It's crunch time. Get ready for game day, and don't forget the chips as the 3-6 Panthers host the 6-3 Buccaneers on Sunday. Here are five things to watch for in the matchup.
Increase Pressure "in the Paint"
For the past few years, Panthers fans have heard that when it comes to pressuring Saints quarterback Drew Brees, edge rushers aren't as vital as an interior push. The same thing goes for Tampa Bay's Tom Brady.
"You've gotta get in the paint and make them move because they like to step up into the pocket and throw the football. Once you make them slide, they're not as good throwing the football," Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow said this week, borrowing a basketball term. "So getting in the paint is critical. And you don't sack them very often, these guys, because the ball's gone.
"So you have to affect the throws by affecting the throwing motion. You may not sack them a bunch, but you've gotta affect their throwing motion."
In a Week 7 loss to the Saints, the Panthers had just one sack and three QB hits against Brees. In their loss to Brady and the Buccaneers in Week 2, the Panthers had no sacks and just one QB hit. That was by defensive tackle Zach Kerr.
They'll need much more of that from Kerr and Co. on Sunday.
Sure, it'll help if Brian Burns continues his productive second season and rookie Yetur Gross-Matos flashes from the edge, but the quickest path to Brady is up the middle. So if first-round tackle Derrick Brown sees double teams, it'll be up to guys like Kerr, Bravvion Roy and Efe Obada to win their one-on-one matchups.
And in case you're wondering, no, the Bucs were not flagged for knocking off Obada's helmet in the photo above.
Protect Bridgewater Better
Burns and fellow defensive end Marquis Haynes lead the Panthers with 3.0 sacks each. The Bucs have four players with at least 4.0 sacks (Jason Pierre-Paul - 6.5, Devin White - 5.0, Shaquil Barrett - 4.0, Ndamukong Suh - 4.0).
Half of Suh's sacks this season came in Week 2 against Teddy Bridgewater and the Panthers, who allowed a total of five sacks and 23 pressures.
"There were a lot of things that we didn't do well, especially up front protecting the quarterback," head coach Matt Rhule said this week.
The Bucs blitzed a bunch in that first matchup, and they likely will again looking to take advantage of a Panthers' offense that's allowed QB pressure on 33 percent of pass attempts during this current four-game losing streak.
In their six losses this season, the Panthers have allowed 16 sacks. In their three wins, they've allowed two. So, yeah, it'll be imperative to slow down Tampa Bay's fierce pass rush, which is averaging more than three sacks per game.
Protect Ball Better
In Week 2, a Bridgewater interception and strip-sack on consecutive drives put the Panthers in a 14-0 hole just over 10 minutes into the game. Still, the Panthers rallied to make it 21-14 before Bridgewater threw his second pick and committed Carolina's fourth turnover early in the fourth quarter.
So as sloppy as the Panthers played for a bulk of their first meeting with the Bucs, they should take solace in the fact that it was a game they could have won. Staying turnover-free Sunday will give them that much better of a shot.
In their six losses this season, the Panthers have a negative-two turnover differential with negative-3 points off turnovers. In their three wins, that flips to a plus-five turnover differential with plus-15 points off turnovers.
Sacks and turnovers weren't the Panthers' only issues in Week 2. They also committed nine penalties, including five that extended drives.
It's been hard to figure out if Carolina is a team that gets flagged a lot or doesn't this season. They've had five games with six or fewer penalties but have averaged nearly 10 a game in their other four games. Clearly, staying on the lower end of those numbers would be ideal in this rematch, especially when the defense has a chance to get off the field or the offense is driving down it.
Play a Complete Game
Ironically, that Week 2 matchup is the only time this season the Panthers' offense has been markedly more productive in the second half than the first.
The Panthers have scored on a league-high 55 percent of their drives in the first quarter and have gone three-and-out on a league-low 5 percent of their drives in the first half. That's translated into 128 points in the first half. Conversely, they've scored just 82 in the second half, which ranks 29th ahead of only the Dolphins, Giants and Jets.
Scoring at the start of the third quarter has become arguably Carolina’s biggest offensive issue, something they sure would like to correct against a Bucs' defense that's middle of the pack in third-quarter scoring defense.
Carolina is 24-17 all-time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, posting a 12-9 record at home and 12-8 on the road.