8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Panthers -6, Over/Under: 46
Bitter rivals in desperate need of a victory clash tonight in hurricane-battered Charlotte, North Carolina, as the ailing Panthers host the flailing Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football. Coming into the season, few thought that both the Panthers and Buccaneers would be circling the drain in the NFC South, but thanks to an outbreak of injuries, these teams have struggled mightily throughout the first quarter of the campaign. Losers of three straight outings after winning the Season Opener, Tampa (1-3, T-4th in NFC South) was expected to grow this season, particularly on offense where the continued maturation of former No. One Overall Pick Jameis Winston under Center is priority one, two, on through to infinity. Ultimately, Management felt that former Head Coach Lovie Smith’s presence was detrimental to the young signal-caller’s growth, and that promoting Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter would further the development of the Offense, particularly Winston. However, through four games it’s become painfully obvious that things are not working out as expected. While it’s a bit too early to label it a Sophomore Slump, Winston has not progressed in his second season, exhibiting drop-offs in a number of categories, including Completion Percentage (58.2%), Net Yards per Attempt (5.53), and Sack Percentage (5.3%). The former Heisman has thrown as many interceptions (eight) as he has touchdowns, with seven coming in the last three games alone. In last week’s 27-7 disaster against the reigning Super Bowl Champions, Winston was dreadful, completing a scant 17-of-35 passes (48.57%) for 179 yards and two interceptions, despite rushing for the team’s lone score. Granted, the Broncos have had a way of making many good Quarterbacks look like outright novices, but this kid’s struggles speak to a greater underlying problem, which is the complete decimation of his support system. Every team gets hit by injuries, but this season the Bucs have been hit just a bit harder than most; the rushing attack has been non-existent (82.5 yards/game, 27th Overall), with both Doug Martin (1,402 yards in 2015) and Charles Sims on the shelf with respective hamstring and knee injuries, while the Receiving Corps has proven to be Mike Evans and little else. The second-year Wideout seems to be the only guy Winston is looking for in the passing game, and opposing defenses know it; Evans has caught twenty-six passes on fifty targets (twenty-one more than the next closest player) for 360 yards (13.8 y/c) and three touchdowns. As a result, there has been little semblance of balance for Koetter and Co., as Winston has attempted more passes (177) than any other Quarterback through the first four games. Unfortunately, the story gets worse on the opposite side of the ball, where the Defense has been relegated to searching for able healthy bodies. Defensive Ends Jaquies Smith (Knee) and George Johnson (Hip) are both on Injured Reserve, while Second Round Pick Noah Spence is out with an ailing shoulder. Pro Bowl Defensive Tackle Gerald McCoy is Doubtful with a strained calf muscle, while fellow Lineman Clinton McDonald is Questionable with a nagging hamstring. Furthermore, Pass-Rusher Robert Ayers was limited severely in practice this week with a bum foot. In fact, this team is so thin in the trenches, that Koetter half-heartedly joked that he would have to conscript some Offensive Linemen to help out on that side of the ball. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, playmaking Linebacker Lavonte David hadn’t practiced all week with an undisclosed injury, while starting Cornerback Brent Grimes’ hamstring may keep him out of tonight’s action as well. With so many of their number unavailable, you could imagine how this has effected their performance thus far; the Buccaneers have yielded the second-most points in the league (32.0), while producing the fewest turnovers (two!!!). Indeed, next week’s Bye can’t come soon enough for this group.
Meanwhile, life has been just as hard for the reigning NFC Champions, as the Panthers (1-3, T-4th in NFC South) have been arguably the most disappointing team through the first quarter of the season. This team was dominant in 2015, folks, going 15-1 before sweeping their way through the NFC Playoffs, before falling to the Broncos in a defensive struggle in Super Bowl XLX. Like, their opponent tonight, injuries have played a part in their current plight, but anyone that has watched Ron Rivera’s charges through these first four contests will likely proclaim this unit as unrecognizable to last year’s. In 2015, the Panthers led the league in scoring offense (31.3), ranked second in rushing offense (142.6), enjoyed a ridiculous plus-20 Turnover Differential, and placed sixth in Total Defense (322.9) and Points Allowed (19.3). Fast forward to the present, and these Panthers are still scoring a lot of points (27.3, 8th Overall), but are getting absolutely gashed on the defensive side of the ball, where they are allowing a miserable 29.5 points per game, fifth-most in the NFL. Prompting such a dramatic shift has been the Turnover Differential, which has all but flipped from 2015; Carolina has committed ten turnovers thus far (30th Overall), while logging seven takeaways. As a result, the Pass Defense in particular has suffered the most, as the Secondary has been in absolute shambles, permitting an average of 257.5 yards through the air (17th Overall) on a dismal 7.6 Net Yards per Attempt (28th Overall), along with eight passing touchdowns (23rd Overall). With that said, many in the Football World saw this coming when the Front Office shockingly pulled the Franchise Tag off of All-Pro Cornerback Josh Norman, essentially telling him to leave in Free Agency. Now, letting a player of that caliber walk with no compensation is one thing, but doing so without adequately replacing him is an entirely different matter altogether. Clearly, Rivera and his Staff had enough confidence in the likes of Bene Benwikere to let a twenty- Cornerback in the prime of his career, hot off the heels of a campaign in which he compiled fifty-six tackles, three forced fumbles, four interceptions, eighteen deflections and two touchdowns walk out the door free of charge, right? Well, that might have been the case two weeks ago, but after last week’s harrowing encounter with Falcons’ Receiver Julio Jones, they’re certainly going to have re-evaluate that stance. Now Jones is great, like All-Pro great, but what he did to Benwikere and the Panthers was embarrassing, totaling a staggering 300 receiving yards on a dozen catches in last Sunday’s 48-33 debacle at Atlanta. In fact, Carolina reportedly CUT Benwikere in response earlier this week, leaving a Defensive Backfield even thinner on talented, capable bodies. Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ Offense shredded the entire Panthers’ Defense that day, not just one hapless Cornerback, leaving many scratching their heads as to what exactly is going through the minds of the Coaching Staff. Then again, they’re probably preoccupied with the situation under Center where reigning MVP Cam Newton will miss tonight’s game after suffering a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit after rushing for a score in last week’s outing. Much has been made of the nature of some of the needless hits that the Quarterback has sustained this season, prompting Rivera and Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula to ponder utilizing him in a more cautious nature moving forward. So with Newton sidelined, it’s up to Derek Anderson to right the ship. That’s right folks, that Derek Anderson, who has served as the Panthers’ Backup Quarterback since 2011, and since then has made just two starts, with his last coming in 2014. The 33-year old actually went 2-0 as the starter in place of an injured Newton, tossing five touchdowns with no interceptions, but in replacing Newton last week went 17-of-23 for 172 yards, with a pair of scores and a pair of picks. Clearly, the offensive gameplan changes dramatically with Anderson under Center, for he is nowhere near the threat with his legs that his predecessor is. A much more stereotypical pocket passer, Anderson will have his chances against the Buccaneers’ injury-riddled Defense, but won’t get much help from a rushing attack that’s still missing Jonathan Stewart (Hamstring), and will now be without starting Left Tackle Michael Oher, who is also recuperating from the effects of a concussion.
Predicted Outcome: Panthers 16, Buccaneers 14