The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have plenty to figure out for their next game, including how to break through on the scoreboard.
Their opponent is in worse shape.
Tampa Bay visits the Carolina Panthers for Sunday afternoon’s game in Charlotte, N.C. The teams will meet twice over the final three weeks of the regular season.
The Buccaneers (10-4) are leading the NFC South, so they’re in good position in that regard and can clinch the divisional crown by winning in Charlotte. Their three remaining games also include a matchup with the lowly New York Jets.
The Panthers (5-9) have a four-game losing streak and all sorts of questions on the offensive side.
While Carolina can’t seem to find good rhythm with quarterback Cam Newton, the Buccaneers will be sticking with Tom Brady.
Tampa Bay had a four-game winning streak snapped with last weekend’s 9-0 loss to New Orleans.
There’s lots for the Buccaneers to sort out, particularly with losing receiver Chris Godwin for the rest of the season because of a torn knee ligament. Godwin is third in the NFL in receptions this year and fifth in receiving yards.
With receiver Mike Evans and running back Leonard Fournette nursing hamstring injuries, it’s bound to complicate Tampa Bay’s game plan. That could mean a larger role for running back Ronald Jones.
“I’ve got all the confidence in the world (in Jones),” Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said. “He ran great, caught the ball good (in the last game) and I think going forward it’s his job now.”
Still, the Buccaneers signed former All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell this week.
Arians said Evans could be back in action soon.
The Buccaneers have receiver Antonio Brown back following a three-game suspension related to falsifying a COVID vaccine status. The number of snaps he can handle against the Panthers could be a bit tricky.
“We’ll wait and see,” Arians said. “Hopefully, we can get 30, 35 plays out of him.”
In five games since rejoining the Panthers, Newton has thrown for four touchdowns and tossed four interceptions.
There just hasn’t been consistency or game-turning positive plays.
“I think it really just comes down to our ability to throw the ball and create some explosive plays,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said.
With quarterback Sam Darnold available after time out with a shoulder injury, the Panthers should have more options. Practices leading to the weekend could determine how Carolina approaches the game, although Newton will be the starter and Darnold is expected to play at some point.
“It is a good opportunity to shake some of the rust off and see where he’s at,” Rhule said of Darnold.
Meanwhile, Panthers receiver DJ Moore’s status might not be determined until Sunday because of a hamstring injury.
Even coming off a blanking, the Buccaneers have a good foundation. Brady has an NFL-leading 4,348 passing yards and 36 touchdown passes this season. Yet he had gone 255 consecutive starts without a shutout loss.
The problems run so deep for the Panthers that they’ll turn to Lirim Hajrullahu, who has appeared in one previous NFL regular-season game, as the kicker. He was signed off Washington’s practice squad.
Zane Gonzalez had been the Carolina kicker, but a pregame quadriceps injury in Buffalo left the Panthers without a kicker for the game, so they passed up opportunities to attempt field goals and chose two-point conversion plays following their two touchdowns.
Panthers second-year safety Jeremy Chinn needs two tackles to reach 100 for the second season in a row.
Tampa Bay defeated the Panthers twice last season. That’s worth noting for another reason this week as well.
Last year, the Buccaneers followed a 38-3 loss to New Orleans by thumping the Panthers 46-23, so a quick turnaround on offense is possible.
–Field Level Media