3TFO: Buccaneers @ Panthers, Week 13
Tampa Bay will travel to Charlotte this weekend looking to play spoiler for the second week in a row. Despite a disastrous opening half of the season, the players are still playing hard, and in stringing together three consecutive wins they’ve done a lot do dispel the myth that this is a bad football team. There is definitely talent on the roster at several positions, and with Mike Glennon earning Offensive Rookie of the Month honors for November, this is a dangerous team surging on the back of a three-game winning streak.
A three-game win streak is nothing to laugh at, unless of course you’re the Carolina Panthers, winners of seven straight. They’ve been dominant on defense, holding opponents to under 300 yards per game. During their win streak, Carolina’s opponents have been held to under 14 points per game, and they’ve offensively put up 30 or more in four of those contests. Currently a trendy team to earn a wild card spot, the Panthers still must face the Saints twice before season’s end. Those will surely be tough games, but that means Carolina is firmly in the driver’s seat toward a first-round bye. Let’s look at a few points they’ll have to address in order to come out ahead.
Greg Hardy vs. Donald Penn
With a leg whip keeping the status of Charles Johnson in question this Sunday, the onus will fall upon Greg Hardy to get to the quarterback when the Panthers are on defense. Although Johnson may be the more highly paid of the two, Hardy has been anything but unproductive this season, registering 52 total pressures, third-most among his positional rivals. Perhaps most impressive is Hardy’s consistency. While you’ll often see a pass rusher’s stats fluctuate based on their weekly opposition, Hardy has recorded multiple pressures in every game this year, even recording two or more knockdowns on eight occasions.
Most (though not all) of that damage has come against left tackles, as Carolina sees fit to have Johnson attack the offense’s right, meaning that Donald Penn will be tasked with slowing down the former sixth-round pick. He’s not an elite tackle by any means, but Penn has only surrendered four sacks in full-time duty. With a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 94.2 (35th of 75 qualifying tackles) Penn’s pass protection has been thoroughly average this season, and while that’s hardly a complaint, he’ll have to be better than average to successfully fend off Hardy.
Kuechly and Company
Holding opponents to an average just over 80 yards per game on the ground is no small feat. It would be understandable such a team had a porous secondary, but Carolina’s pass defense has been stellar as well. Reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly has been as big a part of that as anyone. He’s recorded a stop in the run game on 13.2% of running plays he’s been in on, second among inside linebackers. Threatening to keep the DRoY title in Carolina, another year is first-round pick Star Lotulelei. The 23-year-old Lotulelei has wasted no time validating Carolina’s decision to pick him 14th, with the second best Run Stop Percentage among defensive tackles. Even the aforementioned Hardy has been a stout run defender, as he’s one of five defensive ends with a RSP over 10.0.
Mike Glennon is the one making headlines, but Bobby Rainey has been nearly as impressive, especially considering he went undrafted in last year’s draft. Though held in check against Detroit, Rainey has shown promise that he can be the back Tampa hoped Doug Martin would be. Forcing 11 missed tackles in his three-game career with the Bucs, Rainey’s Elusive Rating would land him behind only Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, if only he had enough snaps to qualify. A heavy dose of Rainey would do wonders for Glennon. The Bucs have used play action with Glennon less often than many (20.3%), but Glennon has a quarterback rating of 122.3 and gains 5.5 yards per attempt on play action passes.
The Carolina passing game isn’t much to write home about, but Cam Newton has been his usual destructive self when he runs the ball, scoring five times on the ground. He’s been especially productive when scrambling, earning 8.7 yards per carry when breaking contain and taking off. Close to 60% of Newton’s rushing yardage has come after contact, as he has used his 6’5” frame to plow through smaller defenders and shed arm tackles. In fact, Newton’s elusiveness has resulted in the average sack to occur 4.59 seconds after the snap, the second-longest time in the league.
The bright spots on the Buccaneer defense may be few and far between, but those bright spots shine incredibly brightly. Gerald McCoy is having a year for the ages and has recorded 70% more pressure than any other player involved in Tampa’s otherwise anemic pass rush. Facing a mobile quarterback like Newton may force him to trade some of his pass rushing prowess in exchange for solid gap integrity. Newton is almost certain to escape the pocket at some point, and when that happens, there have been few better than Lavonte David at generating stops. His 58 stops on the year are 10 better than the next best defensive player at any position. Not saving his skills purely for running plays, David has a quite ridiculous 23 pressures on just 77 pass rushes and may get several opportunities to bring Newton down in the pocket.