Buccaneers offense vs. Panthers defense
Bucs RBs vs. Panthers DL: I know this looks like a copout, but it's going to take every bit of both of those units to win this battle on Sunday. Tampa Bay is eighth in rushing, averaging 134 yards per game so far. That average could have been better if head coach Jon Gruden had stuck with the run more in a tight game against Denver last week. Earnest Graham was averaging nearly 6.0 yards per carry and Warrick Dunn was running all over the Broncos. This offense clearly works best when Graham and Dunn are getting consistent carries that combine for at least 25 per game. It's a new version of "Thunder and Lightning" that worked so well for Tampa Bay in the past. The Panthers are solid against the run, ranked 13th in the NFL, but one number sticks out – one. That's the number of rushing touchdowns allowed by the Panthers in five games. The Panthers have done it with a solid defensive line, led by Julius Peppers, opening up holes for their linebackers. The Bucs offensive line is growing into one of the NFL's best, so the Panthers will have their hands full on Sunday. If they can get the penetration they need, it'll be a long day for the Bucs.
Buccaneers defense vs. Panthers offense
Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart vs. Bucs MLB Barrett Ruud: Actually, it may not be Ruud and that's why this matchup is vital. The Bucs are giving up 99.6 yards per game on the ground, and Ruud is a big part of why the Bucs haven't given up a rushing touchdown this season. Ruud's sprained foot means that he might not play on Sunday and could be replaced by Matt McCoy. Either way, the Panthers could choose to exploit this by using their bruising rookie back between the tackles, if their offensive line can get the proper push. Stewart had a career high 19 carries last week for 72 yards. They are clearly looking to get him more carries each week and he's thisclose to being a 20-carry back. It could happen on Sunday if the Panthers are successful at opening up inside running holes and running at McCoy or a hobbled Ruud.
The Bucs will win if…: … they stick to the run and put a pass rush on Jake Delhomme. The common denominator in the Bucs' two losses are that Earnest Graham carried the ball just 10 times. But in those games he had at least 5.9 yards per carry. Why the Bucs didn't hand it to him 20 times is confusing to say the least. But if the Bucs want to win, they'll feed Graham as often as possible. Meanwhile, the Bucs have produced a scintillating pass rush. It took a bit of a hit last week as it produced no sacks, but it's doubtful the Bucs will be shut out two straight weeks. The Panthers must keep Delhomme upright or they'll be in for a long day.
The Panthers will win if…: … They continue to run the football effectively behind Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams and the defense continues to limit the run. The Panthers are 13th in the NFL in rushing, but more importantly have only given up one touchdown on the ground in five games. That defense in the red zone will be important against the Bucs, who are very effective on the ground near the goal line. And if Stewart and Williams are able to find holes against the league's No. 14 run defense, they'll control the contest and keep Tampa Bay's offense off the field.
Matthew Postins is the editor and publisher of bucsblitz.com
Brad Thomas is the editor and publisher of panthersinsider.com