5 Things to Watch: Panthers vs. Buccaneers

Cam

The Panthers host the Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night to open Week 2 of the 2019 season. Here are five things to watch.

How will Gerald McCoy play against his former team?

After Tuesday’s practice defensive tackle Gerald McCoy spent upwards of 30 minutes surrounded by reporters fielding the same questions over and over again.

Does this one mean more? How do you keep your emotions from getting involved? Do you feel like you have something to prove?

All week McCoy has insisted Thursday night’s matchup against the Bucs is being blown out of proportion. After spending the entirety of his nine-year NFL career with the team, McCoy was cut in May, and it just so happened he signed with an NFC South rival that faces his former team twice a year. So, can it really be “just another game”?

McCoy admitted there may be a little bit of extra excitement, but nothing too crazy.

“I’m not sitting at home like, ‘Oh my gosh if I don’t play well this game,’” McCoy said. “What about the other 14? It’s a long season. It’s just one game. Everybody just chill.”

McCoy’s teammates aren’t so convinced. Across the locker room from McCoy’s media frenzy, safety Tre Boston, dripping with sarcasm, said he doesn’t think McCoy even knows who the team is playing this week.

With the Panthers alternating between their 3-4 and 4-3 defensive alignments, head coach Ron Rivera acknowledged he was still trying to find the right rhythm for rotating his defensive line.

“I’d like to see him somewhere in the 45 to 50 range,” Rivera said of McCoy, who played 40 snaps against the Rams last week. “We’ve got to make sure that’s where we are with the guys like him, because he’s an impact player. We’ve got to get guys like that on the field the majority of the time.”

If McCoy’s workload is increased against the Bucs, he needs to stay true to his message all week: keep the emotions in check and play ball.

Cam’s control of the offense

One of the biggest storylines from Week 1 was the lack of a vertical passing game from Carolina's offense. With only one pass attempt traveling more than 20 yards downfield and quarterback Cam Newton's longest completion going for just 17 yards, the Panthers weren't able to threaten LA deep.

On Tuesday, Newton emphasized that he wasn’t going to throw deep just to prove that he can still do it, but only if he believed doing so would help the team. He did, however, ensure that he still can sling it.

“How ’bout this, talk to the defensive coordinator for Tampa and don’t think I can throw the ball over 20 yards and see where that gets you,” Newton said. “How 'bout that?”

If the offense wants to lighten the load on running back Christian McCaffrey, Newton will need to start connecting with his receivers on the perimeter. Getting explosive threats like wide receiver Curtis Samuel more involved will not only take some of the pressure off McCaffrey but will help stretch the field. Even if the Panthers don’t complete any deep balls, just taking a few shots will serve as a warning to the defense and force them to stay honest.

Newton's arm can definitely help out CMC, but his legs can too. Last week Newton barely left the pocket and the offense only called one designed run play for the quarterback, which led to a career low in rushing yards (-2) on three attempts. Will we see Cam return to his true dual-threat status against the Bucs?

James Bradberry vs. Mike Evans

James Bradberry very much rose to the occasion in the opener. Now it’s time to see how he handles a dominant No. 1 receiver in NFC South rival Mike Evans.

For much of the game Bradberry will be expected to match up against the two-time Pro Bowler, one of the league’s very best wide receivers. Evans ranked third in the league in receiving yards last year (1,524), as well as third in receiving yards per game (95.3) and yards per reception (17.7). The Buccaneers are a pass-happy team that led the league in passing yards per game last season, so expect another busy night for Bradberry as the Bucs try to air it out against the Panthers.

After posting a sack and an interception against the Rams, Bradberry will look to build on his Week 1 momentum. But of course, that all depends on which version of Bradberry shows up on Thursday night.

FWIW, here's a look at Evans' numbers against Bradberry and the Panthers over the years:

2018 Week 13: 1 catch (10 targets) for 16 yards
2018 Week 9: 4 catches (6 targets) for 48 yards
2017 Week 16: 5 catches (10 targets) for 60 yards
2017 Week 8: 6 catches (8 targets) for 107 yards
2016 Week 17: 6 catches (12 targets) for 89 yards and 1 TD
2016 Week 5: 5 catches (11 targets) for 65 yards and 1 TD

Can the offensive line handle Ndamukong Suh?

For the second straight game, the Panthers offensive line will be dealing with an absolute unit up front. Aaron Donald last week, now it’s on to Ndamukong Suh.

While the 10th-year defensive end may not be the sack monster he once was, he’s still a force to be reckoned with on the D-line. After posting 4.5 sacks and 59 tackles last season with the Rams, Suh signed with the Bucs in the offseason as the team’s replacement for McCoy.

The Panthers offensive line was solid last week against the Rams, as McCaffrey rushed for 128 yards, but Newton was sacked three times for a loss of 28 yards. If the offensive line can keep Suh in check and combine a good push in the ground game with giving Newton enough time in the pocket, the offense shouldn’t have trouble moving the ball down the field.

Who wins the turnover battle?

This one may seem obvious, but it’s especially relevant against the Bucs and quarterback Jameis Winston.

Winston has been known to be a bit careless with the ball. Since being drafted in 2015, he leads the league with 61 total interceptions – nine of which have come against the Panthers. After throwing three picks last week against the 49ers, the Panthers defense should have a shot at getting some takeaways. If the defense can capitalize on a few of Winston’s errant throws and give the offense an extra possession or two, things will be looking good for the Panthers.

On the other hand, the Panthers struggled to hold onto the ball last week against the Rams, with two costly fumbles and a late-game interception. Despite the turnovers, the Panthers were still able to stay in the game until the last minute.

In the last 10 match ups with the Bucs, whichever team wins the turnover battle wins the game, too, so don’t be surprised if it all comes down to a few takeaways.

Carolina is 23-14 all-time against Tampa Bay.

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