GAMEDAY: Panthers vs. Bucs

12th meeting. Panthers lead series 6-5. The Panthers have dominated the Bucs of late, winning five of the last six, including three straight at Raymond James Stadium. However, the Bucs won the last game at Carolina in December 20-10, so the Panthers will be seeking revenge.

Carolina Panthers (0-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-2)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 09/24/06
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX, Matt Vasgersian, JC Pearson, Jay Glazer
SERIES: 12th meeting. Panthers lead series 6-5. The Panthers have dominated the Bucs of late, winning five of the last six, including three straight at Raymond James Stadium. However, the Bucs won the last game at Carolina in December 20-10, so the Panthers will be seeking revenge.
2006 rankings: Panthers: offense 30th (22nd rush, 26th pass); defense 28th (31st rush, 11th pass). Bucs: offense 28th (32nd rush, 15th pass); defense 22nd (32nd rush, 4th pass)

Keys to the game: Which team will come out with a bigger sense of urgency? Both 0-2, the loser could find itself out of the playoff race before the end of September. QB Chris Simms is feeling the heat in Tampa Bay, but he's also the victim of a struggling offensive line that isn't creating any holes for RB Carnell Williams either (the Bucs' longest run is seven yards). Williams insists back spasms aren't slowing him down, and the Bucs desperately need him to provide a ground threat and buy more time for Simms. Carolina might not know WR Steve Smith's status right up to game time, but expect rookie RB DeAngelo Williams to get increased touches as the Panthers attack a Bucs defense that allowed 306 rushing yards last Sunday.

Fast Facts: Panthers: Have outscored the Bucs 71-34 the past two games in Tampa and have won three straight in Raymond James Stadium. ... QB Jake Delhomme has seven 300-yard passing games with Carolina, one shy of Steve Beuerlein's franchise record. Bucs: Simms is 6-2 (.750) as a starter against NFC South teams. ... CB Ronde Barber needs three INTs to tie Donnie Abraham's (31) franchise record.

PERSONNEL NEWS:

Panthers:
--WR Steve Smith practiced Thursday for the first time since Sept. 5, but his status remains up in the air. This will truly be a game-time decision. If Smith wakes up Sunday and feels good, he probably will play. If not, he'll be held out another week. Given that this is such a big game, Smith is probably under some pressure to play.

--WR Drew Carter practiced for the second straight day with a broken finger. He will start if Steve Smith can't go.

--WR Keyshawn Johnson should be plenty motivated this week in his return to Tampa. It's his first time back to Raymond James Stadium since being traded to Dallas.

--RB DeAngelo Williams will not start, but could get even more carries than starter DeShaun Foster. Williams and Foster each got 13 caries last week.

--RB DeShaun Foster will start this week against Tampa Bay, but don't be surprised if DeAngelo Williams gets more carries.

--RB Nick Goings missed practice again Thursday and is listed as questionable with a thigh injury. He missed last week's game. The Panthers want him back because he's a big part of their special teams.

--WLB Na'il Diggs will start this week for the Panthers, giving them more experience at linebacker.

--LB Chris Draft will move inside this week and start at middle linebacker in place of Adam Seward. Draft has plenty of experience playing middle linebacker. Draft started the first two games of the season at weak side linebacker. The Panthers want him to shift to the middle so they can get Diggs back on the field.

--MLB Dan Morgan (concussion) will not play again this week.

--MLB Adam Seward will not start for the Panthers.

--RT Jeremy Bridges could see some action for the Panthers this week.

--RT Todd Fordham may start for Carolina, but don't be surprised to see backup Jeremy Bridges in the game at some point.

--RG Evan Mathis said he will be back in the starting lineup this week in place of Will Montgomery. Mathis started week one, but was benched.

--CB Ken Lucas was back at practice on Thursday and looks like a go for Sunday. Lucas is listed as questionable but look for him to play despite a neck/shoulder injury last week.

--SS Colin Branch will start this week for the injured Shaun Williams, who is doubtful.

--SS Shaun Williams has not practiced the last two weeks because of a foot injury.

Bucs:
--QB Chris Simms tossed footballs to President George Bush, who made an impromptu stop at the Bucs' training facility.

--DE Simeon Rice suffered a knee injury in practice Thursday and was added to the injury report as questionable.

--DT Anthony McFarland is questionable for Sunday's game against Carolina with a hip injury.

--CB Brian Kelly did not practice Thursday due to a turf toe and he is questionable for Sunday's game. If Kelly is out, Juran Bolden will start at right CB.

--DT Chris Hovan is questionable for Sunday's game with an ankle sprain he suffered in the fourth quarter against Atlanta. If Hovan is unable to play, Ellis Wyms could start at NT.

--DT Davin Joseph is out for Sunday's game against Carolina with a knee sprain. The Bucs will start C/G Sean Mahan in his place.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Panthers:
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith was back on the practice field Thursday, although his status for Sunday's game at Tampa Bay remains up in the air.

Smith, who is hoping to return to the field after injuring his right hamstring on Sept. 5 and missing the first two games of the season, is still listed as questionable on the team's injury report. Coach John Fox predictably listed Smith as "day-to-day."

"It hasn't been sore," Smith said. "But the biggest thing that people don't understand is mentally. It's not like I pulled one (hamstring). I pulled two. So when that happens you have to be mentally thinking am I going to pull it again? Or which one am I going to pull?

"So you have to be smart on it. If you don't, then I will be back to where I was nine or 10 weeks ago -- back to square one. Mentally I have to get over the hump and make sure where I can do the right things and then physically I have to listen to my body."

There's a chance the Panthers could play Smith on a limited basis this week against Tampa Bay, even if they use him primarily as a decoy to take some attention away from fellow receiver Keyshawn Johnson. However, if Smith feels good enough when he wakes up Sunday morning, perhaps he might be able to contribute to an offense that has scored only one touchdown in its first two games.

However, if Smith wakes up Sunday and feels tightness in the hamstring, the Panthers could hold him out altogether.

With the Panthers at 0-2 and facing a situation where they will fall three games behind the NFC South leader if they lose -- Atlanta and New Orleans, both 2-0, will meet on Monday night -- Smith is probably feeling the pressure from a number of people to get back on the field.

Obviously Smith will not be 100 percent by Sunday, but would he consider playing if he weren't?

"Depends on the circumstances," Smith said. "It's really not anybody's call but mine. It's not my fans'. It's nobody but my call. When it's all said and done, if I screw my body up, they ain't going to be there."

Said Fox: "When he's deemed medically ready, he'll play."

When asked directly if he feels like he could play Sunday, Smith replied, "I don't play the what-if game. I'm not going to play it. In six years I've learned a lot, which is why I keep my mouth closed. You can go what-if somebody else."

Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said it was nice to get Smith back on the practice field, but he wasn't ready to say he's counting on having his favorite weapon back on the field Sunday.

"We all want him back," Delhomme said. "He's a big part of what we do. If he's able to go Sunday, then great. If not, we need to just play better, play good football."

Bucs:
Cadillac Williams has been taken out of the first two games. By his own team, not the opposing defense.

The Bucs' early deficits and Gruden's unwillingness to stick with the running game have helped take Williams out of the first two games.

"I'll tell you what, he is champing at the bit," running backs coach Art Valero said. "There's no bigger guy (when it comes) to wanting the ball. He wants the ball all the time. He'll come to the sideline and say: 'I'm starting to feel it. I'm starting to get warm.' And then, the circumstances of the game might change. I have to go tell him: 'Keep your poise, keep your patience, don't force big plays.'"

Case in point: Of his 23 rushing attempts, just one has come in the fourth quarter. A year ago, Williams made his big runs late in the game when the defense was worn out.

Last year, he was one of the best (late in games)," coach Jon Gruden said. "And I think he'll be a heck of a player if you get a lead and you have to run clock. We'll lean on our running game. Being behind hasn't given us that opportunity. That's unfortunate, but that's the facts."

Williams, who has rushed for only 59 yards, won't call for the ball. But everyone knows he needs to see it more.

"I feel like it's just going to be that way all year," Williams said of defenses' efforts to slow him. "They're going to come in to stop the run. But me, my mentality is I don't care how many they have in the box. As an offense, we should be able to run the ball, and I feel like in time we're going to be OK."

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