WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida
SPREAD: Bucs by 8.5
WHERE THE PANTHERS STAND: The Panthers are 3-6 and are in last place in the NFC South Division.
PANTHERS HEAD COACH: John Fox
PANTHERS OFFENSIVE COORINATOR: Dan Henning
PANTHERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jack Del Rio
PANTHERS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Scott O'Brien
HOW THE BUCS RANK IN THE NFL (2002):
OFFENSE: OVERALL: 20th RUSHING: 23rd PASSING: 13th
DEFENSE: OVERALL: 1st RUSHING: 8th PASSING: 1st
HOW THE PANTHERS RANK IN THE NFL (2002):
OFFENSE: OVERALL: 27th RUSHING: 19th PASSING: 28th
DEFENSE: OVERALL: 3rd RUSHING: 7th PASSING: 4th
MATCHUP TO WATCHBucs RT Kenyatta Walker vs. Panthers LDE Julius Peppers : Carolina rookie left defensive end Julius Peppers leads his team and the league in sacks this season with 10. He recorded two of those against Tampa Bay second-year right tackle Kenyatta Walker a few weeks ago. Peppers totally outplayed Walker in these two teams' first meeting. While he doesn't protect quarterback Brad Johnson's blindside, Walker must hold off Peppers' relentless pass rush.
DID YOU KNOW…
…the Panthers have lost six games in a row, they're 1-3 on the road and 0-3 within the NFC South Division?
BUCS WILL AIM TO STOP PANTHERS RB SMITH:
Carolina hasn't received much offensive output this season, but running back Lamar Smith has been somewhat productive. Smith is only averaging 3.4 yards per carry, but he has rushed for 675 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Smith had brief success rushing the ball against Tampa Bay's defense a few weeks ago, but it was short-lived. Carolina rushed for 110 yards against the Bucs, but they only averaged 3.5 yards per carry.
FOR PEETE'S SAKE:
Carolina passed for just 43 yards against Tampa Bay a few weeks ago, but rookie quarterback Randy Fasani led the Panthers. They'll be led by veteran QB Rodney Peete this Sunday, which means Carolina offensive coordinator Dan Henning could test Tampa Bay's secondary a bit more in this game. Peete has completed 59.3 percent of his passes for 1,459 yards and he's tossed seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Still, Carolina is scoring an average of just 12.3 points per game.
WHAT A RUSH:
Tampa Bay has the No. 1 ranked defense in the league, but Carolina is ranked No. 3 in total defense and its defense has recorded a whopping 33 sacks in nine games this season. Peppers leads the team with 10 sacks and RDE Mike Rucker and nose tackle Kris Jenkins each have five sacks. Tampa Bay has surrendered 21 sacks this season and they allowed quarterback Rob Johnson to get brought down six times a few weeks ago. If Tampa Bay's offensive line can't protect QB Brad Johnson, the team's offense, which failed to get into the end zone against Carolina in their first meeting, won't have success this Sunday.
One of the reasons Tampa Bay's offense was held to just 12 points in its win over Carolina a few weeks ago was because of injuries. The Bucs started that game without wide receiver Keenan McCardell, but lost WR Joe Jurevicius to injury in the third quarter. The Bucs also started the game without starting QB Brad Johnson and Rob Johnson struggled in his place. Tampa Bay also lost starting left guard Kerry Jenkins in the second quarter when he suffered a fractured orbital.
The Bucs are expected to have all four of those players in its lineup on Sunday. The Panthers will, however, be without starting defensive tackle Sean Gilbert (hip fracture) and starting middle linebacker Dan Morgan (groin) on Sunday, which may prompt Tampa Bay to run the ball early and often.
BUCS SOUND OFF:
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on Carolina's defense being without Brentson Buckner:
"You watch them play last week and it certainly didn't diminish what they can do. They still have Peppers, who's got 10 sacks, Rucker's extremely hot and Jenkins is generating a lot of pressure inside. He's really on the verge of becoming a household name in the NFL. He's impressive. They've got a lot of scheme and they're playing extremely well. We've still got to deal with a relentless pass rush. They do a lot of things to be creative with the blitz, trying to create physical one-on-ones."
Gruden on the importance of succeeding after the bye week:
"We tried to say that last week when the bye was going on. We don't want to talk about it anymore. It's important that you don't lose center, you don't lose focus on the bulls eye. The bye can be an advantage if you take advantage of it. If you come back distracted and you're not ready to play, you don't get any help from your opponent, that's for sure. We had a good couple days of practice last week, we got some guys healthy, we worked hard on Monday, we had a good practice today and we'll get we deserve Sunday."
Gruden on playing Carolina again just a few weeks after their first meeting:
"You pick up the film and watch them play the Saints and you realize that they've changed some things. They had a bye week in between our games, so they have obviously emphasized different things on both sides of the ball. They'll be completely different. They've got new players on defense, some new scheme issues to deal with, they've got a new quarterback who we didn't see the last time. It will be a completely different ballgame, in my opinion."
Bucs LB Derrick Brooks on what sticks out from the last game against the Panthers:
"They hit us with a couple of plays when we were out of our gaps. And obviously they are going to come back and run their offense. We just need to clean up our fits in the running game and make sure we tackle better. I think we tackled well, except for a few minutes in the third quarter and we just need to make sure we're on that and we start out fast. We need use the bye week as an advantage. A couple of teams have come off of a bye and lost, so we need to make sure we protect ourselves against that."
Bucs QB Brad Johnson on his outlook on the Panthers:
"It was a big win for us a couple weeks ago (against the Panthers). I think they are very physical upfront. I think they have the most sacks in the league. They have three dominant players leading the league, top eight in sacks, and they present a lot of pressure just from those four or five guys. They also bring a lot of pressure from different disguises. They'll stand at different fronts, they bring pressure from the corners, they bring blitzes from the safety, so they'll do a lot of things on defense and that's why they are having that kind of success on the defensive side. Obviously, they lost six games in a row, in the last minute. They are playing some great ball right now, they just haven't come up with the win. So we have a lot of work in front of us."
Carolina might be 3-6, but they're a very dangerous team. The Panthers have lost six straight games and five of them were decided in the last minute of the contest. That said, Tampa Bay's offense must score more than 12 points this time around and they'll try to put Carolina away early.
Don't expect Jon Gruden to take too many chances offensively. With Carolina's offense struggling to score points, Gruden will likely rely on the Bucs' defense and special teams to win the battle of field position. Tampa Bay's defense recorded three interceptions against Carolina in their last meeting and they'll need to force some turnovers again this time around. If Tampa Bay's defensive line can get pressure on Carolina QB Rodney Peete, they should have plenty of opportunities to create those turnovers.
Tampa Bay can't afford to overlook Carolina on Sunday, but one could understand how it could happen. The Bucs' next two contests will be against the 8-1 Packers and the 7-2 Saints. The NFC playoff race is too tight for Tampa Bay to overlook any opponent at this point in the season and Gruden will certainly remind his players of that fact. Gruden will probably also remind his players that a win on Sunday would get Tampa Bay off to its best start (8-2) ever in franchise history. Expect another defensive battle at Ray-Jay on Sunday, but the Bucs' offense should be able to get into the end zone this time around.
FLYNN'S PICK Buccaneers 17 Panthers 6
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