3TFO: Buccaneers @ Panthers, Week 11
Prior to the season it looked like the NFC South was a division on the upswing, but to this point it’s been easily controlled by the Atlanta Falcons. The Tamp Bay Buccaneers have hung tough, and at 5-4, they still have a shot for a Wild Card spot in the competitive NFC. Their offense has been quietly explosive while the defense is getting contributions from three rookie starters.
Tampa Bay will travel to take on the Carolina Panthers, who have not held up their end of the bargain as a team on the rise. At 2-7, they have some roster questions to answer down the stretch run. Quarterback Cam Newton has shouldered much of the blame, but the Panthers’ issues run much deeper than the second-year signal-caller. They lack talent on both sides of the ball and the talented players they do have, namely the running backs, are not being used in full capacity.
Let’s take a look at the key matchups for this week’s NFC South showdown.
Slowing Down Doug Martin
Can anyone tackle rookie running back Doug Martin? Our most elusive running back at 90.3, Martin is leading the league in missed tackles forced (48) and yards after contact per carry at 3.69. Despite the gaudy numbers, the San Diego Chargers were able to hold him in check last week as they missed only one tackle on his 19 carries. Still, Martin has turned the Tampa Bay running game from a weakness into a strength.
The Panthers may not be fully equipped to slow Martin down, but there are some key pieces in their front-7. The entire defensive line is grading in the red against the run, other than defensive end Greg Hardy who has had a nice all around season. He’s second in the league with a 10.1% Run Stop Percentage on hi s 149 snaps against the run. In addition to Hardy, rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly will be called upon to stop Martin. Kuechly’s production have improved since moving from outside to middle linebacker and he’s coming off the best game of his young career at +3.8 last week against the Denver Broncos. Since moving to the middle, Kuechly’s 11.9 Run Stop Percentage ranks sixth among the league’s inside linebackers.
Vincent Jackson vs. Young Panthers Cornerbacks
In his first year with Tampa Bay, wide receiver Vincent Jackson has been one of the best free agent pickups in the league. He’s currently our No. 6 WR at +15.6 and his 21.4 yards/catch is among the best in the league. Much of his production has come on the deep ball, as only Baltimore Ravens WR Torrey Smith has been targeted more than Jackson on throws on 20+ yards. Jackson’s 11 deep ball receptions lead the league and his 439 yards also rank at the top.
Trying to slow the deep ball is the young group of Panthers cornerbacks. Rookie Josh Norman has been a starter for most of the season and he’s had his expected rookie woes at times. He ranks 71st out of 107 qualifiers with a Yards/Cover Snap of 1.41. On the other side, second-year CB Josh Thomas has seen an increased workload in recent weeks, mostly on the outside in sub packages. He was off to a great start before running into Peyton Manning and the Broncos last week. Still, he’s given up only 1.06 Yards/Cover Snap on his 137 snaps in coverage. The two young cornerbacks will be a key part in slowing down Jackson and the big play Buccaneers offense.
Cam Newton’s Play Action vs. Buccaneers Linebackers and Safeties
Only four quarterbacks have used play action as much as QB Cam Newton (27.6%) and he’s been one of the best in the league at executing on such plays. He’s third in the league with 868 yards and fifth at 10.9 yards/reception. Despite the average Carolina running game, the play action has been effective because of the threat of Newton as a ball carrier. Given how many option plays the Panthers run, opponents have to respect the run from both the quarterback and running backs, and the result has created holes in the defensive backfield.
Who better to attack with play action than two rookies in the in middle of the Tampa Bay defense? LB Lavonte David and FS Mark Barron will have to show some discipline in keeping up with the three options Newton is usually presented in the backfield. David has been all over the field in recent weeks picking up 26 tackles in his past two games. He’s seventh among 4-3 outside linebackers at 0.87 Yards/Cover Snap.
Barron’s poor coverage grade of –5.9 has a lot to do with his missing seven tackles in the passing game, second-most in the league among safeties. He may find himself in good position against the play action, but he’ll have to do a better job of ensuring tackles to avoid giving up the big play.
Another player to watch is LB Mason Foster. He got caught out of position twice last week on play action passes to tight end Antonio Gates, so Newton may have a chance to make some plays right behind the middle linebacker.
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