Developing run game
In Tampa Bay's last meeting with the Panthers back in Week 8 - a 17-3 victory for Carolina - the Buccaneers rushed for 85 yards, 71 of which came courtesy of running back Doug Martin. At the time, the Buccaneers' 3.9 yards per carry against Carolina was above the team average. In recent weeks, Tampa Bay's running game has continued to progress.
"I think it's going to be totally different," Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. "We've evolved a little bit as well as those guys. They're going to try and counter that so we need to be able to show different looks. I think everything we do starts up front. We need to stop the run first."
Martin was inactive for Monday night's narrow loss to the Falcons due to an unspecified violation of team rules. Second-year running back Peyton Barber, who has appeared in all 14 of the Buccaneers' games this season, received the nod. Barber also started for an injured Martin in Week 13 and rushed for 102 yards on 23 carries against the Packers.
Defense still in disarray
Tampa Bay has not performed on the defensive side of the ball. Only four times have they limited their opponent to less than 20 points, once being the Panthers in Week 8. Since that meeting, the Buccaneers have slipped to 31st in total defense have allowed opponents to convert 49 percent of third downs, worst in the league.
On top of that, defensive coordinator Mike Smith's unit struggles getting to the quarterback. They've only amassed 18 sacks and didn't get to quarterback Cam Newton once in the previous meeting.
With that said, Tampa Bay's defense still boasts considerable talent. Linebacker Lavonte David is a turnover machine and has led the Buccaneers to one of the better takeaway totals in the NFL. Despite Tampa Bay's overall poor defense, they've totaled 24 takeaways this season – 12 interceptions and 12 fumbles.
While only playing in 11 games, David has forced and recovered five fumbles, the most in a single season in Buccaneers history. He's also tied at 11 with Texans' J.J. Watt for most fumble recoveries among current players since the 2011 season.
However, David is currently battling a hamstring injury that kept him out against the Falcons on Monday night and could affect his availability this Sunday.
David isn't the only key player on Tampa Bay's defense that's laboring with injuries. In fact, not a single starter on defense has managed to appear in all 14 games to date.
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy missed Monday night's meeting with the Falcons. On offense, tight end O.J. Howard, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and guard J.R. Sweezy left the stadium with supplemental footwear and crutches.
McCoy, a five-time Pro Bowler, suffered a right biceps injury against the Lions in Week 14 and didn't practice at all last week. He's torn both biceps in his career – separate injuries that ended his season in both 2010 and 2011. With that said, an MRI did confirm that McCoy will not need surgery.
Hargreaves on the other hand has missed the last five games. He did practice last week on a limited basis, giving hope he would return to face the Falcons. However, he sat out practice on Saturday and was soon after ruled out for Monday night. Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter didn't comment whether or not his starting cornerback suffered a setback.
LAST TIME THEY PLAYED
View the top photos from Panthers at Buccaneers by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.