Panthers vs. Buccaneers: Carolina looking to take down ‘arch nemesis’
Published 12:00 am Friday, October 21, 2022
By Steve Reed
AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — Brian Burns, a Pro Bowl defensive end who goes by the nickname “Spiderman,” calls Tom Brady the Carolina Panthers’ “arch nemesis.”
And for good reason.
Brady is 4-0 against Carolina since joining the NFC South, averaging 279 yards passing per game with eight touchdown passes and one interception while helping the Bucs outscore the Panthers 150-63.
But Brady and the Bucs offense doesn’t resemble that of the previous two seasons.
Tampa Bay (3-3) enters Sunday’s game at division foe Carolina ranked 21st in offense, 20th in scoring and 32nd in rushing — some uncharacteristic numbers for a Brady-led offense.
Brady spent part of last Sunday berating his offensive line, angered by Tampa Bay’s ineptitude on offense during a 20-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This week, he admitted the offense is far from a “finished product.”
Burns is hoping the Panthers (1-5) can take advantage.
“It’s always a good time to catch somebody when they are in shambles,” Burns said. “But I don’t think he will be in shambles by the time he gets here (to Carolina). I’m sure some adversity will hit during the game and maybe he might get into it, but it’s always a good time to catch somebody when they’re panicking.”
Burns is fully aware Brady remains a dangerous QB even at 45, particularly following a loss. The seven-time Super Bowl champion is 54-16 during his NFL career following a regular season loss.
“He doesn’t like to lose twice in a row,” Burns said.
Brady said this week the Buccaneers need to find answers soon. “The challenging thing about football is it’s the ultimate team sport,” Brady said. “We’re all in it together. In order to score points, you have to do a lot of things the right way. We’ve just got to keep working at it.”
Added wide receiver Mike Evans: “We’re just not as good right now as we used to be, I guess. I don’t know. … (We’ve) just got to figure it out.”
NOT SEEKING ADVICE
Tampa Bay is averaging 20.2 points, down from just over 30 per game when they were second in the NFL in scoring under former coach Bruce Arians, whose offense emphasized pushing the ball downfield in the passing attack and thrived on big plays. The Bucs scored nearly 31 per game on the way to winning the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
When Arians retired last winter, Bowles was promoted to head coach after three seasons as the Bucs’ defensive coordinator. He still calls defensive plays, but said this week he will not seek advice from his former boss to try to get the offense on track.
“This is my team, not Bruce’s team. We talk all the time, but you don’t jumpstart by asking a former coach what to do. We have our own things to deal with,” Bowles said.
“Obviously we have different players than we had last year,” Bowles added, noting the Bucs have several new starters, particularly on the offensive line. “We’ve got to approach things a little differently and find out what works for us this year, not last year and two years ago.”
PLAYING IT SAFE
Maybe the Panthers were simply focused on establishing the run game or maybe interim coach Steve Wilks simply didn’t trust P.J. Walker. Either way, the Panthers went super conservative with their play calling last week and the result was an ugly 24-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
Walker’s average intended air yards was 0.1 yards — which means that the average depth of his throws was barely past the line of scrimmage — according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He finished 10 of 16 for 60 yards with most of his completions coming on screens.
Carolina’s only TD came on defense.
Walker will start again on Sunday, with Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold still out with ankle injuries.
“I anticipate us doing whatever we can to win the football game,” said Wilks, when asked if the game plan will change this week. “If that is pushing the ball down the field or running the ball a certain amount of times, we will see exactly how the game flows.”
McCAFFREY’S LAST STAND?
With the Panthers open to trading Christian McCaffrey for the right price, it’s conceivable they could limit the running back’s reps so as not to risk injury and reduce his trade value.
Wilks has given no indication that’s the plan, however.
But McCaffrey is an obvious injury risk having missed 23 of 33 games the previous two seasons.
“That’s out of my control,” McCaffrey said of the trade rumors. “I’m trying to control everything I can control. Right now, I’m a Carolina Panther and giving it all to this place.”
HEALTHY AT CORNERBACK
The Panthers feel as though they have the best group of cornerbacks in the league when healthy.
The problem is they haven’t had Jaycee Horn (ribs), C.J. Henderson (concussion) and Donte Jackson (ankle) on the field together all that much this season. Against the Rams, all three were out with injuries in the second half, leaving the Panthers very thin in the secondary.
Wilks said he hopes to have all three ready to play on Sunday.
The Bucs are 3-3 despite being plus-three in turnover margin and ranking fifth in the league in scoring defense. They’ve held five of six opponents to 20 points or less. Nevertheless, the defense shares responsibility for the .500 record because the unit has struggled to get off the field on third down, including last week when Mitch Trubisky converted on third-and-15 and third-and-11 to help the Steelers keep the ball for final 4:38 of a two-point Pittsburgh victory.
TAMPA BAY (3-3) at CAROLINA (1-5)
Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox
OPENING LINE: Buccaneers by 101/2, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
SERIES RECORD: Panthers lead 24-19.
LAST MEETING: Buccaneers beat Panthers 41-17 on Jan. 9, 2022, at Tampa Bay.
LAST WEEK: Buccaneers lost to Steelers 20-18; Panthers lost to Rams 24-10.
BUCCANEERS PLAYER TO WATCH: The previous time a Tom Brady-led team had a .500 record this deep into a season was 2012. The seven-time Super Bowl winner is 4-0 against Carolina since joining the Bucs in 2020 with 10 TD passes and one interception. Tampa Bay outscored Carolina 150-63 in those games. He threw for four touchdowns and ran for one during a pair of victories over the Panthers last season.
PANTHERS PLAYER TO WATCH: P.J. Walker makes his second straight start at quarterback with Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold both dealing with ankle injuries. Walker struggled last week, completing just 10 of 16 passes for 60 yards in a 24-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. His throws were almost exclusively screen passes as the Panthers stayed conservative to avoid turnovers. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Walker’s average intended air yards was 0.1 yards — which means that the average depth of his throws was barely past the line of scrimmage.
KEY MATCHUP: Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. Panthers secondary. Evans has given the Panthers fits, particularly since the arrival of Brady. Evans had 89 yards receiving and two scores in the previous meeting and aims for his fourth game in a row with a TD catch against Carolina. He has had at least six catches for 75 or more yards in each of the past four games vs. Carolina with Brady at the helm.
KEY INJURIES: Bucs S Logan Ryan (foot) is out after being placed on injured reserve. Veteran TE Kyle Rudolph could get more playing time with TE Cameron Brate (neck) sidelined. The status of WR Julio Jones (knee), CB Sean Murphy-Bunting (quad), S Mike Edwards (elbow) and DT Akiem Hicks (foot) will be evaluated as the week progresses. … Panthers CB C.J. Henderson and Donte Jackson (concussion) are expected to play and Jaycee Horn (ribs) is likely to return this week leaving the Panthers at full strength at that position. … OLB Frankie Luvu (shoulder) is expected to return this week, too.
SERIES NOTES: The Bucs have won six of the past seven against the Panthers.
STATS AND STUFF: The Bucs are averaging 20.2 points through six games, down from just over 30 per game in 2021, when they were the NFL’s second-highest scoring team. They’ve been held to 21 points or fewer in five of six games. … QB Tom Brady hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 1 at Dallas. … RB Leonard Fournette is a big part of Tampa Bay’s passing game. He has 32 receptions, third in the league among running backs behind Austin Ekeler (41) and Christian McCaffrey (33). Fournette has at least five catches and a TD receiving in three straight games. … The Bucs are third in the league with 21 sacks. A league-high 11 different defenders have at least one. … The Panthers have lost 12 of their past 13 games overall and nine of their past 10 games at home. … P.J. Walker is 2-1 as an NFL starter despite eight interceptions and two TD passes. … RB Christian McCaffrey and Cleveland RB Nick Chubb are the only players in the league with at least 100 yards from scrimmage in five games this season. … The Panthers are last in the league in third down offense, converting just 23.6% of their opportunities, and are also 32nd in time of possession. … Carolina’s defense has scored three touchdowns. … Carolina DT Derrick Brown had a career day vs. the Rams, racking up a career-high seven tackles while combining for a sack. Brown is 12th league-wide among defensive linemen with 24 tackles.
FANTASY TIP: Bucs WR Chris Godwin has 35 receptions and is averaging 17.5 yards per catch and 87.3 yards per game in seven outings vs. the Panthers. Brady targeted him a team-high 12 times in last week’s loss at Pittsburgh, with Godwin finishing with six receptions for 95 yards but no TDs.