Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-6) at Carolina Panthers (4-4)
KICKOFF: Monday, 8:30 ET
TV: FOX, Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann, Tony Kornheiser, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya
SERIES: 13th meeting. Carolina leads the series 7-5. The Panthers took the earlier meeting 26-24 in Tampa after building a 17-0 lead.
2006 rankings: Bucs: offense 31st (30th rush, 27th pass); defense 22nd (26th rush, 17th pass). Panthers: offense 23rd (26th rush, 19th pass); defense 19th (21st rush, 20th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Bucs have issues in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Their secondary has come under fire, but DE Simeon Rice has only 2.0 sacks and the front four as a unit isn't generating much pressure. If Panthers QB Jake Delhomme has time in the pocket, he knows WRs Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson will find the holes in the Cover-2 defense. With rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski learning the ropes, the Bucs' offense ideally wants to feature RB Carnell Williams, but he has struggled behind a young offensive line. If Tampa Bay stalls on first and second down, Gradkowski will face tremendous pressure on third-and-long. Panthers DE Julius Pepper has been held without a sack for two games, but will be working against rookie RT Jeremy Trueblood.
Bucs: Williams has just one 100-yard rushing game after producing five as a rookie. ... Gradkowski has thrown just one interception in 186 pass attempts. Panthers: Have lead entering the fourth quarter in seven of their eight games, but have blown three of those leads. ... Have been shutout in the second half of their past two games.
--DE Simeon Rice (shoulder) did not practice Thursday and is listed as questionable for Monday night's game at Carolina.
--DT Ellis Wyms (ankle) did not practice Thursday and is listed as questionable for Monday night's game at Carolina. Wyms has not missed a game this season and likely will play.
--CB Juran Bolden (hip) was downgraded to questionable for Monday night's game at Carolina.
--RB Michael Pittman (shoulder) did not practice Thursday and is listed as questionable for Monday night's game at Carolina. If Pittman can't play, Earnest Graham would see some action as the third-down back.
--C Justin Hartwig did not practice again Thursday and remains doubtful for this week's game against Tampa Bay after re-injuring his groin last week in the weight room. Don't expect Hartwig back in the starting lineup anytime soon.
--DT Jordan Carstens is listed as out for the foreseeable future after being hospitalized with a blood clot in his left lung. Carstens was on medication for a kidney problem, and the clotting may have been associated with the medicine he'd been taking. There's a chance this could end his season.
--RB DeAngelo Williams will play this week against Tampa Bay, but it remains uncertain how many carries he will get.
--WR Keyshawn Johnson was back on the field Thursday after sitting out Wednesday's practice with an illness. Johnson is expected to start against his former team, Tampa Bay, Monday night at Bank of America Stadium. Johnson had seven grabs for 97 yards and scored two touchdowns against the Bucs in Week 3, both of those coming in the first half.
--K John Kasay had an NFL record four field goals of 46 yards or longer in Carolina's Week 3 win over the Buccaneers.
--CB Ken Lucas returned to the practice field Thursday despite a slightly torn muscle in his groin area. Lucas still hopes to play Monday night, but that could come down to a coach's decision Sunday.
--CB Richard Marshall would start if CB Ken Lucas (groin) can't play.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Bucs start the second half with a murderous stretch of three games in three cities in 11 days.
It begins Monday night at Carolina and continues Sunday, Nov. 19, against the Redskins at Raymond James Stadium, a contest that's a candidate to be moved from 1 p.m. to 8:15 by NBC. The stretch will conclude four days later with a Thanksgiving Day game at Texas Stadium.
Coach Jon Gruden was asked if he's ever experienced a three-game stretch like this one.
"No. Not really. Not in pro football," Gruden said. "But we thank the NFL for our schedule. They did quite a good job."
Actually, the Bucs are not the first team to be dealt such a dreadful hand. Last season, the Cowboys played a Monday night game at Philadelphia, played at Texas Stadium against Detroit, then hosted the Broncos four days later on Thanksgiving.
But the Bucs will become only the fourth team since 1978 to play three games within 11 days, with two of the contests on the road. The three previous teams to face this scenario finished a combined 2-7. Buffalo in '94 (1-2), Washington in '90 (1-2) and Seattle in '80 (0-3) all failed to produce a winning record during that stretch.
In addition to the obvious difficulties of trying to install a game plan for three opponents in such a short time frame, there are issues of player safety.
There's a reason why NFL games are generally played once a week. Players say they need anywhere from two to three days just to recover from the normal bumps and bruises. Add an injury, and it might take up to a week.
Gruden said the scheduling hardship puts players' safety at greater risk.
"At the beginning of the year, we go to these meetings and they talk about player safety, they give us a speech about it and I agree with it," Gruden said. "I'm a big fan of player safety.
"I don't understand it, you know what I mean? I don't really understand it. I don't know that it's ever been done since the inception of this bye (week) particularly. I can't necessarily say it's unfair or fair, I don't want to sound like a crier. But you play on Monday night and then you play on Sunday and Thursday, that's a lot of football."
To account for the shortage of preparation days, coaches began studying tape of the Redskins on Monday. They may use part of Monday in Charlotte to glimpse at the Cowboys.
"For the next week against the Cowboys, I have no freaking idea what we'll do," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "We work long hours as it is with (defensive coordinator Monte) Kiffin, but when it comes to that, it's going to be interesting."
Bucs players are not exactly embracing the grueling three-game stretch, but they have had plenty of time to accept the idea.
"The upside is we like the revenue as players that (national television games) generates," tight end Dave Moore said. "The bad news is you've got to play when they tell you they want you to play.
"It's hard just going from a Monday to a Sunday, depending on the style of game you wind up playing. If you play a physical game, it's tough duty. And the older you get, the longer it takes for you to recover."
For players like defensive end Simeon Rice (shoulder) and Shelton Quarles (knee), who have not practiced much the past two weeks and need six days to be physically prepared to play in games, the short weeks could force them to sit out a contest.
"It's been a struggle to practice, really, in some ways, with the number of players who haven't practiced," Gruden said. "And the ones that do practice, some are limited. So you've got to modify your schedule and you've got to say, hey, we've got to do the best we can with what we have and that's what we're going to do."
Running back Cadillac Williams, who has never played on "Monday Night Football," is taking a positive approach.
"If you look at it this way, we have a chance to get to 5-6 quick," Williams said. "Two and six is definitely not a good feeling, and with the upcoming schedule we have we should look at it like we have a chance to go 5-6 in a couple days. That's the bright side of it."
This has been a frustrating season for Panthers starting cornerback Ken Lucas, but he said he's trying to stay positive and not let a string of injuries get to him.
"I have never been constantly just bothered with nagging injuries as the season goes on," Lucas said. "I may have an injury here and there, but not as frequently as this year. I'm just being tested right now. My faith is being tested, but I'm not going to give up. I know this is going to make me stronger. It makes me appreciate this game even more."
For the third time this season, Lucas was forced to leave a game when he suffered a slight tear in his groin during Carolina's 35-14 loss to the Cowboys before the bye week.
Previously, he left games at Minnesota in Week 2 with a strained neck and then again in Week 7 against Cincinnati with a hip injury.
It may be just coincidence, but the Panthers blew fourth-quarter leads in all three of those games, one of the major reasons they're 4-4 at the midpoint of the season and not 7-1.
"They have been keeping me out of games in crucial situations where I need to be out there," Lucas said. "I'm just trying to work hard in the weight room trying to prevent some of these injuries from happening so I can be out there for four quarters and help my team get a win."
Lucas entered this year with Pro Bowl aspirations after being shunned in 2005 despite a terrific first season with the Panthers. He had 72 tackles and six interceptions in the regular season and two more picks in the NFC playoffs.
But this year has been one hurdle after another.
He came into the season having missed only three games out of a possible 80 during his previous five NFL seasons. He hasn't missed any this year, but has had to leave three and play a limited role in a fourth.
So why is he struggling staying on the field this year?
Lucas wondered that, too, and after some careful self-examination, he believes he's found the origin of the problem. He said he's been taking a legal supplement to give him extra energy, but that it may be causing him to dehydrate and the muscles to cramp.
"I have low body fat, and some things drain the fluids out of your body quicker than not taking anything at all," Lucas said. "That is part of my problem last week when I strained my groin. I've got to get off those things and drink a lot of fluids.
"It's kind of hard to pull things when it gets cooler, and that's what I did. I drank plenty of fluids before the game, and I still ended up pulling (my groin)."
He said he's thrown away that supplement.
As for Monday night's game against Tampa Bay, he did practice some on Thursday but remains questionable on the injury report.
"You'll have to kill me to stop me from getting on the field on Monday," Lucas said.
PANTHERS GAME PLAN
There's no doubt the Panthers would like to establish the run, but if Carolina's Week 3 is any indication as to their game plan, expect Jake Delhomme to come out heaving the ball around the field. In that game, the Panthers threw 19 times in the first half and ran just 15. Delhomme threw for 272 yards -- 112 of those to Steve Smith and 97 to fellow receiver Keyshawn Johnson.
Defensively, the Panthers have to stop the run. It could be just that simple. In their four wins, they've allowed just 76.5 yards per game on the ground. In their four losses, they've given up 165 rushing yards per game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Panthers WR Steve Smith vs. Bucs CB Ronde Barber -- Smith had eight catches for 112 yards in Carolina's Week 3 win over Tampa Bay and he wasn't even close to healthy at the time. Now that Smith is able to accelerate, he could have a huge game against a Bucs secondary that was butchered last week by Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Smith has been almost impossible for the Bucs to stop. In his last four games against Tampa Bay, Smith has 27 receptions for 393 yards and two touchdowns. But the Bucs can't forget about Keyshawn Johnson, who caught seven passes for 97 yards and scored two touchdowns against his former team in the last meeting.
Bucs RB Cadillac Williams vs. Panthers front seven -- Williams was held to 48 yards on 16 carries in the first meeting against the Panthers, but the Panthers remember his performance last Dec. 11 when he ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns as the Bucs upset the Panthers 20-10 at Bank of America Stadium to take control of the NFC South. Had the Panthers won that game, they almost could have set the cruise control and rolled to the division title. Instead, the Bucs wound up NFC South champs.
The bye week has been good to the Panthers as they have no significant injuries entering Monday night's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Most notably, running back DeAngelo Williams, the team's first-round draft pick out of Memphis, will be back on the field Monday night after missing the last three games with a high ankle sprain.