ReFo: Panthers @ Buccaneers, Week 8
Ben Stockwell shares notes from Carolina's cruising victory over Tampa Bay on Thursday Night.
ReFo: Panthers @ Buccaneers, Week 8
The winning streak continues for the Carolina Panthers, now extended to three games, and after strolling past division rival Tampa Bay, the Panthers now sit above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008 season when they won the NFC South. Jumping out to an eight-point lead at the half (trading touchdowns for field goals with the Bucs), Carolina never remotely looked like being pegged back in the second half.
The Panthers will have been pleased to coast through this game, never really being pressed to find another gear to blow the Bucs out of it. Another poor defensive performance by the Bucs again highlighted problems they have created for themselves both in terms of personnel decision and some truly baffling coverage schemes and execution which continue to leave multiple receivers open and quarterbacks spoiled for choice in terms of who to hit for big plays.
With a young quarterback under center, the Bucs’ offense was never going to keep pace with an inconsistent offensive line performance that afforded their signal-caller or Mike James, in his first career start at running back, the time and space to really build any impetus and keep this game close.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
Newton Shows His Dual Threat
In a performance more about efficiency than spectacular plays, Cam Newton (+2.6) displayed the composure and patience to simply take what the Bucs gave him so generously — even if he did need to occasionally evade a pass rusher to exploit the blown coverage by the Bucs, such as for the opening touchdown pass to Greg Olsen. Working mostly in the short areas, Newton was afforded the time to pick his spots with an average depth of target of only 7.1 yards (season average of 9.4) in spite of holding the ball for on average 2.6 seconds. 23 of Newton’s 32 targets were aimed within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, completing all but four of those for 161 yards and both of his touchdowns. Newton added to this with 50 yards and a score on the ground doing, as ever, good work on designed runs (four attempts, 23 yards) and on scrambles (four attempts, 30 yards) which also included his touchdown. Newton did all he needed in this game to usher the Panthers towards the victory without adding (or needing to) the spark that might have brought this game to life.
Star Continues to Rise
After his setback against the Vikings in Minnesota, Star Lotulelei has re-discovered the form with which he started the season earning positive grades in each of the two games since and adding the stats to the fine work he does off of the stat sheet. Still doing the selfless work he needs to do against the run, Lotulelei matched his pass rushing record from the victory over St Louis on Sunday (a hit and two hurries) and added another three stops (including one chasing down a pass in the left flat) to take his total in the last two weeks to nine, more than in his first five career games combined. After another strong outing against the run in this game Lotulelei now possesses our third-highest run defense grade for the season among defensive tackles (+9.1) ahead of the rest of Week 8 — only Damon Harrison and Brandon Mebane lead him in that regard. The improvement that Lotulelei is helping to provide inside for the Panthers, even if he hasn’t been as consistent as Sheldon Richardson in the race to be rookie of the year, is filling Panthers fans with optimism that their long-term struggles at defensive tackle are over.
Tolbert Back to Prominence
The Panthers’ backfield combination of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams wasn’t the dominant force for as long as would have been hoped, but in his second season in Carolina the third member of that backfield, Mike Tolbert is rising to prominence. Last season’s poster boy for versatility in the backfield was Marcel Reece, but Tolbert is doing his best in recent weeks to remind people of his claim for that title. Tolbert has racked up five touchdowns this season and put up a combined 64 yards on the ground and through the air against the Bucs last night. This marked the second time in three weeks that Tolbert has earned a +1.0 grade or higher as both a runner and a receiver in the same game after doing so against Minnesota two weeks ago. The only blot on Tolbert’s performance was some suspect pass protection, surrendering a sack and a hurry in the second and third quarters, respectively.
Tampa Bay – Three Performances of Note
Pass Rush More Fizzle Than Fire
I’ll try not to flog a dead horse here but this performance reinforced the glaringly obvious point of what a poor personnel decision the Buccaneers made in choosing not to retain Michael Bennett this offseason. While Bennett has recorded 33 total pressures and is second among 4-3 defensive ends league wide in terms of Pass Rushing Productivity, the Buccaneers can generate virtually none. While their 17 total pressures ties their third-highest output of the season, only six of those came as a result of beating a blocker, 11 of the 17 came by way of an unblocked pass rusher either by offensive design or defensive overload. Only three players registered multiple pressures and two of those were corners (Leonard Johnson and Michael Adams). For the season, the Buccaneers still have only one defensive lineman with a positive pass rushing grade, Gerald McCoy who was held to only one hurry by the Panthers this week, resulting in his first negative pass rush grade of the season.
Rare Bright Spots Up Front
Considering the investment in their offensive line, and yes injuries have played their part, the Buccaneers do not have the dominant unit up front that their investment would dictate that they should. One of their highly paid guards once again flattered to deceive with Davin Joseph struggling in pass protection, especially late on in garbage time giving up some alarmingly quick pressure and resorting to a holding penalty on one occasion. In the search for positives from this unit, perhaps the brightest performance in the entire game for Tampa Bay you’d settle on Jeremy Zuttah who earned his highest grade of the season (+3.7) in spite of having to switch positions half way through the game. Called on to move to center (where he started the season) after a series of poor shotgun snaps by Ted Larsen, he was nearly flawless in pass protection (one hurry allowed) and provided some solid run blocks on the rare occasions that the Buccaneers kept the ball on the ground. Zuttah has now bracketed a barren spell from Week 3 to Week 6 (-10.5) with another pair of solid displays to match his start to the season. Looking for any positives to cling to, Darrelle Revis aside, Buccaneer fans will hope Zuttah can sustain this kind of form through the rest of the season.
Hot Start a Distant Memory
Having earned a grade of +2.0 or higher in each of the first two weeks of the season Mason Foster has started to regress to the sort of performances we saw in his first two seasons with the Bucs, bottoming out last night with his worst single-game grade since Week 9 of his rookie season. As with his early season form, Foster made a solid start thanks to his pass rushing in this game with a hurry and a tipped pass that led to a pass defense for Revis, but subsequently struggled in both run defense and pass coverage, the bread and butter for an inside linebacker. Foster registered only one stop all game long, was neutralized by blockers, beaten by ball carriers in the open field, and struggled to diagnose and stay with routes out of the backfield. Foster also added a missed tackle late in the third quarter, his seventh of the season already matching his total from 16 games last season.
– Having gone six straight games without surrendering a sack Demar Dotson allowed one for the second game in a row last night.
– For the second straight week, Mike Tolbert played more snaps (38) than DeAngelo Williams (30) and the two are now tied for the most snaps in the Carolina backfield (Newton aside) with 264 each.
– Lavonte David, as ever, recorded the most defensive stops on either side in this game taking his season total to 38, one behind Paul Posluszny for the league lead after seven games.
PFF Game Ball
Making the Buccaneers pay for poor defense on the ground and through the air Cam Newton put in a display plenty solid enough to take the Panthers above .500 for the first in his career.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.