The first time the Carolina Panthers faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers they won by a score of 37-23 but were missing a key piece on their defense. This was the third game that Luke Kuechly missed as he dealt with a concussion suffered in Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars,
The first time these two teams met the Panthers were able to do just fine and the game was never really close or in question in the second half as they jumped out to a 31-10 lead halfway through the third quarter. However, the one area that the middle linebacker can help is trying to slow down Doug Martin, who is the second leading rusher in the NFL with 1,354 rushing yards. Against the Panthers in Week 4, Martin ran for 106 yards with an additional 37 receiving yards and one rushing touchdown in the second quarter.
Since Kuechly has returned he has played at a very high level that has earned him another Pro Bowl selection. According to Pro Football Focus, he leads the league in tackles since his return in Week 6 and leads all middle linebackers in interceptions with four. The Panthers are going to need another highly productive game from their middle linebacker if they want to try and slow down Martin.
The second year wide receiver has not had the productive season he would have liked. Philly Brown has played the most snaps of all the Panthers' wide receivers this year but only ranks fourth in receptions (28), fourth in receiving yards (389) and third in touchdowns (4).
This game presents a great opportunity for Brown to step up with Ted Ginn Jr. listed as doubtful and unlikely to play against the Bucs. For the Panthers to reach their full potential, they need to have a deep threat element in the passing game and Ginn provided that this year. When Ginn has a touchdown catch, the Panthers average 37 points per game but when he is scoreless, they average 26.6 points per game.
When Cam Newton is able to connect on these passes, or at the very least make the defense aware of these passes, it opens up the underneath routes and the middle of the field for Greg Olsen. It also forces the defense to play back and not allow them to stack the line to stop the run. This is a role that Brown is going to have to fill on Sunday and if he can, the offense should be able to bounce back even without their top wide receiver.
This game is not only important to the Panthers but also to Josh Norman, who is going to need a bounce back game after last week's game against Atlanta. Prior to Week 16, Norman looked unbeatable, was playing at a high level and had shut down some of the best wide receivers in the game.
However, the topic this week has been whether or not Norman has lost a bit of his swagger, as Charlotte Observer's Joe Person details in his article. This will be a good week to get some of that swagger back as he is going up against Bucs' Mike Evans, who is having a down year but is still a physical nightmare. The second year wide receiver has 70 receptions for 1,134 receiving yards but only three touchdowns and is second in the league in dropped passes with 15.
Now the first time these two teams faced, Norman had one of his best games of the season and one that earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week. He finished the game with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and Jameis Winston had a QB rating of 3.6 when throwing his direction, according to Pro Football Focus.
This game presents a great opportunity for Norman to get back his swagger and play like the shutdown cornerback that he has for most of the season.