The Last Word: Panthers vs. Buccaneers

Max Henson

Offensive key: Last week, everyone had all sorts of questions for members of the Panthers offense about how they were going to manage against that vaunted Ravens defense. This week, no one is really talking about Tampa Bay's defense. Yes, they rank 31st in pass defense, but Carolina isn't built to exploit that with an all-out aerial assault. The Panthers want to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball. The Buccaneers are much better in that area, and their front line is finally getting healthy with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Vinny Curry set to return after missing two games. Oh, and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is on a tear, having recorded at least one sack in every game this season. So my offensive key is the O-line. They were phenomenal against Baltimore and they've got their hands full again this week.

Defensive key: It's simple -- make Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick uncomfortable. He can be lethal when given time to stand back there and let it fly. But get him off his spot and he's not nearly as effective.

"Get pressure on him and it's tough, and that's true for all quarterbacks," head coach Ron Rivera said. "But that's one of the things that really does stand out (with Fitzpatrick)."

Gutsy guess: This appears to be a good matchup for tight ends on both sides with both defenses having some struggles containing them. I say Greg Olsen and O.J. Howard each go over 100 yards. Olsen hasn't hit the century mark yet this season.

Bryan Strickland

Offensive key: Multiple times this week, Rivera mentioned that the first thing he looks at after games is how many players were targeted by quarterback Cam Newton. "The ball, there's one. And there's five different guys that have a chance to get it," Rivera said. "If you do everything you're supposed to, as hard as you can, you just might get it." Rivera said that the ball being spread is a sign that everyone is doing their job, but it also can be a sign that Newton is taking what the defense is giving him as opposed to force-feeding the football. Well, the Buccaneers' defense has been in a giving mood most of the season. Newton just needs to continue to take care of the ball and take advantage of whatever opportunities are in front of him. If he does, the Panthers should take care of business.

Defensive key: What does Rivera first look at when he sees Carolina's defensive stats after the game? Third-down and red zone defense, and the opposition's rushing numbers. Tampa has quietly topped 100 rushing yards for three consecutive games, and Carolina has struggled to prevent touchdowns once the opposition reaches the red zone. But the Bucs' rushing yards haven't had a discernible impact on the outcomes of games, and Carolina hasn't allowed offenses to actually reach the red zone very often. So of Rivera's keys, I consider third-down defense to be the most important one this week. The Buccaneers have converted nearly 50 percent of their third downs while the Panthers have held opponents to a success rate of 35.4 percent - seventh lowest in the league.

Gutsy guess: The legend of Thieves Ave. was mentioned this week, and what the defense needs to truly bring it back to life is a touchdown. Tampa has turned the ball over more times (19) than any team this season; the Panthers will exploit that by scoring their first defensive touchdown since Week 12 of last year. Just for laughs, let's say it comes courtesy of a Shaq Thompson interception.

Bill Voth

Offensive key: I dedicate my guesses to the turnover department. Let's start with the Bucs' defense, which has just six takeaways – the NFL's second-lowest total that includes a league-worst one interception. Newton, meanwhile, has thrown only four picks, tied for the fewest in his career through seven games. If he can continue to make good decisions, the Panthers have a distinct advantage considering ...

Defensive key: The Bucs' 19 giveaways and 15 interceptions are both league highs. They're trying to mitigate those numbers by replacing Jameis Winston (10 INTs in four games) with Fitzpatrick (five INTs in four starts), but the ball is going to be in play plenty on Sunday. Sure, there's a danger in letting weapons like Desean Jackson and Mike Evans get loose, but there's also an opportunity for a Panthers secondary that already has nine interceptions after totaling just 10 last year. That unit may get beat a time or two. It just has to make sure to limit those times.

Gutsy guess: James Bradberry doesn't have a pick yet this season. He'll get his first – and take it back for his first career touchdown.

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