous through the air so far in 2016 (see: last week vs. Atlanta), the Panthers continue to be solid against the run. They finished fourth in rushing defense last season and currently sit at No. 10 in that category (90.3 yards per game) this season. This should prove to be a huge advantage for a defense still licking its wounds from what happened last week against the Falcons, as Tampa Bay’s top two running backs (Doug Martin, Sims) are not expected to play. That means an already struggling Buccaneers ground game will be relying on Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber to carry the load.
2. Derek Anderson and the Carolina Passing Game
Cam Newton’s presence will certainly be missed in tonight’s game. However, Newton’s absence may not be as glaring as you might expect. Anderson is one of the more accomplished backup quarterbacks in the NFL, including a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2007 when he was with Cleveland. He also has had success against the Tampa Bay since joining Carolina in 2011. Two seasons ago, Anderson filled in for an injured Newton twice against the Buccaneers and the backup piloted his team to victory both games. He averaged 254 passing yards with three touchdowns in those games, but it’s worth noting that much of that damage was done by connecting with Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin. The Panthers’ top two targets combined for 32 receptions, 389 yards and two touchdowns in Anderson’s starts against Tampa Bay in 2014, so chemistry should not be an issue.
In fact, Anderson could be in for an even bigger performance tonight against a Buccaneers pass defense than looks to be even more suspect than the one he faced two seasons ago. They come in ranked 18th in the league against the pass, at 259 yards per game. But the more important are numbers are touchdown passes allowed (nine) compared to interceptions (one). Anderson can’t run the ball like Newton, so he will need to decide where he wants to throw and quickly, as Carolina’s offensive line has struggled with pass protection (13 sacks allowed). Fortunately for Anderson, Tampa Bay’s pass rush hasn’t been all that productive (nine sacks), so he should be able to make some plays against a shaky secondary.
3. The Tampa Bay Passing Game vs. a Depleted Panthers’ Secondary
On offense, the Buccaneers’ inability to run the ball has put more pressure on Jameis Winston and the passing game. Winston and company have had their moments this season, both good and bad, but considering what Atlanta did last week (503 yards, 4 TDs) to Carolina through the air perhaps this matchup bodes well for Tampa Bay too. Still smarting from their Week 4 shellacking, the Panthers will have a different look in the secondary with starting cornerback James Bradberry out with turf toe and following the release of fellow corner Bene Benwikere, who was made the scapegoat for Julio Jones’ monster (300 yards, TD) game last week. That leaves career backup Robert McClain, along with rookies Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez, to handle cornerback against the Buccaneers’ receiving corps, a group that’s led by Mike Evans, who may not be as established as Jones to this point, but he can be just as explosive and is a taller target (6-5 vs. 6-3) to cover.
For Tampa Bay to try and exploit Carolina’s pass defense, the offensive line will have to hold up against what is still a stout front seven. Winston has already taken 40 hits this season, by far the most in the NFL. The Panthers may have just nine sacks entering this game, but protection up front will still be critical to give Winston his shot at picking apart Carolina’s patchwork secondary.
Both of these teams are pretty beat up at key positions. But that also leaves plenty of areas for each of these teams to exploit. The Buccaneers will look to take advantage of a Panthers’ offense that will be without reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton, as well as its starting running back and left tackle. On the other side, Jameis Winston should have success against a makeshift Carolina secondary that is even more inexperienced than the one that gave up 503 passing yards and four touchdowns last week.
Carolina should be able to find running room against a Tampa Bay defensive front that will likely be without both of its starting tackles. And don’t overlook Derek Anderson’s chances of having success against a shaky Bucs pass defense as well. Even with the concerns and questions surrounding the Panthers’ defense, this unit is still talented enough in the front seven to handle a Tampa Bay running game that has struggled and will likely feature its third- and fourth-best options. In the end, Carolina should have just enough firepower to get back into the win column at Bank of American Stadium, where the Panthers have won 10 of their past 11 games since the start of the 2015 season.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Buccaneers 21
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.