Max Henson Staff Writer
Charlotte, NC – For the first time this season, the Panthers are set to face a team they’ve already played.
Carolina (2-7) hosts Tampa Bay (5-4) on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium (1 p.m., FOX) and it was the Buccaneers who took round one with a 16-10 victory at Raymond James Stadium in the season opener.
A lot has changed for both teams since, but the Panthers remain intent on protecting their home field against their upstart division rivals, who enter the contest riding a three-game winning streak.
“It’s a division game, so there’s a little more intensity to it,” defensive end Charles Johnson said. “We’re familiar with a lot of cats on that team, but it doesn’t matter if you know what they do. You have to make it work on the field.”
Here are some keys to this Week 11 NFC South matchup.
BUCS’ BIG PLAYS: As a reporter tried to recall the offensive statistic where Tampa Bay ranks first, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn quickly interjected.
“Yards per play,” Munnerlyn said. “I already know.”
After studying the tape, Munnerlyn and fellow members of the Panthers’ defense learned just how explosive the Buccaneers have been in recent weeks.
They are averaging a league-best 6.2 yards per play thanks to a productive ground game and big plays over the top from wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
Jackson ranks second in the NFL with 21.4 yards per catch and Williams ranks fourth with an 18.3-yard average.
The Panthers’ secondary has been effective limiting big plays lately, and that’ll need to continue against an offense that’s thriving off taking shots downfield.
EXPLOITING THE WEAKNESS: Tampa Bay’s run defense is the NFL’s best, surrendering just 80.1 yards per game. But the 321 passing yards they allow per game is the league’s worst.
The Buccaneers have become known for big plays offensively and defensively.
“We have just given up too many big pass plays,” Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano said. “We just need to generate better recognition pass rush on first and second down. We need to be able to play better on the back end technique wise, identification and anticipation.”
After posting a franchise-low 10 rushing yards against the Buccaneers in Week 1, Carolina is determined to have success on the ground this time around, and a balanced attack will make a struggling secondary even more vulnerable.
Carolina compiled just 301 yards in the opener, but Schiano remains fearful of the Panthers’ big play potential.
“The reality is there were some plays we got stopped by a fingernail, otherwise it was out the gate and would have been a big play,” Schiano said in reference to Week 1. “The one thing I look at on Carolina’s offense is they’re top ten in the league with passes 20 yards or more and runs 20 yards or more, and that’s a stat that defensively is a concern for us.”
ROOKIE VS. ROOKIE: Panthers rookie middle linebacker Luke Kuechly against Buccaneers rookie running back Doug Martin is one of the game’s most intriguing and critical matchups.
Kuechly played weakside linebacker in the first meeting, when Martin ran for 95 yards on 24 carries. Kuechly – who is Carolina’s leading tackler – moved to the MIKE spot in Week 5, and the Panthers have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher with the ninth overall pick in the middle.
Martin was the talk of the league after his 251-yard, 4-touchdown performance against Oakland two weeks ago, and Kuechly’s ability to track and wrap up the Buccaneers’ running back will go a long way in determining Carolina’s effectiveness on defense.
|Fuel Up To Play 60 Kids Combine||Located on the Panthers’ practice field adjacent to Bank of America Stadium and open from 10:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Free, interactive area promotes youth fitness through a variety of football skills and drills for children and their families. Activities include 40-yard dash, vertical jump, wide receiver/quarterback challenge, TopCats dance studio and inflatable obstacle course.|
|Panthers Lair||Located on the corner of Mint Street and Morehead Street and open from 10:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., with TopCats signing autographs and posing for photos at the 107.9 The Link booth from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Sir Purr appearing throughout the morning. Find out how you can make your tailgating and game day experience even better at the AT&T Fantasy Football Lounge. Visit the Ford vehicle display for gift card giveaways, games and photo opportunities. Check out the Re/Max inflatable cold air balloon and take a photo in the hot air basket. Enter to win $500 off a set of new tires from Firestone.|
|Catwalk||Located outside Bank of America Stadium’s North Gate on Graham Street and open from 10:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., with TopCats signing autographs and posing for pictures from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the WBT 1110-AM booth. Throw a virtual football with Verizon and learn about protecting your home from CPI Security. Get information about the 2012 ACC Football Championship at Bank of America Stadium. Support United Family Services, a local charity that provides hope and solutions for people in crisis.|
|Invocation||Rabbi Chanoch Oppenheim – Charlotte Torah Center|
|Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department|
|National Anthem||Chrissy Simpson|