In a game that most expected Carolina to win, it seemed some of the Panther coaches had forgotten there had been an offseason and this wasn’t the end-of-season-2011 Buccaneers they were facing. They came to Florida with a new, aggressive offensive philosophy, neglected what they’d done well last year and failed to adjust when things didn’t go to plan.
Behind one of the best run blocking lines in the league, they went to three wide receiver sets on 75% of their plays (last year they averaged 44%) and ran half of DeAngelo Williams’ ridiculous six rushing attempts from that package. In what at times looked like an effort to pad offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinki’s resume, they even lined-up Jordan Gross at WR for a snap; a two-yard “A” gap run on 1st-and-10.
While the Panthers need to regroup quickly, Tampa Bay don’t have time to dwell on what was clearly a massive upgrade on both sides of the ball. They travel to a chastened Giants team that will not forgo what are still some glaring weaknesses in their pass coverage. The good news is, though, that while offensively conservative, there were still plenty of positives to improve on.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
At times it looked like Carolina had determined that with Cam Newton (+1.1) at the helm they could immediately morph into the Al Davis’ Raiders. Passing deep (20+ yards) on 24% of throws was more, on average, than any QB attempted last year, and certainly not very successful. Throwing mostly post and go routes against the Buccaneer cornerbacks, Newton eschewed the vulnerable short middle of the field where rookies Lavonte David and Mark Barron were suffering growing pains; for example on the second offensive play of the game when Barron completely lost Greg Olsen.
Newton threw some excellent balls (like the beauty to Brandon LaFell with 13:21 gone in the fourth) and had lots of help from the mercurial Steve Smith (+3.4) but it was too little, too late, and if he’s to be consistently successful he’ll need help from his coaches in developing a better gameplan than this one.
While neither Amini Silatolu (-3.2) nor veteran Geoff Hangartner (-4.2) were completely awful, they will certainly need to improve on their performances in this game. Rookie left guard Silatolu had played well in preseason but when the real action started he looked stretched. He was penalized for a false start and a hold that negated a 14-yard run by Newton. He also gave up a sack, a hit and two hurries in pass protection. Unfortunately for the Panthers, right guard Hangartner was worse. He was bullied by Gerald McCoy, allowed three hurries and a hit, and also had a false start. Take a look at the way Roy Miller gets him moving back and across with 12:54 left in the fourth, and makes the tackle for a two-yard loss.
I could dwell on the rather inauspicious debut of first-round pick Luke Kuechly (-5.4) here, but would much prefer to leave the Carolina section of this article with one of the feel good stories of the year. Returning from three ACL tears in three years is unprecedented, but for Thomas Davis (+1.7) to then play at such a high level is unbelievable. He was only on defense for 12 plays, rotating snaps in nickel with James Anderson and Kuechly, but he made his mark with back-to-back plays toward the end of the second quarter. Firstly, (4:26 left) he was too quick for Jeremy Zuttah and got across to nail Doug Martin for no gain on 2nd-and-1 at the Panther 1-yard line. On the next play, he spotted Erik Lorig open at the two and made good ground to bring down the fullback for a loss.
If this continues his play may demand more than 18% of snaps in the coming weeks.
Tampa Bay – Three Performances of Note
It wasn’t so much what Josh Freeman (+5.5) did do in this game that mattered; it was what he didn’t do, and that was to make any mistakes. You can argue he was responsible for the Dwan Edwards sack he stepped into, but what other errors did he make? Of his 21 aimed passes he completed 16, with one drop. He ran effectively and picked up three first downs with his feet. A stat line of 138 yards passing and a touchdown isn’t going to set too many tongues wagging, but this was a high quality display that showed significantly improved maturity.
Guards, Guards Redux
Tampa Bay has the No.1 and No.4 highest paid guards in the NFL. They have a remarkable 18.2% of their salary cap tied up in these two players. While RG, Davin Joseph is unfortunately injured and out for the year, it was time to see how their investment in free agent LG, Carl Nicks had worked out. Although he wasn’t perfect, he had a good day (+1.2) that included moments of domination–such as the way he pushed back Dwan Edwards with 5:11 gone in the third. He gave up a hit, hurry and missed a screen block, but generally looked as advertised if not as valued.
The value judgment is always difficult, but at $9M-a-year less than Joseph it was hard to believe that $0.5M replacement RG, Ted Larsen played much worse than his wealthier colleague may have. His grade (-0.8) was hardly outstanding, but when you realize Joseph has averaged -9.8 over the past four years it puts things in perspective.
If what we saw in the preseason is anything to go by, halfback Doug Martin (+2.1) looks an exciting prospect. Here? Well exciting wasn’t the first word to my lips. Workman-like, efficient and above all, direct were all more appropriate in describing Martin’s performance. He took every yard that was available by hitting the hole, hitting it hard and very rarely being knocked back. He made 63 of his 95 yards after contact and broke four tackles. If anything, he looked more thrilling in the passing game, particularly pulling in his 11-yarder falling backwards with Kuechly in his face.
– With the Panthers in three WR sets so much, the Buccaneers played 52% of plays in nickel and 25% in dime. The result of which was $5.75M-a-year linebacker Quincy Black played 12 snaps.
– When Steve Smith lined up on the outside he was tracked by Eric Wright. The result: 9 targets, 5 receptions and 69 yards; a win for Smith but not a significant one.
– Tampa Bay’s top pass rusher on the day was Gerald McCoy who picked up a sack, hit and two hurries on 36 rushes. He also had a solid day against the run on the few plays the Bucs were tested.
PFF Game Ball
The Buccaneers’ quarterback Josh Freeman won’t win too many followers with this understated display, but it was a ‘game winner’ in every sense of the words.