Observation Deck: Bucs-Panthers preview

In this edition of the "Observation Deck," go inside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' regular season finale against the Carolina Panthers. Find out the key matchups of the game, key stats and my predictions as the Buccaneers prepare for the playoffs.

At this time last year, Jeremiah Trotter got a break. The Philadelphia Eagles had clinched the NFC East title and Trotter didn't need to play. As a veteran of several playoff runs with the Eagles — including Super Bowl XXXIX — he knew what that time off meant to the team.

"When I was in that position, it was lovely for me," Trotter said. "To be able to rest a week, it's a long season. You take a pounding. When you have the opportunity (it's great), because you work hard to get the bye week and the home field advantage."

Today, he's preparing to play in Tampa Bay's season finale against Carolina. Trottter, a former Pro Bowl linebacker for the Eagles, has spent most of the season inactive on game days.

But he hasn't been resting.

"Every week I'm trying to get scout team player of the week," Trotter said with a big, toothy grin. "It hasn't happened yet. I've got one week left so y'all cross your fingers."

Trotter's numbers are miniscule this season compared to his career. He has eight total tackles in just two games. He's used to averaging about 150 tackles per season. But the stellar play of Barrett Ruud has kept Trotter on the bench.

The Buccaneers viewed Trotter as insurance.

And the policy has paid off in the meeting room and the locker room.

Ask rookies like Adam Hayward, who played alongside Trotter in the second half of last week's loss to San Francisco.

"It made it comfortable to look over and see someone like that playing and we were able to communicate," Hayward said.

Those younger players even seek Trotter's approval during practice and games.

"Sometimes I feel like a coach," Trotter said. "They'll come off the field after a play and go, ‘Trot, did you see me?' I'm like, ‘Hey, listen, I've only got two eyes. I can't see everybody.'"

Trotter may play little, but he's earned the respect of everyone in the locker room. Teammates rave about his professionalism and attitude.

But Trotter does his best work on the field, and he proved last Sunday he could still move around well. He likely won't be back in Tampa Bay next year. He's a free agent and there's no room for him to become a starter. He played, at times on Sunday, like an over-eager rookie.

"I know one time I flew over the pile on a kickoff (coverage) and Ronde (Barber) was like, ‘What are you doing?'" Trotter said. "I was like, ‘Listen, man, you sit on the sideline for 15 weeks and see what you do.' I was trying to take out anybody."

Next year he'll be taking it out on everyone he can find for another team. The Bucs should pray they're not on his new employer's schedule.

ON OFFENSE

With the Buccaneers expected to rest several key veterans, expect the offense to struggle a bit. I suspect that Jeff Garcia, Earnest Graham, Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard will be off the field before halftime.

That means backup Luke McCown will be working behind a first-string offensive line, but with mostly second string wide receivers. We could see a formation with Michael Clayton, Micheal Spurlock and Chad Lucas as the receivers on Sunday. That is sure to throw the timing off the offense off a bit.

I would expect the Bucs will try to run the ball more than they did on Sunday at San Francisco. These Bucs play better at home. It's a divisional opponent and in their last meeting with Carolina the Bucs rushed for more than 180 yards with Michael Pittman and Graham for most of the game. The Panthers run defense still looks a little leaky, as it's giving up 110 yards per game (18th in the NFL). Plus, DE Julius Peppers will not play.

Pittman and Michael Bennett will see plenty of playing time, and if the offensive line is playing well the yards will be easy to come by and McCown will have plenty of play-action passing to work with. If the O-Line isn't getting it done, it could be a day similar to San Francisco in that McCown will have to throw a lot and the Bucs will have to count on some untested receivers to move the football.

OTHER POINTS TO PONDER

THIRD DOWN EFFICIENCY: The Bucs are 18th in the NFL on third down, converting 38.8 percent of the time. Is that good or bad? Well, the best team in the NFL on third down is Indianapolis, which converts 49.7 percent of the time. That 11 percent difference is a pretty big one, in my opinion. Failure to convert on third down inhibits the offense's ability to continue drives and keep the defense well rested. And in games where the Bucs have struggled on third down, they've lost. It's that simple.

RED ZONE BLUES: If the Bucs lose in the postseason, look at their red zone efficiency. Tampa Bay is 26th in the NFL, converting touchdowns just 44.2 percent of the time inside the 20 (their average for scoring anything inside the 20 is 88.4 percent). There isn't a playoff bound team with a worse conversion rate, unless Tennessee (36.5 percent) qualifies this weekend. That could be Tampa Bay's undoing.

MATCHUPS

BUCS RBS VS. PANTHERS MLB JON BEASON: Whoever is running the football, they're likely going to have to evade the Panthers' top tackler, who has all but made veteran Dan Morgan an afterthought inside.

BUCS RT JEREMY TRUEBLOOD VS. PANTHERS LE CHARLES JOHNSON: Johnson, a rookie, is coming off a solid game against the Cowboys. Trueblood has reached the point in his development where he should be able to adequately handle a rookie pass rusher. We'll see how he does on Sunday.

BUCS LG ARRON SEARS VS. PANTHERS LDT KRIS JENKINS: Earnest Graham told me Jenkins messed with Sears in the last meeting — or at least tried to. Sears ignored the mental games and just played. Will Jenkins try again on Sunday? Is Sears past all that as he enters the postseason?

OFFENSIVE PREDICTIONS

I make five offensive predictions each week. Check back on Monday to see if I'm right.

1. Tampa Bay will rush for less than 100 yards. The Panthers have a lot of pride. They'll play their starters. The Bucs will sub liberally and the offensive continuity will suffer as a result.

2. Jeff Garcia will not play past the first quarter. He admitted he played just one series for Philly last year after they clinched. He may get the same treatment on Sunday. He's not hurt, so he has to play in some regard.

3. Jerramy Stevens will be the leading receiver. I don't see Michael Clayton stepping up and making more catches in this game. He hasn't most of the season. Stevens will get plenty of work.

4. The Bucs will commit at least two turnovers. As the inexperienced players flood the field, the mistakes will come.

5. Luke McCown will throw two touchdown passes. The ineffective running game will mean the fourth-year pro will have to throw quite a bit more than Gruden wants.

ON DEFENSE

I'm going to make this real simple. To win this game the Bucs have to do two things.

First, they must slow down DeAngelo Williams, not DeShaun Foster. Williams is emerging as the big-play threat now and is a viable threat to take Foster's job next year. Williams has 596 yards rushing this season. But his past few games have been exceptionally productive given his limited playing time. He's rushed for 82, 60 and 61 yards in three of his last four games. He's starting to become the home run threat the Panthers envisioned when they drafted him. Keep him from those big plays and the Bucs have won half the battle.

The other issue is old nemesis Steve Smith, who had only five catches for 32 yards in their meeting in September. Usually he burns the Bucs like an inferno. But his numbers have suffered thanks to the Panthers' quarterback carousel. But Smith's numbers have shot up with Matt Moore at the controls. He's caught 18 passes and a touchdown in the past two games. The old Smith is back and he's hungry to make Tampa Bay pay for his sub-par game in September. The Bucs will have to bracket coverage, plus get a solid rush on Moore. And they'll have to do it with mostly second-stringers.

The vets will leave this game early and the defense will drop off. That could make it more likely that Carolina's two top weapons could go off on Sunday.

OTHER POINTS TO PONDER

TURNOVERS: The Bucs have made the biggest improvement in the NFL in turnover margin this season. Last year the Bucs were a minus-12. This year they're a plus-14, meaning a plus-26 change in turnover ratio. Who's the runner-up? Seattle, at plus-21. The Bucs also have the third-most points off turnovers this year at 108.

FIRST-YEAR SUCCESS: Tampa Bay's defense has netted 15 ½ sacks from rookies or first-year players, most notably Gaines Adams and Greg White. That total is tops in the NFL in that category.

MATCHUPS

PANTHERS WR STEVE SMITH VS. BUCS BACKUP DBS: I don't know who will get stuck with covering him — Brian Kelly? Sammy Davis? — But Smith is hungry to make an impact and coming off his best game of the season.

PANTHERS QB MATT MOORE VS. BUCS FRONT FOUR: Moore has played well for an undrafted rookie. But the Bucs must put consistent pressure on Moore on Sunday. They did that to Shaun Hill last week, and even though the Niners won, Hill took a beating.

PANTHERS RB DESHAUN FOSTER VS. BUCS MLBs: The Panthers will want Foster to pound away at the Bucs defensive interior. After Barrett Ruud leaves the game, Jeremiah Trotter slips inside. Have you ever tried to pound away at a 260-pound middle linebacker?

DEFENSIVE PREDICTIONS

1. The Panthers will rush for more than 110 yards. The yards will come in the second half after the starters are gone.

2. Matt Moore will be picked off at least once. Somebody will lure the rookie into a bad throw with a disguised coverage.

3. Steve Smith will go deep at least twice. It all depends on which Bucs DB ends up on him. If it's a youngster, it's curtains. I see a 100-yard game for Smith

4. The Bucs will force fewer than two turnovers. The defense will be less aggressive with the backups in the game.

5. Quincy Black will be the best-looking rookie on the field. I just have a feeling his speed will be a big asset on Sunday.

THE PREDICTION

The starters for the Bucs won't play much and that will lead to breakdowns on both sides of the ball. It won't be much of a tuneup. The Panthers will win and the Bucs will endure questions all next week about their readiness to play the Giants based on a game that everyone knows means little. Panthers 23, Bucs 17.

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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.


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