Monday, November 13, 2006

MNF Preview: Bucs at Panthers

Tampa Bay Bucs (2-6)
@ Carolina Panthers (4-4)
8:30 PM ESPN

The struggling Bucs travel to Charlotte to take on the disappointing Panthers in an NFC South showdown that has been spirited, and extremely one-sided, the past few years.
Carolina has won six of the past seven meetings including a costly defeat for Tampa Bay on September 24th, when Bucs QB Chris Simms was lost for the year after he suffered a spleen injury. Tonight the Bucs will be further depleted when defensive starters LB Shelton Quarles(knee), DE Simeon Rice (shoulder) and DE Ellis Wyms (ankle) will not play due to injuries. For a Buccaneer defense already on the far side of mediocre- 342 YPG allowed(26th in NFL), 134 rushing YPG (27th) and 21.6 points allowed per game- it could add up to a very long night for the aging unit.

It's interesting how most of the teasers leading up to this game have featured DB Ronde Barber as the Buc representative of the game. With unproven rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski nationally unknown outside of Toledo & Pittsburgh, and flashy RB Cadillac Williams suffering from a Michael Clayton-esque sophomore slump (453 yards, 1TD) the only guy well known outside of DBrooks and Mike Alstott is Ronde. He is the face of the franchise and its defensive leader, along with Brooks, and the possibility of the Bucs winning this game rest squarely on the cornerback's shoulders. Mr. 20-20 (career picks & sacks) will have to be a factor in this game; the Bucs will need his pressure off the edge on blitzes since they will be without pass rushers Rice & Wyms, and he will need to patrol the backfield relentlessly & shut down WRs Steve Smith & old friend Meshawn Johnson. In their last meeting at Ray Jay Smith (7 catches, 112 yards) and Johnson (7 catches, 97 yards, 1TD, 1 TD rushing) torched the Bucs early & often in the Panther's 26-24 win. Barber probably has to score, or the defense will need to come up with a couple of big plays, in order for the Bucs to have a chance.

Since the defense will be stretched thin tonight it's going to be up to the offense to get something done. Gradkowski is learning on the job and like any greenhorn he is doing some things well (6TDs to only 1 INT) and others not so well (52% completions, 73.7 QB rating.) But Tampa Bay needs to try and run the football; for some reason Chucky has abandoned the running game in too many games this season, including 25 attempts for 64 yards in the last meeting, and that's part of the reason Williams has so few yards. Tampa Bay is only averaging 82 yards/game on the ground, 32nd in the league. Yikes. What happened to "pound the rock", ey Chucky?

Gradkowski is going to have to make some throws of longer than 10 yards- he's only 15 for 48 in that department, but has had a few dropped (ahem, Galloway)- but the Bucs will have to methodically move the chains via the running game to keep the potentially explosive Panther offense off the field for as long as possible. All of this is a tall task against a defense that lives to chew up quarterbacks and spit them out, led by fearsome DE Julius Peppers. Gradkowski may be running for his life out there, but unlike Simms he can scramble and should not suffer the same intestine-crushing fate of his teammate.

Do the Bucs have a chance in this one? It's the NFL- the Browns have won 2 on the road- so anything is possible. But what are the odds of a team missing 3 defensive starters and starting a rookie quarterback going into an opposing stadium and knocking off a former Super Bowl team that is hungry for a return trip? I'd say slim to none, but I hope the Bucs don't turn back into the Yucks and keep the score respectable.

MY PICK: Panthers 24, Bucs 17

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