When the Bucs and the Panthers face each other later today at Raymond James Stadium most eyes will be on the quarterback manning the home sideline in Tampa Bay. Tom Brady and the Bucs offense have been a shadow of themselves in 2020-2021, leading to a lackluster season for a team that sports half of the seventh best-scoring defense in the league.
However, in my opinion, most eyes should be on the opposing team’s quarterback.
The blueprint for both teams in this game seems pretty simple. The Bucs will most likely hinder their offense’s potential through maddening decision making in terms of play-calling and frustrating execution errors. They will finish with 17-23 points. The run game will have a flash or two of a good run, but has many more tries that go for little to nothing. Most points fall late in the second half.
On the other side of the ball, the game plan for each team is also very simple. The Panthers are going to try to establish their running game and control the ball for as much of the day as possible. This has been their blueprint for success over the past seven games.
The Panthers are 3-1 over their past four games. In the three wins, they average 45 carries to just 22 passes. In the lone loss, Carolina passed more than they walked (16 runs to 23 passes).
Bucs has to make sure Darnold wins the game
By creating a powerful running game, Carolina has been able to turn de facto starting quarterback Sam Darnold into a game manager who can take easy action shots to wide open receivers in the most advantageous positions. Even including the only loss on that stretch, Darnold has thrown for 759 yards on just 88 catches. That equates to 8.6 yards per attempt, which would rank second in the NFL behind Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa if the number qualified.
Despite the great output per pass, Darnold is asked to make easy throws. According to Pro Football Focus, he has only six “big time throws” over those four games.
These passes largely come from deep action shots. Nearly half (45%) of Darnold’s pass attempts come from a fake play. And this is where Darnold has been dangerous. His PFF figure for action attempts is an extremely impressive 80.7, while that figure drops to a very average 64.9 for straight rebounds. Despite the great output per pass, Darnold is asked to make easy throws. According to PFF, he only has six “big time throws” over those four games.
If the Bucs can set the tone early by limiting the Panthers running game to first and second down, they could force the Panthers to rely on Darnold to win the game. And with a career turnover-worthy playing percentage of over 4%, that bodes well for the Bucs defense to get some turnovers that can flip field position and create extra points that have been hard to come by this season .
Bucs Run Defense should play sound
That’s all great in theory, but first thing is first, right? The Bucs will have to stop the Panthers’ vaunted running game. With running backs Chuba Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman leading the way, it’s up to Tampa Bay’s defensive linemen Viat Vea, Akiem Hicks, Will Gholston, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Dedrin Senat and Logan Hall to maintain their run gaps/fits and not easy lanes to exploit.
They will also need to absorb duplicate teams and keep linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White clean so they can play fast and join the Panthers quickly. If they can do that, they can force the Panthers into third and longs. Third and longs will force Darnold to win without the help of game action. If the Bucs can do this, they actually have a very good chance of winning the game and thus the NFC South this afternoon.
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