Slipping and sliding
Like the Panthers, the Buccaneers are currently suffering a losing skid. After starting the season 2-1, Tampa Bay has dropped three straight and fallen into last place in the NFC South. Despite the losing streak, they're only two games off the top spot in the division.
"The only thing you can do right now is you've got to get one game," Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter said. "I showed the guys the division standings and we are what we've earned to this point. The fact that some other teams got beat in our division is in our favor. It is a factor [that] we have not played division games and those games can move you up fast. We have to play better football as a team. We have to coach better football. You've got to get one. You've just got to get one win."
If the Buccaneers have any postseason hopes, the buck must stop in Week 8 against the Panthers with the division-leading Saints on the schedule the following week.
Proficient passing game
Believe it or not, the Buccaneers lead the league in passing offense. Through six games, Tampa Bay is averaging 312 passing yards per game, shared between both quarterbacks – Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
"They have a lot of weapons." Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. "We need to make them one dimensional. They can't run and pass the football well, or we'll have a long day. You look at (DeSean) Jackson, (O.J.) Howard and (Mike) Evans. We have our hands full. I think Winston has improved and is getting better each and every week."
Despite suffering an AC joint injury to his throwing shoulder in Week 6, starting quarterback Winston came out slinging against the Bills. He tossed 384 yards and three touchdowns, marking the fourth time he's totaled over 300 yards in five games. Tampa Bay's offense is rolling. Although they lost to Buffalo on the Sunday, the Buccaneers tallied their fourth consecutive game with over 400 yards, tying the franchise record.
Carolina's defense has only allowed 300 passing yards once this season – against Tom Brady and New England in Week 4.
Two tight ends
It's well known that wide receiver Mike Evans is a focal point in the offense, but tight end Cameron Brate is quietly flourishing. He caught a touchdown in four consecutive games leading up to the meeting with the Bills, and while he didn't catch a touchdown in Buffalo, he totaled 60 yards on six receptions.
While Brate attracted all the attention, his counterpart Howard broke out. The first-round pick posted 98 yards and two touchdowns in the losing effort on Sunday.
"He's learning," Winston said of Howard. "He's learning more every day. It's great to see how he's evolved into the player that he can be."
Defense in disarray
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith oversaw a defensive turnaround in 2016 in his first season with Tampa Bay. His defense forced 29 takeaways, third-highest in the league, and totaled 38 sacks, ninth-highest in the league and the most by a Buccaneers defense since 2004.
2017 hasn't brought the same fortune so far. Through six games, Smith's defense has registered just seven sacks, the lowest mark in the league. On top of that, they've only logged nine takeaways, on par with the league average, but off the pace of their total last season. In the past two games, the defensive unit has surrendered 68 points.
"Just stay the course. Don't blink. Don't flinch," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Everybody else around us gets to sulk and do all this other stuff, but for us as a team, as coaches, we just have to go back to work."
The good news is that linebacker Lavonte David looked healthy against the Bills, forcing his third fumble in two games, recovering two of those three himself. Back alongside linebacker Kwon Alexander for the first time since Week 1, the duo should help the Bucs' defense get back on track.
View the top photos from Panthers at Bears by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.