GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Bill Maas, Jay Glazer
SERIES: 11th meeting. Carolina leads the series 6-4 but has won five straight, including posting a 34-14 win at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa earlier this season. Tampa Bay is 2-3 on the road against Carolina in the series.
2005 RANKINGS: Bucs: offense 24th (14th rush, 22nd pass); defense 2nd (8th rush, 5th pass). Panthers: offense 23rd (21st rush, 17th pass); defense 4th (2nd rush, 14th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Both teams will have different looks than the ones that faced off in a 34-14 Carolina victory five games ago. The Bucs turned the ball over four times that day, but QB Chris Simms has shown maturity in throwing just one interception in his last 99 pass attempts. Part of that is having a healthy RB Carnell Williams, who rushed for just 29 yards in 11 carries in the first meeting. However, the biggest concern for Tampa Bay remains its heavily undermanned offensive line trying to contain Carolina's dominating front four. The Panthers also have more production in the backfield this time around, with RB DeShaun Foster taking over the featured role with 55 caries over the past three games. His success is critical to Carolina's offense, which is seeking to find other weapons with defenses loading up to stop WR Steve Smith. The Bucs have allowed just one touchdown over their pas two games, so the Panthers must establish some kind of balance in order to move the ball effectively.
FAST FACTS: Bucs: Williams needs 88 rushing yards to become third rookie in franchise history to reach 900 (Errict Rhett, Warrick Dunn). ... WR Joey Galloway needs one touchdown reception to tie the single-season franchise record of nine. Panthers: QB Jake Delhomme is 5-0 against Tampa Bay. ... Have held their past six opponents under 300 yards and have 28 sacks in their past seven games.
--PK Matt Bryant has a hamstring strain and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game at Carolina. But Bryant kicked field goals again on Thursday and has a chance to play.
--S Will Allen (knee) practiced again Thursday and is listed as probable for Sunday's game at Carolina. Allen could replace Dexter Jackson at FS.
--LB Marquis Cooper has a chest strain and is listed as probable for Sunday's game at Carolina. But Cooper was limited in practice Thursday.
--WR Mark Jones and WR Edell Shepherd alternated returning kickoffs in practice Thursday.
--RB Cadillac Williams needs one more 100-yard rushing game to tie Warrick Dunn, Ricky Bell and James Wilder for the club record with four in a season.
--LB Dan Morgan (ankle) is expected to start against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
--SS Thomas Davis might see a decrease in playing time this week after playing a huge role in Carolina's 24-6 win over Atlanta. Davis saw about 35 snaps, nearly twice as much action as normal, on Sunday, when he was used as a "spy" on Falcons QB Michael Vick. That won't be necessary when the Panthers face the less mobile Chris Simms this week. "We will still use Thomas," Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said. "I don't know if we will use him as much, but he will still be a part of the game plan. It will depend on how the game goes."
--RB Stephen Davis, who has started 11 of Carolina's 12 games this season, said it's time for coach John Fox to make DeShaun Foster the starter this week against Tampa Bay. "Yeah, it is," Davis said. "I mean, the guy played the last couple of games and he's been playing well. He has been making plays and making the most of his opportunities. ... He deserves the opportunity to start." While Fox has said he won't name his starters until the day of the game, Davis said he has a good inkling Foster will start Sunday for the first time since Week 2.
--RB DeShaun Foster has carried 55 times for 246 yards, a respectable 4.4-yard average, in the past three games. For whatever reason, Stephen Davis has been largely ineffective, gaining just 39 yards on 16 carries, a 2.2-yard average. Foster has also caught 10 passes in the last three games for 93 yards.
--DE Mike Rucker did not practice on Thursday and remains questionable for this week. Rucker was NFC Defensive Player of the Week in his last game against Tampa Bay. If he doesn't practice Friday, don't expect him to play.
--DE Al Wallace will start this week if Mike Rucker can't make it back from an ankle injury. Wallace is a very good backup and there's not a lot of dropoff, even though Rucker is having an outstanding season.
--TE Michael Gaines did not practice again Thursday. Don't look for him to start this week.
--TE Kris Mangum could see increased playing time, along with Mike Seidman this week.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:Bucs:
Place-kicker Matt Bryant, who missed last week's 10-3 win over New Orleans with a hamstring strain, made several field goal attempts during practice Thursday.
If Bryant continues to show improvement, he could serve as the Bucs' Kicker Sunday at Carolina.
"He kicked good," coach Jon Gruden said. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow. We'll still list him as questionable."
Bryant strained his hamstring on the opening kickoff against the Chicago Bears two weeks ago. That injury could have contributed to his miss of a potential game-tying 29-yard field goal with less than three minutes left in a 13-10 loss to the Bears.
Gruden said Bryant has yet to test his hamstring on kickoffs.
"No, he didn't kick off," Gruden said. "He kicked field goals and kicked them good. He made them. So we're excited about that, but we didn't overdo it. We'll see how he feels tomorrow, and if he feels better we'll do a little bit more tomorrow."
The Bucs signed kicker Todd France to the practice squad last week, then promoted him to the 53-man roster just prior to the game against the Saints.
France's first field goal attempt was blocked, but he later connected on a 28-yarder.
Gruden said the Bucs would probably not keep both kickers on the 53-man roster Sunday at Carolina.
"I don't know that," Gruden said. "We would obviously be slighted in some areas, in terms of special teams and things like that. It's always a possibility, but we'd like to not do that."
Middle linebacker Dan Morgan and defensive end Julius Peppers returned to the practice field Thursday for the Carolina Panthers, a good indication both should play in Sunday's key NFC South showdown against Tampa Bay. Morgan has missed the last two games with an ankle injury.
Tutan Reyes, the starting right guard, was back to work Thursday, along with special teams ace Karl Hankton. Hankton and Idrees Bashir were both upgraded from questionable to probable.
However, the Panthers are still without defensive end Mike Rucker and starting tight end Michael Gaines. Rucker remains questionable after injuring his ankle last Sunday on a cut block by Atlanta Falcons left tackle Kevin Shaffer.
Rucker was a key factor in Carolina's 34-14 win over the Falcons, recording two sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery to earn NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
If Rucker can't go, Al Wallace would get the start for the Panthers.
"We feel good about the depth on our defensive line," Fox said. "We have two guys that we have not had uniforms for in (rookies) Jovan Haye and Atiyyah Ellison, who we feel good about. That's why we've had them on the roster for instances like this. We feel good about our depth there."
As for getting Morgan back on the practice field, Fox said, "He looked good. He was close last week but not quite ready. He should be ready this week."
GAME PLAN: The Panthers really confused young quarterback Chris Simms in the last meeting and will look to do the same on defense again this week. Expect added pressure and a variety of blitzes, especially if Cadillac Williams can't get things going on the ground. Williams wasn't very healthy in the last matchup against Carolina.
Offensively, the Bucs did little to slow down Jake Delhomme and company in the last meeting. They may look to bring more all-out pressure, which could result in more sacks, but also some bigger plays for wide receiver Steve Smith. DeShaun Foster will carry the load for Carolina this time around as opposed to Stephen Davis, who ran for 48 yards and two scores in the last meeting between the teams.
MATCHUPS TO WATCHBucs RT Kenyatta Walker vs. Panthers LDE Julius Peppers - If Peppers plays, this should be a matchup to keep an eye on. Peppers got the best of Walker in last month's game, sacking Chris Simms three times in Carolina's 34-14 victory. That game seemed to jump-start Peppers' season. He now has 7 1/2 sacks on the year. Unless the Bucs give Walker some help, expect another long day. However, Tampa Bay may be able to give added help on Peppers if Carolina's other defensive end Mike Rucker doesn't play. Both Peppers and Rucker are listed as questionable on the injury report with ankle injuries.
INJURY IMPACT: The Panthers were without three former Pro Bowl players on Wednesday as defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker missed practice and are listed as questionable this week with ankle injuries. The Panthers were also without middle linebacker Dan Morgan, who has missed the last two weeks with an ankle injury.
Peppers appears to have the best chance of playing, although Morgan might be ready to start making a comeback. Peppers did return to last week's game after injuring his ankle and said after the game that he plans to play this week.
If either Rucker or Peppers sits out, Al Wallace would step in to start at defensive end.
Tight end Michael Gaines also sat out practice on Wednesday with an ankle injury, as did guard Tutan Reyes (knee). Mike Seidman would replace Gaines if he can't go and rookie Evan Mathis would take over for Reyes. However, it appears Reyes should be fine.