Saturday, December 6, 2008

Panthers-Bucs: The Preview

It is the biggest regular season game, perhaps, in franchise history for the Panthers. They have a chance to take over possession of first place in the NFC South, and they get to do it on the NFL's biggest regular season stage. So much rides on this game for Carolina, it's hard to bring it all together in one blog post, but we'll try.

Something's gotta give

The Panther rushing attack is no longer a wishful idea for the team. It is a potent piece of the offense, on par, if not ahead of the pace they had going during the Super Bowl season in 2003. Stephen Davis was the motor for that 2003 team. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart carry that load now. Williams is on the verge of becoming the Panthers 1st drafted running back to break through the 1,000 yard season barrier (he's at 955 coming into Monday night). Williams has been the straw that has stirred the running game drink this season, while Stewart has been a more than capable compliment to Williams. Stewart could eclipse 700 yards as a rookie, which would certainly be beyond respectable.

That ground attack will get a stern test Monday, facing a Bucs defense that has given up just 1 rushing touchdown all season long. Think about that. After 12 games, they have given up 1 TD on the ground. 1. Mind boggling, yet a testament to Monte Kiffin's defensive scheming. The Bucs are no wall flowers, as they play a nasty brand of defense. For Carolina to succeed on the ground, it will come down to execution and will. Carolina's offensive line has to win the battle up front (nothing new there), but to do that, they simply have to want it more. They have to try and do to the Bucs what they were doing to the Packers this past Sunday. Tampa Bay is far superior to Green Bay, both in their personnel, and their health. Green bay was very banged up-Tampa is not.

Smith and his razor glove

Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden said of Steve Smith, "that guy is like Freddie Krueger to me," comparing Smith to the 80's horror film character from the nightmare on Elm Street films. Smith, of course, doesn't have the facial scarring of Freddie, but he does have the ability to give the Bucs fits. Smith has 5 100 yard receiving games against Tampa, all against Gruden-coached teams. Does Smith have to blow up against the Bucs? Not necessarily, but he does have to do enough to keep the Bucs defense honest. Smith's ability to draw at least a cornerback, and then a safety shading to his side of the field means the Panthers could exploit the Bucs with the run game. Once Tampa decides against offering help on Smith, the Panthers could make some hay downfield in the air. Jake Delhomme wants to run the ball first, again, no revelation there. Success on the ground will lead to success in the air. Smith isn't the only receiving option, of course. Muhsin Muhammad could prove to be vital, as well as tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario. Would it be far fetched to think the Panthers might try to set up some short screens and keep the Bucs off balance that way? Would sure make things interesting.

Defense needs to bring the jam

The Panther defense has been chewed up of late, allowing a boat load of points, yet the team has won 3 of 4 in that time. Incidentally, the Panthers have not been nearly as dominant as they were before their bye week. Since that time, they have been shredded in the pass game, and allowed plenty of yardage on the ground. What needs to change? Simply put: attitude. Carolina's defenders need to take the field on Monday with the feeling that no one is gaining anything on them. They have to "bring the jam," so to speak. Deliver hard hits, wrap up at the point of contact, drive the Bucs into the turf. The element of "nasty" has been missing from this team for some time. Monday would be the perfect time to find it again.

Keep Jeff Garcia will be object number 1. The Bucs are down to Cadillac Williams as their running back (although Warrick Dunn has shown he still has tread on his tires). Williams tore up his knee 14 months ago, at Bank of America Stadium. He capped his comeback to the field last week, as he scored a rushing touchdown. Will the memories of his injury come back to him? Maybe. The ability to bottle up Garcia will go a long way in forcing the Bucs to try the ground attack, or go through the air. Garcia's ability to use his legs to keep plays alive has been the achilles heel of the Panthers. Carolina simply can not allow Garcia to have additional time. Don't be surprised if the Panthers employ LB Thomas Davis in his "spy" role, the one that was so successful against Michael Vick. Garcia is not the running threat that Vick was, but he is still dangerous with his feet.

Forget the first meeting

It was week 6. The Bucs blocked a punt and scored a TD off the block. The Panthers dug themselves a hole that they simply could not climb out of, thanks to interceptions that came off deflected passes. That game is gone. Over. It can not be changed. Forget it, don't dwell on it, and if anything, use it as a motivator. Carolina can not afford to lose this game, let alone be embarrassed in it. They have everything to play for, with a lot they can lose in the process. All season long, there has been a fan that sits behind the Carolina bench. Every home game, that fan has had a sign that says "Play this game like...." and then lists 3 items underneath. Things like "home field depends on it," or "first place in the division is on the line," things like that. The fan then underscores the points with the simply line at the end, "because it is."

I'll save that fan some time for Monday. All the sign needs to say is, "play this game like your season depends on it. Because it does."

Prediction: Carolina 23 Tampa Bay 17

Mike Solarte

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