8:20 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Panthers -6.5, Over/Under: 49.5
Division Rivals looking to avoid disappointing 0-2 starts clash on a short week, as the Carolina Panthers play host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, from Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. After years of mediocrity and on the verge of yet another rebuilding project, the Buccaneers (0-1, T-4th in NFC South) ultimately decided to hit the proverbial button anyway, relieving former Head Coach Dirk Koetter of his duties in favor of coaxing the venerable Bruce Arians out of retirement. Of course, this move was made with not only getting the franchise back on the right track, but for a far more particular purpose: fixing their Franchise Quarterback, Jameis Winston (55.6%, 194 YDS, 4.46 NY/A, 1 TD, 3 INT). Simply put, ever since selecting the former Heisman and National Champion with the No. One Overall Pick back in the 2015 NFL Draft, he’s been a mess on and off the field, with his sporadic play marred by a plethora of Turnovers, while his reputation has suffered greatly due to a series of indiscretions away from the game. After being suspended for the first three games of the 2018 Campaign following charges of Sexual Misconduct, the Signal-Caller was promptly benched in favor of journeyman, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who despite some spirited performances, couldn’t maintain the starting job either. Now in the final year of his Rookie Contract, the pressure has never been greater for Winston turn his career around, and given the pedigree of his new mentor, the chances of that happening are better than they previously were. After all, Arians has quite the reputation tutoring some of the game’s greatest Quarterbacks, coaching up the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Andrew Luck in the early stages of their respective careers, while rebuilding Carson Palmer into a Pro- Bowl Quarterback when many around the league believed he was done. And it’s with that said that his main focus will be correcting Winston’s tendency to turn the football over; no Quarterback has committed more Turnovers since 2015, than the 25-Year Old, who has thrown a staggering Sixty-One Interceptions in Fifty-Seven Games, while fumbling forty times to boot. If Tampa Bay’s 17-31 defeat at home to the San Francisco 49ers was of any indication, there is still plenty of work to do on that front, for Winston was picked off on three separate occasions, each of which the visiting side managed to return for a Touchdown. In effect, Winston threw more Touchdowns to Niners’ players than his counterpart, Jimmy Garoppolo did in Sunday’s Opener, marking the seventeenth time since he was drafted that he threw multiple Interceptions in a single game, which is also the most in that span. Winston will be looking to put that performance behind him against the Panthers, whom he really hasn’t enjoyed much success against; no team has picked him off (9) or sacked him (22) more than Carolina, whom he has gone 3-4 against in seven career meetings. Apart from the struggles of his Quarterback, Arians would no doubt prefer to see some more balance on Offense, along with considerable improvement from his Defense, which was in many ways horrific before his arrival. The Bucs did reasonably well in both areas in Sunday’s loss, rushing twenty-six times for 121 Yards on a healthy 4.7 Yards per Carry, with Sophomore Tailback, Ronald Jones (13 CAR, 75 YDS, 5.8 Y/C, 0 TD), looking explosive with Seventy-Five Yards on just Thirteen Carries. Defensively, you can’t fault Defensive Coordinator, Todd Bowles’, unit, which relegated San Francisco to 264 Total Yards, including Ninety-Eight yards against the Run, and 5-of-13 on Third Down (38.5%), while generally stumping the aforementioned Garoppolo (18-of-27, 116 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT), with Cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves (3 TKL, 1 INT, 1 TD, 1 PD) returning an Interception for a Touchdown in the Second Quarter.
Meanwhile, the Bucs aren’t the only team within the Division to get off to a slow start, for the Panthers (0-1, T-4th in NFC South) took far too long to get things going in Sunday’s narrow 27-30 defeat at home to the reigning NFC Champion, Los Angeles Rams. It would be difficult to imagine a worse start to a Season Opener, but Carolina went scoreless on their first Six Drives, with a pair of Fumbles and a missed Field Goal rendering them scoreless until the waning moments of the First Half, where they managed to put three points on the board before heading to the locker room. To their credit, the hosts appeared far more clinical in the Second Half, in which they outscored the visiting side 24-17, but ultimately fell short of victory. It was a fairly even showing from both teams, with the Rams accumulating 352 Yards on Twenty-Two First Downs in comparison to the Panthers posting totals of 366 and Twenty-One, though Turnovers managed to thoroughly swing the decision in favor of the former. Ron Rivera’s charges committed Three Turnovers on the day, including a crucial late Interception from Cam Newton (65.8%, 239 YDS, 5.27 NY/A, 0 TD, 1 INT) ending a drive in his opponent’s territory. As a result, Los Angeles possessed the football for 33:16, which they promptly used to grind away at their opposition, rushing for 166 Yards and Two Touchdowns on Thirty-Two Carries. Much had been made of Newton’s progress in rehabbing from Offseason Shoulder Surgery, and how the team limited him throughout the Preseason, and for all intents and purposes, the former MVP looked slow to really get into a rhythm against the Rams’ aggressive Defense, completing 25-of-38 Passes for 239 Yards and that aforementioned Interception, while taking Three Sacks, and rushing three times for a loss of Two Yards and losing a Fumble. This certainly warrants further examination, for prior to his injury, Newton, and the Offense as a whole, really began to move the football under the direction of Offensive Coordinator, Norv Turner, with many expecting them to take it to another level once the Signal-Caller returns to peak health. In the meantime, look for Christian McCaffrey (19 CAR, 128 YDS, 6.7 Y/C, 2 TD) to continue to be the foundation of the attack, building off a stellar Sophomore season in which he ranked third in the league in Total Touches (326) and Yards from Scrimmage (1,965). No skill-position player was more productive in Week One, in which McCaffrey racked up Twenty-Nine Total Touches and 201 Yards from Scrimmage, racking 128 Rushing Yards and Two Touchdowns on Nineteen Carries along with another Eighty-One Yards on Ten Catches. Needless to say, starting off the season 0-2 would be a terrible look for a club that fashions itself as a dark horse contender to win the NFC South and advance to Super Bowl LIII. Let’s not forget that after starting 2018 off 6-2, the Panthers fell into a tailspin losing all but one of their final eight outings. Fortunately, beginning with tonight’s encounter with the Buccaneers, the schedule appears to be very soft; over the next five games, Carolina faces Tampa twice, Houston, Arizona, and Jacksonville, and face just one team that participated in the Playoffs last season before a Week Twelve trip to New Orleans. The table is set for this team to build up a head of steam, but in the meantime there a number of questions that must be answered first. Will a healthy Cam Newton continue to make strides in Turner’s Offense? Will other weapons, particularly Sophomore Receiver, D.J. Moore (7 REC, 76 YDS, 10.9 Y/R, 0 TD), step up to alleviate some of the load on McCaffrey’s shoulders? Will a reconstructed Offensive Line come together despite injuries? Can the Defense, which has undergone a makeover in the trenches, get back to making plays? Tonight would be a great platform in which to provide some answers.