This Thursday Night NFC South matchup pits the rising Carolina Panthers against the stagnant Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that Carolina needs if they hope to eventually track down the Saints at the top of the division. A win for Tampa Bay, of course, would be a bright spot in a season that has gotten away from them from the outset.
At least one of our analysts thinks a Buccaneer win is on the way and there will certainly be aspects of the game that make it worth watching – not the least of which is the prime time opportunity to see a couple of the game’s best young linebackers.
Here are three points to focus on for the Week 8 opener:
Kuechly Backing it Up
On the back of his Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, Panther middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is matching the pace he set in 2012 as a run defender. Currently PFF’s fourth-ranked MLB/ILB against the run with a grade of +5.0, Kuechly finished third there last year behind only Patrick Willis and the man leading it again, Brandon Spikes. With his Run Stop Percentage improving on his 2012 number (16.5 so far this year to 13.4 last), Kuechly’s 21 run stops have him on pace to eclipse the 38 he notched in his debut season. He won’t, however, have the chance to reunite with fellow 2012 rookie, Buccaneer halfback Doug Martin, as the second-year runner has gone down with a shoulder injury that could threaten his season.
In Martin’s place, Tamp Bay will send rookie Mike James in for the early-down work. James has logged just 53 snaps and put up 57 yards on 17 attempts but brings a positive overall grade into the game, hoping to improve upon the 3.6 yards per carry Martin had generated. With concerns in the passing game, some success on the ground would do Tampa Bay a lot of good, but the Kuechly-led Carolina front seven won’t make it easy.
The left-right edge rush combo of Carolina’s Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy by now is a known entity. They’ve each established themselves among the league’s top threats to quarterbacks and, as bookends, they’re simply that much harder to handle. Among 4-3 defensive ends, the pair shows in the Top 10 in both the PFF pass rushing grades (Johnson sixth, +6.1; Hardy eighth, +5.2) and in our Pass Rushing Productivity Signature Stat while attacking with somewhat different methods. Hardy has collected the largest chunk of his 26 total pressures via an outside rush while Johnson has mixed it up more, going 10-11-6 outside-inside-bullrush to get his.
Facing off with Johnson this week is less-than-household-name Demar Dotson, who, given his performance through Tampa’s first six games, should be gaining some notoriety among the right tackle crowd soon. Dotson’s +10.6 overall grade has him fourth among his peers on the right and his pass blocking rating is sixth. He may be a prime suspect, though, for Johnson’s varied arsenal, having surrendered equal amounts of pressure to outside and inside moves and three more to bullrushes. Hardy will get left tackle Donald Penn fresh off of his lowest grade of the season and on a downturn following his strong opening three games. While he’s been consistently solid as a run blocker throughout, Penn has been charged with 12 total pressures allowed in the past three weeks.
Another Solid Sophomore
Lavonte David is another young linebacker featuring in this game who is backing up the impressive performance of his inaugural NFL season. Finishing in the Top 5 among 4-3 outside linebackers last year, David is pacing the group in 2013 and doing outstanding work as a downhill player. He leads in stops (21) and tackling efficiency (26 tackles per miss) as a run defender, in total pressures as a blitzer (19), and though coverage hasn’t been his strong suit, he’s got hands to five balls, bringing home an interception to go with four passes defensed (also a high mark for his position). His performance against Atlanta earned him the PFF Game Ball in the Buccaneers’ loss four days ago and his two best games on the year have come against NFC South opponents — it will be interesting to see how he follows that in the Bucs’ third division game of the season.
Follow Rick on Twitter: @PFF_Rick