CHARLOTTE – Amid a pair of trades and injury concerns, the Panthers' offense will look different as they look to create rhythm and consistency in their second division matchup of the season.
Carolina returns home for its second NFC South matchup this week, hosting Tom Brady and the Buccaneers (3-3) at Bank of America Stadium at 1 p.m. Sunday.
It'll be the first home matchup for Charlotte native Steve Wilks since he was named interim head coach less than two weeks ago.
Here are five things to watch in Week 7:
The Panthers traded Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers late Thursday for a host of draft picks for 2023 and 2024. McCaffrey's exit leaves a deep void to fill in an offense already struggling, as he solely accounted for 158 of Carolina's 203 total yards last week at the Rams.
D'Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard, and Raheem Blackshear are left for the Panthers to deploy at running back, but the trio hasn't seen much action through the first six games of the season. Foreman has totaled 37 yards on 12 carries, which leads the group, but he showed his efficient potential in 2021 with the Titans. He came in for an injured Derrick Henry and totaled 566 yards on 133 attempts in nine games last season.
Hubbard has taken six carries 34 yards this season, but he also has a history in a reserve role. He stepped up for an injured McCaffrey last season, totaling 612 yards on 172 carries in 2021.
Blackshear, a rookie who joined the Panthers from Buffalo last month, hasn't gotten a carry yet, but he has shown athleticism as a kickoff returner and will likely see his snaps increase.
Wilks said he anticipates taking a committee approach to the running back position in McCaffrey's absence.
IMPROVING THE PASS GAME
Quarterback PJ Walker will start in consecutive games for the first time in his NFL career this week, as Wilks confirmed Friday that both Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield would be inactive again while they deal with ankle injuries. Mayfield has been limited at practice this week and was listed as doubtful, while Darnold was designated to return from injured reserve Wednesday. Practice squad quarterback Jacob Eason will back-up again, Wilks said.
Walker wasn't tasked with passing the ball downfield in Los Angeles, finishing the game 10-of-16 passing with just 60 yards. But Wilks said he'll be looking for Walker to push the ball downfield more this week against Tampa Bay.
"I think every week is different based off of who you're playing, what they've shown you on tape," Wilks said. "We're going to take advantage of every opportunity to be able to push the ball down the field, take advantage of every opportunity. … Our game plan will be predicated off what we've seen on tape."
The Bucs have the seventh-best passing defense in the NFL, holding opponents to 193.3 yards per game. The Panthers have the 29th-ranked passing offense, averaging 169.7 yards per game.
POTENTIAL NEW OFFENSIVE STARTERS
Carolina rolled with the same five starters across its offensive line for the first six weeks of the season, but there's a potential for a shakeup in the middle due to an injury to starting center Pat Elflein.
Elflein, dealing with a hip injury, did not participate in practice this week, leaving his status questionable for the Buccaneers matchup. Wilks said Friday he didn't expect Elflein to play.
Elflein's injury leaves an opportunity for Bradley Bozeman, the former Raven who started 48 games across three seasons in Baltimore. Bozeman was signed to a one-year deal this offseason and hasn't started since he got to Carolina, losing a preseason competition at the center spot due to an ankle injury in August. Right tackle Taylor Moton didn't practice Friday and is also listed as questionable, though Wilks said Moton should be fine to go.
With Robbie Anderson traded to the Cardinals on Monday, more Panthers receivers will have opportunities to step up in his starting spot. It could spell more opportunities for Terrace Marshall Jr., the second-round pick from the 2021 draft who has been impressing coaches in practice this week, or Shi Smith, the training camp star who has doubled his targets from last season but hasn't seen his chances translate into production.
Laviska Shenault Jr. returned to practice as a limited participant this week after missing the past two weeks with a hamstring injury. He broke out in the Panthers' only win of the season against the Saints with a 67-yard catch-and-run touchdown and is questionable for the Bucs' game.
CHECKING IN ON DEFENSIVE INJURIES
Carolina has been dealing with injuries to its defense. That trend could continue into the Buccaneers game.
Other key players are questionable for Sunday, such as cornerbacks Donte Jackson (ankle), CJ Henderson (concussion protocol), and Jaycee Horn (ribs), linebacker Frankie Luvu (shoulder), and safety Sean Chandler (hamstring).
FACING BRADY AND THE BUCS
The Buccaneers come to Charlotte off a 20-18 loss to a struggling Steelers team, leaving Brady off to a 3-3 start for the first time since the Patriots' 2012 season. Tampa Bay's offense has been far from efficient due in part to a bevy of offensive line injuries, and average 20.2 points per game this season – the fewest by a Brady-led team in any season.
Tampa Bay will be hungry for a turnaround against the Panthers as Brady looks to snap back to form after a more lackluster start than usual. Brady's 6.7 yards per attempt and eight pass touchdowns are his fewest through the first six games of the season since 2013, and his 95.1 passer rating is his lowest since 2014.
The Buccaneers are also looking to fix their ground game. Tampa Bay's 67.5 rush yards per game are ranked last in the league, and their two rushing touchdowns are tied for the fewest in the NFL.
Carolina is 25-19 all-time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, posting a 13-10 record at home and 12-9 on the road.