Observation Deck: Bucs-Panthers preview

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DeShaun Foster loves playing against the Atlanta Falcons. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are another story.

The Panthers running back averages 129.7 yards in the Georgia Dome and is coming off a 122-yard outing against the Falcons last Sunday.

In fact, Foster is having one of the best starts of his career with 238 yards rushing. He rushed for 94 yards against St. Louis in the opener.

The common denominator? Both games were in domes. In the Panthers' only game outdoors, Foster rushed for only 22 yards. That was at home.

I don't think Foster will have that bad a day against the Buccaneers, because the Panthers offensive line is one of the best parts of this team. But Foster is only averaging 45.8 yards rushing in his six meetings with the Buccaneers. So maybe the Buccaneers understand how to defend Foster better than the Falcons.

Foster's performance will be important on Sunday for two reasons. First, the Panthers should start backup David Carr at quarterback, and the Panthers would like to reduce Carr's exposure to defensive pressure. A good running game would do that. Second, the Panthers are 21-2 when Foster carries the ball at least 15 times.

There are plenty of other great trends in this NFC South rivalry:

Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith has four straight 100-yard receiving games against the Buccaneers;

The Panthers are 7-1 against the Buccaneers since 2003, all with Jake Delhomme at quarterback;

Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia has averaged 265 yards passing, including four 300-yard performances, against Carolina in his career. He's also won his last three meetings with the Panthers, including last year.

The last time the Bucs beat the Panthers was in 2005, in Charlotte, a victory that all but clinched the NFC South title.

Big game? You bet. Let's get to it.

On offense

How big a difference could Jeff Garcia make in this game? Plenty. The Panthers always seem to induce the Buccaneers into critical errors. So far, Garcia has been unflappable.

He is tied for first in the NFL in interceptions with zero (tied with New England's Tom Brady). His third-down passer rating is eighth in the NFL. His average/gain of 9.15 yards is third in the NFL. He's passing at a 66 percent clip and his 105.6 passer rating is fifth in the NFL.

It's safe to say his performance in Philly last year wasn't a fluke.

What Garcia does better than any Bucs quarterback in recent memory is steady the ship. Players look to him for leadership and he gives it. He allows his playmakers to make plays. He chips in with his mobility. Most of all, he doesn't make dumb throws or force passes when it isn't necessary.

In other words, he's the perfect quarterback for Jon Gruden.

The Panthers, statistically, have one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL. They've claimed just two sacks in three games. Now, I think Panthers end Julius Peppers will play better on Sunday because, well, he always seems to against the Buccaneers. That makes his matchup with Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood a vital one.

Trueblood, in his second season, is proving he's more athletic that I expected. Last week he pulled out to help block on Earnest Graham's first touchdown run, a rarity for a right tackle.

"Did you see him pull out on that run play?" Bucs running backs coach Art Valero said. "He couldn't have done that last year."

It's a sign that the Bucs are putting more faith in Trueblood. He held Leonard Little without a sack last week, and there's a decent chance Trueblood can do the same on Sunday. Peppers is not playing with the same aggressiveness and instinct he usually does. He has no sacks. Plus, Atlanta tackle Todd Weiner handled Peppers without help last Sunday.

What's going on? We'll see on Sunday.

The Bucs will struggle against the Panthers' solid run defense. The Panthers only allow 95.3 yards per game. They did a good job against Steven Jackson of the Rams three weeks ago, along with clamping down on the Falcons tandem of Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood last week. So I don't see Carnell Williams having a huge day, nor do I see the rushing offense gaining more than 180 yards as it did last week against St. Louis. I see it gaining around 110 yards. The Panthers defense has allowed only seven runs of 10 yards or more in three games, so don't expect a lot of explosive running plays.

The Bucs just need to gain enough to keep the unit honest, because Garcia's arm will determine this game.

The Panthers are giving up 246 yards passing per game and the secondary is a mess, especially at safety. The Panthers let Shaun Williams go in the offseason. Mike Minter is gone. The new opening-day starters were Chris Harris and Deke Cooper. After not starting last week, Cooper will this week after Marquand Manuel failed to get the job done in his place.

Atlanta's Joey Harrington showed the Buccaneers that the deep middle is extremely vulnerable right now, and I think the Bucs will use slants and crosses to make that weakness work for them. The Falcons had four pass plays of 20 yards or more against the Panthers, and the Texans did it three times to Carolina two weeks ago when Houston upset Carolina in Charlotte.

If the Panthers can muster a better pass rush than they have the past three weeks, they can lessen Garcia's effectiveness. But if they aren't able to, watch for Joey Galloway and Alex Smith — who is developing into Garcia's No. 2 weapon, in my opinion — to have solid afternoons, with one or two long catch-and-runs in the process.

Offensive predictions

Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on offense (we'll get out the scorecard on Monday):

1. QB Jeff Garcia will go his fourth straight week without an interception and clear 250 yards passing for the first time this year.

2. RB Carnell Williams will rush for 75 yards on Sunday. More importantly, he won't fumble.

3. WR Joey Galloway will take advantage of a soft Panthers secondary for his second 100-yard receiving game of the season, plus a touchdown.

4. RT Jeremy Trueblood will battle Panthers LE Julius Peppers to a draw, giving up a sack but reducing Peppers' impact on the game with consistent play.

5. The Buccaneers will lead from the beginning of the game and not fall behind, though the Panthers will likely tie the game at least once.

On defense

The Buccaneers are tied for 11th in total defense, allowing 310.3 yards. It's not a scintillating number. The Buccaneers would rather focus on this number — 12.3. That's the points per game the defense has allowed in three games, a figure that's fifth-best in the league. That, much more than total yardage, is why the Bucs are 2-1 right now.

"As I mentioned to our media here, yards don't win games — points do," Carolina head coach John Fox said. "We're 2-1 and I think too much is made of yards and all of those things."

And the Panthers defense is allowing 22.3 points per game, good for only 20th in the NFL. The difference is the Panthers have a more explosive offense and have been able, so far, to overcome their defense's shortcomings.

Starting quarterback Jake Delhomme was off to the best start of his career, throwing eight touchdowns against just one interception before his elbow injury last week against Atlanta. He had connected with Steve Smith on four of those scores, and two of them were for at least 68 yards. Plus, the running game of DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams, at least indoors, has been productive.

The pair of Foster and Williams have produced 19 runs of 10 yards or more in their two indoor games, as opposed to just one against Houston outdoors. What to make of that, I don't know. But if I were Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, I would either lobby Charlotte for a dome or put in artificial turf pronto.

This Panthers offensive line is healthy and one of the better units in the NFL, so I expect them to have some success against the Buccaneers. The Bucs have allowed nine rushes of 10 yards or more so far this season, but that game-by-game total has dropped each week. The Bucs only allowed two 10-plus runs to the Rams' Steven Jackson last week. But Jackson did have 115 yards, so I think Foster can have one of his better games against the Bucs because of that. His career best is 82 yards. Williams is more dangerous because his outright speed changes the pace of the game.

Steve Smith will likely have another big game against the Bucs because he'll be their most targeted player. That's because the Panthers really don't have a reliable No. 2 option. Keary Colbert and Drew Carter have underperformed so far, making tight end Jeff King the No. 2 receiver. So watching King underneath will be a key Sunday. Carter and Colbert are both explosive, but they have 14 catches between them and Smith's talent, much like Galloway's demands that the quarterback get him the ball early and often. If Colbert or Carter are unable to step up, the Bucs can likely survive Smith.

There's a bigger issue and that's David Carr. The Panthers will miss Delhomme's confidence under center, plus his chemistry with Smith. Carr's unfamiliarity with the offensive personnel — and their unfamiliarity with him — will be the biggest issue they face on Sunday. Plus, I think if the Buccaneers can put more pressure on Carr than they have on Marc Bulger or Drew Brees, I think they can force Carr into more mistakes than Delhomme might make.

The best thing the Buccaneers can do defensively is to limit the Panthers' running game early in the contest, forcing them into long-yardage situations on third down and putting the game in Carr's hands, rather than Foster's. To do that, the Bucs will need a great game inside from Jovan Haye and Chris Hovan, in addition to another outstanding performance from middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. That's not out of the question, even against Carolina's strong interior linemen. I also expect the Bucs to blitz heavily in an effort to pressure Carr. Don't be surprised if Ronde Barber or Jermaine Phillips produce a big play in the backfield on Sunday.

Defensive predictions

Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on defense:

1. DE Patrick Chukwurah will have an immediate impact when he plays on Sunday, due to his speed and a lack of film the Panthers will have on the formerly injured end.

2. The Buccaneers will get more pressure on Panthers QB David Carr than they did last week on Rams QB Marc Bulger, but it likely won't result in more than two sacks.

3. But, the pressure will yield two interceptions by Carr, one of which will be returned for a touchdown.

4. The Bucs secondary will take a hit on Sunday, as the talented Steve Smith will catch a deep one for a touchdown.

5. The Buccaneers will allow Panthers RB DeShaun Foster no more than 85 yards rushing.

Prediction

If you haven't figured it out by now, I think the Buccaneers will win this game. Certainly, history is against them. The Bucs have lost seven of the last eight games. But the last victory, in December of 2005, came with a Bucs team that played well together and a Panthers team that struggled on defense. That seems to be the parallel to Sunday's game. This Panthers defense is soft against the pass, and I'm not sure they can correct the mistakes they made against Atlanta in seven days. The deep middle is vulnerable and that's where Bucs QB Jeff Garcia loves to work. So I think TE Alex Smith can be a bigger factor in the passing game. The Panthers offense will be somewhat effective with David Carr at quarterback, but I think the Bucs will do enough defensively to rattle Carr into a few too many mistakes, putting the Panthers behind late in the game and forcing them to get away from their successful running attack. DeShaun Foster will have a solid day, but he won't break a long run. By the time the sun sets on Charlotte, the Bucs should be 3-1 entering a big road game at Indy. Bucs 23, Panthers 16.



Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.


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