What to watch: Panthers vs. Buccaneers

Through the first four games of the 2009 season, the Carolina Panthers had topped 100 yards rushing just once.

Not so coincidentally, the Panthers sported a 1-3 record.

That all changed in their fifth game, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Panthers racked up 267 rushing yards – the second-most in franchise history at the time – in a 28-21 victory. From there, they rushed for more than 100 yards in all but one game, turning an 0-3 start into an 8-8 finish.

For playoff purposes, however, last year's breakout performance against the Buccaneers came too late.

This year, with Tampa Bay coming to Bank of America Stadium on Sunday and the Panthers off to an 0-1 start, the timing for a repeat couldn't be better.

"Running the ball is very important," said running back DeAngelo Williams, who had 62 of the Panthers' 89 rushing yards in a Week 1 loss at the New York Giants. "We've got to play more consistent.

"We kind of fell behind in the second half, and we had to throw the ball, but we've got to be able to run the ball and throw the ball. If guys are going to stack the box, we've got to prove we can throw the ball to loosen up the box and have a little running room."

The Buccaneers were one of 18 NFL team to surrender 100 rushing yards in Week 1, though they did hold the Cleveland Browns to 104 yards on the ground in a 17-14 victory.

Tampa ranked last in the NFL in rushing defense in 2009, but it spent its first two draft picks on defensive linemen, including No. 3 overall pick Gerald McCoy out of Oklahoma.

They looked improved against the Browns, but the Panthers hope to improve from their start and push the Bucs around.

Here are some other keys to Sunday's matchup.

MORE FROM MOORE: Panthers quarterback Matt Moore is expected to play after suffering a concussion at the Giants, and he expects to play better.

"I think people know what my ability is," Moore said, "and I know I can play this game."

Moore's first start of last season came in the second meeting with the Bucs, a 16-6 victory at Bank of America Stadium. That jumpstarted a 4-1 finish to the season with Moore under center, a performance that contributed to the Panthers' decision to waive Jake Delhomme in the offseason and award the starting job to Moore.

Moore struggled in the preseason and further sputtered in the season opener, with three interceptions in the end zone. He doesn't have to beat the Bucs by himself, but he can't contribute to the Panthers beating themselves.


LEADING THE WAY: If the running game and Moore reasonably expect to have a better day, it's up to the Panthers' offensive line to lead the way.

"It was just a breakdown in technique across the board," left guard Travelle Wharton said of the line's opening act against the Giants. "It wasn't so much missed assignments as it was breakdowns in techniques.

"We just went back to practice this week and worked on it and got our minds right."

The front still is without starting right tackle Jeff Otah. Mackenzy Bernadeau and Geoff Schwartz were to battle for the starting spot at right guard entering preseason, but Otah's injury has Schwartz playing in Otah's spot and Bernadeau at right guard.

Still, the line that started at the Giants had been together since the beginning of camp. Sunday, they'll aim to put it all together.


LOCKING DOWN FREEMAN: The Panthers did sweep Tampa last season, but Carolina had some difficulty against then-rookie quarterback Josh Freeman in the teams' second matchup.

Freeman threw for 321 yards in Charlotte (though he was intercepted five times).

"Josh Freeman likes to throw the ball," Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "He's a big quarterback with a big arm, and they've got some young receivers that run great routes and are pretty big and physical.

"They're young, and they've got a lot, lot, lot of speed. We're going out there hoping to contain those guys."

The secondary was a strength on the whole for the Panthers last season, but as they prepare for Freeman and Co., they're still smarting from Eli Manning's 263-yard, three-touchdown performance in the opener.

"We felt like we let the team down," Munnerlyn said. "We could have won that game; it was on us.

"It was kind of hard to swallow that pill, but we've told the guys that they don't have to worry about this game; we're going to come with our A-game."


LEG WORK: The teams combined for just three offensive touchdowns in their openers but had four field goals between them, and Sunday's game could come down to kicking.

If it does, the Panthers certainly have the edge in experience. Tampa kicker Connor Barth was 5 years old when Panthers kicker John Kasay – who was 3-for-3 against the Giants – made his NFL debut. Barth, who booted a 49-yarder in his only attempt in Week 1, is a third-year pro out of North Carolina trying to stick with an NFL team for an entire season for the first time.

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