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Five Things to Watch: Panthers vs. Buccaneers

Posted Jan 2, 2016

Panthers prepared for improved rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, looking for improvement from offense after a tough outing.

1. TAMING JAMEIS: When the Panthers and Buccaneers met in Week 4, the play of Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Jameis Winston was one of the reasons Carolina came away victorious.

"He has changed a lot, has matured a lot into his game," Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "You can see his decision making is way better than it was Week 1."

Winston threw four interceptions in Carolina's 37-23 victory, including a tone-setting one early that cornerback Josh Norman returned for a touchdown. The game brought Winston's season interception total to seven through four games, but since he's thrown a total of six picks over the last 11 games.

"We've got to take note of that and get back there and disrupt him," Short said.

2. PRESSURE OR PRESSING? Rookie defensive end Ryan Delaire debuted as a Panther with two sacks of Winston in that game. But over the last four games, Carolina defensive ends have totaled just half-a-sack.

"They are frustrated, and they should be frustrated. They should be upset with themselves," head coach Ron Rivera said. "They're working to get better. I had a great conversation with some of those guys, and the biggest thing I told those guys was, ‘You're pressing. You're trying to force things to happen. Just go out and play and see what happens.' "

Despite the drought for a specific position, the Panthers still rank third in the NFL with 42 sacks. Short is a big part of that, with 11, and linebacker Thomas Davis is second on the team with 5.5 sacks.

3. MUSCLING MARTIN: Tampa's pass game has weapons to be sure, paced by wide receiver Mike Evans. Bookend Vincent Jackson recently was placed on injured reserve, but on the other hand the Panthers are unlikely have their interception leader. Safety Kurt Coleman is doubtful with a foot injury.

All that being said, Tampa's success on offense actually starts with the running game, and that starts with Doug Martin, second in the NFL with 1,354 yards.

"He's a beast," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "He's strong. He runs hard. He's not afraid of contact, and he's never down.

"He's competitive and has an edge to him. It's fun to play against guys like that."

Martin had 106 yards in the teams' first meeting, but 50 of them came on two plays shortly after Carolina claimed a 31-10 lead. The Panthers have to prevent similar success early in this one.

"As a defensive line," Short said, "we've got to take pride in stopping the run game early and not letting him get hot."
4. GOOD POINTS: While the Tampa Bay offense is dangerous, the Buccaneers rank just 19th with 22.1 points per game. The Panthers are second in the NFL with 30.8 points per game but are coming off a game in which they scored a season-low 13 points in their first loss of the season.

Bouncing back against the Bucs won't be easy, though Tampa Bay does rank in the bottom 10 of the NFL with 25.3 points per game allowed.

"(Head coach) Lovie (Smith) and his staff are consistent in what they want to be, all the way back to when I was with them in Chicago," said tight end Greg Olsen, who played for Smith with the Bears. "They're very confident in their scheme, and they're going to let their players play fast and compete.

"They don't try to trick you or do complicated things, but from a personnel standpoint they have a lot of good players."

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David set the pace for the defense, though the Panthers have mostly had their way with Tampa of late, winning five straight in the series while averaging 27.4 points.

5. BOUNCING BACK: Yes, it's about handling the Tampa defense, but it's really about the Panthers offense. Carolina is expected to be without top wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. because of a knee injury, but then again they've been without Kelvin Benjamin all year and hadn't really missed a beat – before last Sunday.

"It was pretty shocking for the coaches and players last week that we didn't play with that edge," quarterback Cam Newton said. "We want to show the true meaning of really selling out for each other, of doing everything we possibly can for the betterment of the team.

"Football is the ultimate team sport offensively because there's only one football but there's six or seven guys eligible to touch it. But only one guy can have the ball at one time, and our guys have shown many times this year that they understand the bigger goal."