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5 Things to Watch: Panthers at Buccaneers

Christian McCaffrey

After starting the season 0-1, the Panthers will look to even their record on the road against the Buccaneers. Here are five things to watch for in the matchup.

Will the Bucs contain McCaffrey again?

Tampa Bay was the league's No. 1 rush defense last year, allowing just 3.7 yards per carry and 1,181 total yards on the ground. They were the one team to truly contain running back Christian McCaffrey, as he had just 53 yards from scrimmage in the first meeting and 57 yards in the second.

While the Buccaneers lost to the Saints last week, they allowed only 2.4 yards per carry, picking up right where they left off under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.

"They've got big, powerful guys inside," head coach Matt Rhule said. "They're going to load the box. They're going to bring pressure. They want you to play under duress."

The Panthers offense runs through McCaffrey, and coordinator Joe Brady's task is to find creative ways to get him the ball. But the offense has other weapons, like wide receivers Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel, and DJ Moore. As Rhule put it, the club wants to be well rounded enough that if one option gets taken away, they can turn to another and still find success.

Can the Panthers generate a pass rush?

Carolina didn't do much to pressure Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr last week, recording zero sacks and zero quarterback hits. If that continues this week, it's fair to assume Bucs quarterback Tom Brady will carve up the Panthers' defense.

Rhule said this week: The best way to get after Brady is to generate pressure with four down linemen, leaving the rest of the defense in coverage. Kawann Short's absence due to a foot injury will make that harder. Zach Kerr will start in Short's place.

Brady's too experienced to try to trick him. He's seen every coverage and faced every blitz several times over. That places higher importance on the Panthers' defenders winning their individual matchups.

It also means the Panthers have to be better on first and second down, giving them third down rushing opportunities. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow pointed out this week that eight of the Raiders' third downs came with five yards or fewer to go. That allowed Carr to quickly get rid of the ball or hand off to running back Josh Jacobs for a first down. Carolina must get stops on the early downs to bring up more third-and-longs. If that happens, rushers like Brian Burns will get more opportunities to bring Brady down.

Josh Jacobs

Can the Panthers limit rushing touchdowns?

The Panthers tied a modern-NFL record by allowing 31 rushing touchdowns a season ago, and that trend continued in Week 1. Jacobs scored three rushing touchdowns last week, which doesn't look good when factored out through an entire season.

Tampa Bay has a pair of talented rushers who could be tough to stop near the goal line. Ronald Jones had 66 yards on 17 carries last week. Former first-round pick Leonard Fournette recorded just five yards on five carries but rushed for 1,152 yards a season ago.

Carolina's defensive issues are interconnected. If the team is better on first and second down, that will limit third-and-manageable opportunities. If the Buccaneers convert fewer third downs, they'll have fewer possessions end in the red zone. And if they're not in the red zone, the Panthers will have fewer chances to surrender rushing touchdowns.

How will the Panthers' pass protection hold up?

Carolina kept quarterback Teddy Bridgewater relatively clean last Sunday. He took one sack and sustained three quarterback hits in the loss to Las Vegas, and Bridgewater said he should have thrown the ball before the sack occurred. But the Raiders aren't known for their pass rush. Tampa Bay has last year's sack champion.

Shaquil Barrett racked up 19.5 sacks in 2019. While he didn't have any last week, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said he was close to getting two on Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Barrett can wreck a game, plus, the Bucs have veteran lineman Jason Pierre-Paul rushing from the opposite side. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea are strong enough to generate interior pressure as well. If the Panthers can keep themselves out of third-and-long situations, that will reduce the chances for the Buccaneers pass rush to ruin their day.

Rasul Douglas

Brady vs. the Panthers secondary

Brady had an up-and-down performance against the Saints last week. He completed 64 percent of his passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

Brady's now thrown a pick-six in each of his last three games — the Patriots' regular-season finale against the Dolphins, the Wild Card round matchup against the Titans, and last week to New Orleans.

Still, Brady displayed he's still able to make accurate, downfield throws to challenge a secondary. Though Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson left last week's game with an ankle injury, he's expected to play. Carolina plans to rotate Jackson, Rasul Douglas, and rookie Troy Pride Jr. at the position. Based on Arians' offense, Brady will likely test those corners more than the Raiders did last week. If they hold up, the Panthers will have a much better shot to win.

Carolina is 25-19 all-time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, posting a 13-10 record at home and 12-9 on the road.

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