What to watch: Panthers at Buccaneers

The first time the Carolina Panthers faced Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman, almost a year ago, the Panthers picked him off five times.

The last time the Panthers faced Freeman, nearly two months ago, Freeman picked apart Carolina for a pair of touchdown passes with nary an interception.

"He has grown up. He's got experience now," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said of the second-year quarterback that the Panthers will face again Sunday. "And he's got a big arm, he's strong and he's hard to tackle."

Carolina will continue to work toward getting its rookie quarterback up to speed Sunday, when Jimmy Clausen returns to the starting lineup in place of the injured Matt Moore.

Clausen spelled Moore after he was shaken up in the Sept. 19 meeting with Tampa Bay at Bank of America Stadium, a 20-7 victory for the Buccaneers spearheaded by the elusive Freeman.

"We've just got to wrap him up," cornerback Richard Marshall said. "You're not just going to hit him and have him go down. You've got to grab him and hold him until the cavalry comes."

If the Panthers (1-7) hope to pick up their first road victory of the season at the expense of a Tampa Bay team (5-3) that's bounced back nicely from a 2-14 campaign, they will need all hands on deck – and not just when Freeman has the ball.

Here's a look at other areas where the Panthers must excel if they hope to triumph.

GETTING OFF THE FIELD: Thanks in large part to Freeman, the Buccaneers converted five of the first six times they faced third down and 9 or more yards to go in the teams' first meeting.

The Panthers must again put Tampa Bay in those difficult positions, but this time they can't let the Buccaneers out with such regularity.

Carolina held Tampa Bay's running game in check the last time around, limiting them to 2.8 yards per rush play to force the third-and-longs. The Bucs, however, have added a new threat in the running game in undrafted rookie LeGarrette Blount, who's averaging nearly 80 yards per game on the ground over the last three weeks.

Carolina must bring down Blount first before doing a better job of bringing down – or at least slowing down – Freeman in obvious passing situations.


STAYING ON THE FIELD: It sounds so simple.

In order for the Panthers to score points, they need to hold onto the ball. In order to prevent Tampa Bay from scoring, they need to play keep-away with the ball.

So far this season, that's been anything but simple. Carolina ranks last in the NFL in scoring and total offense. Not surprisingly, the Panthers are second-to-last in time of possession.

To make the task at hand more difficult, they will have to do it with their top running backs out – running backs that haven't found much success this season as it is.

The new look, however, could catch the Buccaneers off-guard. The speed of Mike Goodson gives him a shot at running around well-defended plays, and the power of Josh Vaughan gives him a shot at running over well-placed defenders.


FIELD GENERAL: Carolina's new backfield will have no bigger fan Sunday than the man charged with handing them the ball.

Clausen helped keep the Panthers close in his previous start on the road, driving the offense to the edge of field goal range in the final minute of a 16-14 loss at New Orleans. He struggled in his two home starts sandwiched around the Saints game, however, prompting the Panthers to go back to Moore.

Now Clausen is the one with the second chance.

Moore looked very good in his first game back following his benching. Can Clausen do the same?

"I hope having been on the sidelines and looking at the defense from a different perspective will help me out on Sunday," Clausen said. "The game has slowed down just a little bit – not as drastic as I hoped for, but at the same time, being on the sidelines and watching, it  has slowed down."


FIELD VISION: Facing the prospect of possibly having to win out to make the playoffs, the Panthers could just pack it in and decide to just wait until next year.

There's been no sign of that attitude in the locker room, however, and there can't be a sign of it on the playing field if the Panthers have a shot at succeeding.

"The team knows they're getting everything from me, and I know they're giving us everything," head coach John Fox said. "We just have to play better to get better results."

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