After losing three consecutive games, each in their own heartbreaking fashion, the Panthers sit outside of the playoff race with their destiny no longer in their own hands. It goes without saying that Ron Rivera’s team are now in ‘must win’ territory and playing to save their season, starting on the road against Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The game looks set up to be another high scoring affair just as it was when the two teams met at the beginning of November in a 42-28 Carolina win. Vegas is tipping the Panthers once again as a 3.5 point favorite to beat Tampa and complete victories both at home and on the road against the Bucs for the 2nd consecutive season.
However things may not be as straightforward as they sound for the Panthers, who have allowed 32.5 Points per game over their last four games, coming up against a team that is 3-2 at home with Winston having just come off his best performance of the year, mainly due to the success he found in one particular area. Here are my three keys to beating the Bucs this afternoon.
- Defense must stand strong on 3rd down situations.
Against San Francisco the Bucs went a staggering 6 for 8 on 3rd downs of 5-9 yards, a distance considered a manageable passing down, which is indicative of their form so far this season where they have built from the early success of Quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and currently rank 2nd in the league in 3rd down conversion rate – with only them and the Colts converting over 50% of their 3rd downs.
This will have already been a major point of emphasis for Defensive Coordinator Eric Washington, with Carolina ranking 26th in the NFL in 3rd down defense on the road, but for this game in particular, it seems these plays will be the key to whether we see a bounce-back performance from Carolina or watch this team once again fold on the defensive side of the ball.
Since entering Tampa’s week 10 game against the New York Giants midway through the 3rd quarter, Winston has completed over 75% of his passes at 9.5 yards per attempt for 4 TD’s and 1 interception. However, his previous struggles against Carolina could lend The Cats a 10th life in another key phase of this game.
2. Win the Turnover Battle
Carolina is 5-0 when they have less turnovers than the opposition – on the other hand they are 0-4 in games in which they have more. While the story of Carolina’s season thus far is much more complex than these numbers suggest, they simply cannot be ignored. Encouragingly, in 5 of the 6 times Jameis has faced the Panthers in his career, he’s ended the game with multiple turnovers boasting an overall TD-INT ratio of 5-9 against his NFC South rivals.
Another vintage, mistaken laden performance from him would be just what the doctor ordered for this Panthers team, who haven’t forced a turnover in 12 Quarters of Football after generating 15 of them in their first 8 games of the season. Whilst this dry spell in turnovers is an obvious concern for Carolina – winning the turnover battle may well be just as big a problem for the Panthers when it comes to the other side of the ball.
Forgetting the fact that Cam has thrown an interception in each of his last 3 games, the Panthers had a total of 5 (FIVE!) fumbles in Sunday’s game against Seattle – with 3 of these coming from Christian McCaffrey alone, despite him having a career day. Yet in an unbelievable stroke of luck, the Seahawks were not able to make Carolina pay, recovering exactly 0 of them. Talk about missed opportunities…hey Ron?
Factor that in with Carolina’s hidden gaffes – the turnover on downs after a questionably spotted run by Cam Newton on the teams first drive of the game, along with the missed 52 yard Kick in the 4th quarter by Graham Gano (his 3rd miss in 2 weeks,) and the Panthers could have been looking at a true turnover ratio of 8-0. Hell, if it wasn’t for the ball fortuitously ‘nutmegging’ Colin Jones on Special Teams, it could’ve been 9.
It goes without saying that this kind of sloppy play isn’t going to get it done, but if the Panthers can put together a clean game on the offensive side of the ball whilst staying as creative as they have been through the play calling of savvy Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner, then they can feel confident about getting a win on Sunday.
3. Keep the DJ and Curtis snaps coming.
One of the more encouraging outcomes of Sunday’s game was the increased snap count for 2nd year wide receiver, Curtis Samuel, who had a season high 54 snaps on offense – 91.5% of the total offensive workload for the Panthers in this game. To many including myself, this amount of playing time is well overdue for a player who had 5 TD’s on only 21 touches coming into this game, yet was only averaging 26% of snaps in the 7 games he was active in prior to Sunday.
DJ Moore, who also played 91.5% of the offensive snaps in the game vs. Seattle, has seen his snap count increase throughout the year as Carolina looks set to reap the returns on their 1st round investment by making him their out and out number 1 receiver.
However DJ’s most drastic snap spike of the season, a 25% increase from week 6 to week 7, can be easily attributed to the injury of veteran receiver Torrey Smith. It also remains to be seen whether Samuel’s increase in play was a worthy reward for his production or just as a result of Devin Funchess missing his first game of the season with a back injury, sustained in the 20-19 loss vs. Detroit.
After a low snap count for Smith in his first game back from injury and even though Devin Funchess is set to return this game, it seems we can expect a similar level of play time again for DJ and Curtis – who combined for 140 yards and 1 TD on 12 touches Sunday. Whether they can repeat this stat-line remains to be seen, but as they get more and more settled into their increased roles, combined with Defense’s overcompensating for Running Back Christian McCaffrey after his monster 237 yard day on Sunday, you wouldn’t want to bet against them.