Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Carolina Panthers

TAMPA, Fla. -- It’s the season opener. It’s a matchup of division rivals. But Sunday’s game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers isn’t going to have a large audience.

Let’s turn to the map on 506sports.com, which shows which games will be broadcast in which markets. The FOX broadcast, which will feature Chris Myers and Ronde Barber, only will be shown in a limited portion of the country.

The game will be shown in most of Florida, all of the Carolinas, portions of Georgia (but not the Atlanta market) and New Orleans. That’s it.

The rest of the nation will get the game between San Francisco and Dallas. Back in the days of Steve Young and Troy Aikman, that would have made a lot of sense. But the rivalry between the 49ers and Cowboys isn’t what it once was.

The game between the Panthers and Bucs could end up being a good one, but only a small portion of the country will have access to it.
Cam Newton and Gerald McCoyDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton's sore ribs would prefer not to have any close encounters with Gerald McCoy.
If there's anything certain about the NFC South, it's uncertainty.

Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has claimed the championship in back-to-back years. Worst-to-first finishes have been common, and no team has been able to consistently dominate.

That's why Sunday's season opener between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is so significant. The Panthers won the division last year, and the Bucs finished last at 4-12. But this is a new year, and history has shown that anything is possible in the NFC South.

Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at the matchup.

Yasinskas: David, much has been made of the release of wide receiver Steve Smith, who I think was the best player in franchise history. I know Smith's age was a concern. But can any of the new wide receivers step up and match his production?

Newton: You think Smith was the best player in franchise history? I truly believe he is, although he probably would have a hard time believing me after what I'm about to say: The Panthers are better at wide receiver today than they were this time a year ago.

It's nothing against Smith, but he's 35 and admittedly not a true No. 1 receiver anymore. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin is. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he is the big target quarterback Cam Newton hasn't had. Benjamin is deceptively fast, too. But the biggest thing is he makes plays, whether it's over the middle in traffic or on the outside. If teams double-cover him, that will open things up for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson in the middle. It also will open coverage on Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, a pair of veterans I believe to be more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were last year. If the Bucs choose to single-cover Benjamin, Newton will look for him often. I know rookie receivers tend to struggle, but this one has a special feel.

The bigger worry for Carolina is its rebuilt offensive line. The Bucs added some talent around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. How big of a problem will that be for the Panthers?

Yasinskas: That should be a big concern for the Panthers. McCoy might be the best defensive tackle in the game, and the Bucs have worked hard to improve his supporting cast. They went out and signed tackle Clinton McDonald and end Michael Johnson to surround McCoy with some other players who can get after the quarterback. The guy who isn't getting a lot of attention but is worth keeping an eye on is Adrian Clayborn. He's a 2011 first-round draft pick who hasn't shown a lot so far, but the Bucs believe the new scheme will help them get more out of Clayborn.

Jordan Gross' retirement had to hurt Carolina. How good is this offensive line without him?

Newton: Athletically, it might be better. And in time, it might be better in terms of productivity. What it lacks is time together -- and Gross' leadership.

Byron Bell was considered average to perhaps slightly better than average at right tackle, but the Panthers believe because he is naturally left-handed he's better off on the left side. He's still susceptible to the bull rush from what I saw in the preseason, but he's every bit as strong and athletic as Gross. Amini Silatolu began last season as the starting left guard before suffering a season-ending knee injury. So he's solid.

It's the right side the Bucs -- particularly McCoy -- might be able to take advantage of. As good as rookie Trai Turner has looked at right guard, he just turned 21 and he missed the last two preseason games with a groin injury. The good news is he has Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil next to him. Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who wound up the starter at right guard last season, has moved out to right tackle after losing the left tackle battle. Again, he has great athleticism. He just needs time at the position.

How much different will the Bucs look under Lovie Smith than they did a year ago?

Yasinskas: The Bucs will look dramatically different -- and that's a good thing from their perspective. Many players were miserable under former coach Greg Schiano, and they tired of his rigid ways. Smith brings a fresh start, and the players are delighted with him and his schemes. The Bucs are going back to the Tampa 2 defense that was famous in the Tony Dungy years, and their offense will have a faster tempo. More importantly, Smith has brought a new culture to the Bucs. Players are having fun again.

Everyone in Tampa is curious about Newton's rib injury. Is he healthy enough to be the athletic quarterback we've all come to know?

Newton: The ribs are sore, and that isn't likely to change by Sunday. But Newton has thrown the ball well in practice, and his range of motion is good. He's tougher than most give him credit for being. To never have missed a start despite being hit twice as many times as any other quarterback over the past three seasons really is remarkable.

Coach Ron Rivera says he doesn't plan to change the game plan because of the injury, and that includes the read-option. But do I expect Newton to run 11 times, as he did at Tampa last season? I'd be stunned. The Panthers don't need Newton taking unnecessary hits. Having said that, if there is a play to be made, Newton won't hesitate to use his legs. He insists that he'll continue to dive headfirst instead of sliding, too. But I expect Newton to stay in the pocket as much as possible and throw the ball to Benjamin as often as he's open. Those two have quickly developed a bond.

What about Josh McCown, who spent two years on the Carolina bench? Is he really the answer at quarterback to make the Bucs a playoff contender?

Yasinskas: McCown is a great story. He has spent most of his career as a backup, but the Bucs are giving him the chance to be a starter. McCown played extremely well last season when Bears starter Jay Cutler was hurt, and he has history with Smith from their time together in Chicago. But is McCown capable of leading a team to the playoffs? I honestly don't know. I think he needs a lot of help from the defense and the running game. If he gets that, McCown could be effective as a passer.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC South

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The NFC South too shall pass.

Three of the division's first-round picks in May were wide receivers: Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at No. 7), Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints (No. 20) and Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers (No. 28). And offensive tackle Jake Matthews, drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Falcons, should give quarterback Matt Ryan more time to throw to his star wideouts.

 The Bucs had a void opposite Pro Bowl veteran Vincent Jackson and filled it with Evans, giving the team a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers. The Saints parted with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, two key components in their pass-happy offense. In steps versatile Cooks, who hauled in 128 receptions for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State. The Panthers released their No. 1 receiver -- diminutive, 35-year-old Steve Smith -- and replaced him with 6-5 Benjamin.

First-round picks aren't the only NFC South rookies with a chance to make some noise. Keep an eye on Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton for Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas for Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division's rookies, among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which NFC South rookie will make the biggest impact this season?



Vaughn McClure: Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans should get plenty of chances to show he was worthy of a top-10 selection. His size (6-5, 230 pounds) is enough to give opponents fits. Having a proven big receiver such as Vincent Jackson on the other side should help Evans make a smooth transition. Josh McCown is a smart quarterback who won't put Evans in bad situations. And Lovie Smith is the right head coach in terms of helping a rookie adjust to new surroundings. Evans has to overcome some of the knocks on him, including that he's too stiff and doesn't have great speed. It still will be hard to match up against him one-on-one, though, because the former basketball player will win the jump balls. And he has already impressed coaches with his range.

David Newton: This is a tough one because I really like the first-round picks for all four division teams. Each will make his team significantly better. But for me, it comes down to New Orleans' Brandin Cooks and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin because both receivers will get plenty of opportunities. I'm going with Cooks because he has quarterback Drew Brees and a veteran unit around him. Rookie receivers often struggle. Cooks will break that trend with 60-plus catches.

Mike Triplett: I'll go with Saints receiver Brandin Cooks because I think he'll have the flashiest season. You could make a great case for all four first-round picks, and Jake Matthews will probably play the most vital role because of the Falcons' need at offensive tackle. But I think Cooks will make the biggest splash -- and even be a strong contender for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even though New Orleans spreads the ball around so much, I expect Cooks to catch a high volume of passes and hit some home runs with deep balls and a punt return or two.

Pat Yasinskas: That's an easy one. I'm going with Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. He's going to be an instant starter, and he's going to be active in the passing game. Vincent Jackson remains the top receiver, but Evans will be a nice No. 2 to start his career. Evans someday will be a No. 1 receiver, but for now he'll be a complement to Jackson. Evans and Jackson, both 6-5, will form one of the league's largest starting receiver tandems, and that's going to cause problems for opposing defenses.


Second Down

What is your team's top position battle to monitor in training camp?



McClure: Although there will be plenty of competition among Falcons linebackers, I'm turning my attention to the running backs. Steven Jackson is the starter. He turns 31 next month and probably has one good season left in him -- but if he is slowed by nagging injuries, the Falcons will turn to someone else. They drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round with thoughts of grooming him as the three-down back of the future. If he looks as good in pads as he did in shorts, Jackson might have a battle on his hands. Even the battle for the third running back will be interesting with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith in the mix. The running backs, as a whole, have an improved offensive line to run behind. Let's see whether that helps them.

Newton: Most might say the left tackle battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. And although finding a replacement for retired Jordan Gross is key, the Carolina competition that intrigues me the most will be between Charles Godfrey and Melvin White at cornerback. Godfrey is making the transition from safety to corner after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Godfrey played cornerback for most of his college career at Iowa before the former Panthers coaching staff moved him to safety in 2008. Although White was adequate last season, Godfrey is a more physical player with the potential to be a shutdown corner. If he can win that battle, it's a huge upgrade for the league's No. 2 defense.

Triplett: The battle at cornerback is by far the most compelling on the Saints' roster. For one thing, it's a vital position in today's NFL. For another thing, the Saints are loaded with fascinating candidates behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis. Does surefire Hall of Famer Champ Bailey have enough left in the tank? Can former first-round pick Patrick Robinson bounce back from injury? Can third-year pro Corey White take that next step? Can rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste make an instant impact? Can second-year pro Rod Sweeting or someone else emerge as a dark horse? And did I mention this is an important position?

Yasinskas: The best competition will be at tight end. The fact Austin Seferian-Jenkins was drafted in the second round probably means he'll get the first shot at the starting position, but don't overlook his competition -- theoretically, the Bucs have four guys who could end up as the starter. Free-agent pickup Brandon Myers can catch and block. Tim Wright had 54 catches last season and has worked to improve his blocking. Veteran Luke Stocker is returning from injury; he isn't a huge threat as a receiver, but he could play a big role as a blocker.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?




McClure: I like safety William Moore taking on more of a leadership role and sparking the Falcons' defense, and I like receiver Roddy White rebounding from last year's injury-plagued campaign. But the guy I'm going to single out is return man Devin Hester. After his role diminished in Chicago, people forgot he was the greatest return man of all time. All Hester needed was a change of scenery: In watching him during organized team activities, it was evident he still has his quickness. With special-teams mastermind Keith Armstrong drawing up the blocking scheme, Hester could be the X factor in the Falcons' quest to return to playoff contention. Whatever Hester accomplishes on offense would be a bonus.

Newton: It feels strange calling wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a veteran since this is his first season with the Panthers, but the sixth-year player out of Rutgers was the first to come to mind with this question. Underwood was brought in to replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver. Ginn went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for five touchdowns with the Panthers last season before moving on to Arizona. Underwood had 24 catches for four touchdowns in Tampa Bay last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was high on him when they worked together in Jacksonville. Throw in what wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl will teach Underwood, I could see him doubling his production in 2014.

Triplett: I've been touting Saints defensive end/tackle Akiem Hicks all offseason. He's a third-year guy who's big and really powerful at 6-5, 324 pounds, but athletic for his size. A former third-round pick out of the University of Regina in Canada, he had 4.5 sacks last year in his first stint as a full-time starter. I'm not sure Hicks will post 10-plus sacks as an interior guy, which means he might not crack the Pro Bowl. But that's the level of impact he can have as someone who can both push the pocket and stuff the run. Opposing offensive linemen in the NFC South certainly know who he is.

Yasinskas: Middle linebacker Mason Foster is set up for a big season. Foster has had a decent career to this point, but he's about to get a lot better. Hardy Nickerson and Brian Urlacher excelled as middle linebackers in coach Lovie Smith's defense, and now it might be Foster's turn. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David is the star of this unit, but Foster has a chance to be a nice complementary player. Smith likes to have his middle linebackers call the defensive plays, and that means Foster will be putting on the radio helmet this year.


Fourth Down

What is your predicted order of finish in the NFC South standings?



McClure: That's a tough one. I see a lot of parity within the division, and the Buccaneers really have a chance to close the gap based on their offseason moves, including the hiring of Smith as coach. But I'm going to go with New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina. As long as the Saints have Drew Brees in the lineup, they have a chance to be contenders. The Falcons bulked up on both sides of the line, which should bode well for them in terms of putting up points on offense and preventing big plays on defense. The Bucs' defense could be devastating. Carolina will sorely miss Jordan Gross and Steve Smith -- and it will show.

Newton: Since nobody has repeated as NFC South champion since the division was formed in 2002, it would seem a bit crazy to pick the Panthers, who edged New Orleans for the title last season. The Saints are considered the favorites by most, and it's hard to argue otherwise with Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham on offense. But I'm a believer that defense wins, and even with changes to the secondary, there's not a better defense in the division than Carolina's. I like what Atlanta has done in free agency and the draft, so I look for the Falcons to finish second with the Saints third and Tampa Bay fourth. Having said that, I could see the division winner going 9-7 or 10-6. It's going to be tight.

Triplett: I'm confident the Saints will finish first with at least 11 wins. Although their offense lost some key pieces, it's still one of the NFL's elite, and their defense is legit. After that it's a virtual three-way tie. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the others flirt with a playoff run or finish last. I'll go with the Buccaneers second because they're on the rise. They have a great defense and run game and now seem to have a solid coach and quarterback. I'll pick Carolina third because it lost so much in the receiving corps and secondary. As much as I like the Falcons' passing attack, there are questions everywhere else.

Yasinskas: Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers. This was a tough call because all four teams have a chance to be good. I gave the nod to the Saints because they have Brees, the best quarterback in the division. I think Atlanta will have a dramatic turnaround after last season's debacle. Tampa Bay is going to be much more competitive than last year. Carolina might have taken a step back with some of its offseason moves, but I still wouldn't count the Panthers out.

 
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.
There's nothing like following a little offseason taunting between NFC South rivals over weather.

Unless, that is, your furnace has been broken since Thursday in the NFC South city that is being bombarded by Winter Storm Pax that at this moment has no rival.

It all began in Charlotte, three miles from my freezing abode. The person in charge of the Carolina Panthers' official Twitter site tweeted a picture of snow blanketing Bank of America Stadium.


Then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who perhaps are stinging from a couple of losses to the NFC South champion Panthers this past season, tweeted a picture of the entrance to One Buc Place.


According to my trusty weather app, it is 72 degrees and sunny in Tampa. It is 30 and snowing in Charlotte.

And if anybody cares, it is 49 and dry in my house.

Not to be outdone, the Atlanta Falcons got into the mix by tweeting a picture of quarterback Matt Ryan, known as "Matty Ice."


Ryan did indeed have rather cold performances against Carolina and Tampa, going 1-3 against his rivals, including six interceptions in the three losses.

The Bucs apparently thought that was the message, reminding us in a tweet including a picture of cornerback Darrelle Revis.


Revis, by the way, had no interceptions against Atlanta or Carolina this season. But don't let facts get in the way of a good tweet.

The Panthers retaliated in this now Twitter weatherfare by challenging the Bucs and Falcons to a snowball fight. They even brought New Orleans into the mix, suggesting the Saints and Falcons might have to carpool.

That could take a while if Atlanta becomes gridlocked for 24 hours like it was a few weeks ago when Winter Storm Leon passed through.

Sorry, that was cold.



Atlanta, in an attempt to forget a 4-12 injury-plagued season, began looking ahead to 2014 with a forecast tweet.


The Falcons forgot to mention their not-so-hot defense.

Sorry, cold again.

Not to be left out, the Tampa Bay mascot that refers to himself as @TheCaptainFear joined in.



To which the Panthers tweeted -- and this may have been the best of all -- "Ice Up Son!"

In case you hadn't heard, this was the message Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith gave to New England cornerback Aqib Talib during a Monday night victory when Bank of America Stadium wasn't covered in snow.



Yeah, baby, it's cold outside.

And if you're writing this blog, it's cold inside, too.
Lavonte David and Steve SmithUSA Today SportsLavonte David and the Bucs stand between Steve Smith's Panthers and an eighth straight win.
The Carolina Panthers have won seven straight games to set up a big NFC South showdown with New Orleans in two weeks, but they're not looking past Sunday's division game against Tampa Bay.

The Buccaneers (3-8) are also on a hot streak with three straight victories. Their only loss since a 31-13 setback to Carolina (8-3) on Oct. 24 was a 27-24 overtime thriller against the Seattle Seahawks, who at 10-1 have the best record in the NFC.

How will they do this time around? ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas break down the rematch.

Newton: So Pat, the Bucs finally seem like they're playing at the level many expected them to before the season. What has been the difference?

Yasinskas: David, there have been a lot of different factors in the Bucs' surge. But I'd say the best thing to point to is the Bucs have been finishing games. That's something they weren't doing well at all early in the season. Beyond that, this team finally, firmly bought into coach Greg Schiano's system. You can see Schiano's philosophy -- play aggressive defense, run the ball well on offense and take some shots down the field in the passing game -- shining through. It took a lot longer than anyone would have liked, but the Bucs are clicking now and it might save Schiano's job.

Speaking of clicking, Carolina's on fire. What's been going right for the Panthers?

Newton: Much the same, Pat. They're finishing games, and the play of quarterback Cam Newton is a big reason. He led them to three straight fourth-quarter comebacks and two straight last-minute comebacks. The fourth-quarter comebacks are one more than he had in his first 40 starts combined. He's consistently making big plays when he has to, like the fourth-and-10 pass to Steve Smith from his own 20 with 2:33 remaining against Miami. Those things didn't happen in the past. But you could see it even in the first game against Tampa, which on the surface looked like a blowout. Remember, it was only 14-6 midway through the third quarter. It's all about confidence and players believing in one another. Speaking of quarterbacks, Mike Glennon was just getting his feet wet the first time these teams met. How has he improved?

Yasinskas: David, Glennon has improved every week since he's been the starter, and he's been a pleasant surprise. He may not be spectacular, but he's been solid. That's what Schiano wants out of a quarterback. Glennon doesn't need to be spectacular, but Schiano wants him to play mistake-free football and hit on a few deep passes. He's thrown only one interception in his past six games and he's getting better on the deep ball. Glennon hasn't shown he's elite yet, but he has shown he's a decent NFL quarterback. In Schiano's scheme, that might be enough.

As long as we're talking about quarterbacks and schemes, let's talk about Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula. Back when I was covering the whole division, I said Shula had gotten a bad rap in his previous stops in the NFL and at the University of Alabama. I thought Shula could be a big success with the talent he has to work with. Do you see that coming true?

Newton: Very perceptive, and you're right. Shula's philosophy is deemed conservative by many, but it's highly successful with the right personnel. How ironic, the former Alabama quarterback needed a former Auburn quarterback (Newton) to get much deserved notoriety. What I like about Shula's offense is the rhythm and balance. He's not afraid to pound DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert into the line for gains of two, three and four yards to keep the clock running and set up short third-down plays. He's also willing to turn a player like Newton loose enough to take advantage of his athletic abilities. I attribute much of Newton's sudden maturity to Shula's guidance and play calling. He's helped Newton learn it's not a one-man show, that it takes all the pieces working together to be successful.

Since we're on Carolina's offense, Pat, what will Tampa do differently this time to stop a unit that rushed for 129 yards and a quarterback who ran for 50 the first time they met?

Yasinskas: David, one of the biggest problems Tampa Bay's defense has had this year is losing contain against mobile quarterbacks. They have to do a better job of that if they're going to have any chance at slowing down Newton. That means the defensive ends and linebackers will have to prevent Newton from getting outside. This defense is good against traditional running games so, Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Tolbert aren't a huge concern. That's not the case with Newton. The Bucs also have to be concerned about Newton as a passer, and the best way to solve that is to put pressure on him. Tampa Bay has done a good job of pressuring quarterbacks lately. I know Carolina had some problems on the offensive line early in the season. Have the Panthers solved that?

Newton: They have for the most part, Pat. Jordan Gross is playing as well as any tackle in the league. So is center Ryan Kalil. But the running game -- outside of Newton -- has struggled of late as teams have stacked the box to stop it. Newton has led the team in rushing the past two games, and that's not what the coaches want even though the results have been good. Williams, who was third in the league in rushing early in the season, hasn't had more than 46 yards in six consecutive games. He's had only 45 combined the past two games. Overall, the Panthers are averaging more than 100 yards rushing between Williams, Tolbert, Stewart and Newton, but without Newton they wouldn't be close. So the Bucs may have to pick their poison. It should be interesting to watch.

Live blog: Panthers at Buccaneers

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for Thursday night football between NFC South rivals the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET. See you there.

Cam Newton and Mike JamesGetty Images, USA Today SportsCam Newton and Mike James will compete in a Week 8 NFC South matchup on Thursday.
The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't been relevant on a national basis in a long time.

But, at least for one night, that will change. The winless Bucs host the Panthers (3-3) in a Thursday night prime-time game.

ESPN.com Buccaneers writer Pat Yasinskas and Panthers writer David Newton review the matchup:

Yasinskas: David, Carolina coach Ron Rivera got off to 2-8 starts in each of his first two seasons before finishing strong. The Panthers have strung together a couple of wins. Are they coming together faster this year and do they have what it takes to make a playoff run?

Newton: Not sure if it has to do with coming together faster as much as having more pieces to put it all together, combined with the understanding of what it takes. The addition of first- and second-round picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short at tackle has improved the defense substantially. The Rams tried to keep middle linebacker Luke Kuechly from being a factor last week with a special scheme, and the two rookies responded with a combined four tackles for loss and nine tackles overall.

Offensively, quarterback Cam Newton finally has gotten comfortable spreading the ball around to players such as Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon LaFell, instead of relying heavily on wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen. And Newton is playing at a level of consistency and confidence he hasn't had since his days playing at Auburn. The Panthers finally seem to have an identity on both sides of the ball, whereas the past two years they've been searching for one. That has raised confidence and created an attitude -- a belief -- that they can compete with anyone. It was there after they lost 12-7 to Seattle in the opener, but it took getting a few wins in a row for it to completely take hold.

Speaking of confidence, it can't be very high for the Bucs, who released franchise quarterback Josh Freeman a few weeks ago, and now apparently are without running back Doug Martin. Is this team in danger of besting -- if that's the way to put it -- the 1976 Bucs that went 0-14?

Yasinskas: That's not out of the realm of possibility. It's tough to go winless. But, right now, I have a hard time envisioning the Bucs getting a win, because they appear to be in such disarray -- on and off the field. The Freeman saga and the repeated cases of MRSA have been a distraction; it seems like something new and weird is popping up every day. On the field, the Bucs are doing things such as committing 11 penalties in Sunday's loss to Atlanta. I've covered some bad football and some craziness through the years. But the Bucs are combining bad football with strange, off-the-field stuff more than I've ever seen, and there’s no end in sight with speculation running rampant about the future of coach Greg Schiano.

The injury to Martin is just the latest stroke of bad luck, and it forces rookie Mike James into the starting lineup. Martin had been one of the few bright spots, and had the ability to take some of the pressure off rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.

Speaking of Glennon and pressure, I think Carolina's front seven is as good as any in the league. Do the Panthers even need to blitz or can they generate enough pressure with their front four?

Newton: They'll blitz occasionally, but it'll be in strategic spots as you saw on the first play against St. Louis. Strong safety Quintin Mikell came in and tipped the pass as it left the arm of Sam Bradford, resulting in a pick-six for cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. The week before, linebacker Thomas Davis blitzed twice and went in basically untouched for sacks. They're aggressive, but smart with it.

You're right, though, the front four is playing extremely well. They're stuffing the run and forcing quarterbacks to throw faster than they want, which is allowing a secondary that was suspect two games into the season to make big plays. Greg Hardy has been a big part of that playing tackle, as well as his natural end position. He's way off the 50-sack goal he mentioned to you this summer, but opposing quarterbacks know he's there.

While we're on this topic, the Panthers have been particularly strong against quarterbacks who aren't mobile. That seems to be the case this week with Glennon. Is this a nightmare matchup for him, and how has he handled the pressure of starting so far?

Yasinskas: Glennon has handled the pressure as well as you could hope for, under the circumstances. He has shown improvement each week, and he's a composed guy. But I think the matchup with Carolina could be his biggest test yet. He hasn't seen a pass rush such as Carolina's, and it doesn't help that the Bucs likely will be without injured guard Carl Nicks. Tampa Bay's offensive line hasn't played very well this season and that's a concern. Although Glennon has shown a bit more mobility than I thought he had, he still is pretty slow. That makes Carolina's pass rush scary.

Speaking of offensive lines, when I was still covering the whole NFC South back in the preseason, Carolina's offensive line was one of the team's biggest question marks. How has that unit performed?

Newton: Amazingly, the O-line has held together pretty well, considering the loss of starting left guard Amini Silatolu. Sure, they've had their bad moments. The seven sacks surrendered against Arizona was the low point, but several of those you can blame on Newton for holding the ball too long. And they played well enough in the first half for Carolina to be up by two touchdowns, were it not for the dropped passes before everything fell apart.

If I'm the Panthers, I would be concerned with Tampa tackle Gerald McCoy. The Panthers have struggled against a couple of premier pass-rushers. Buffalo's Mario Williams and his 4.5 sacks in Week 2 come to mind. But it's hard to be too tough on this group since the running game has been one of the best in the league.

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Checking NFC South QB snap counts

August, 27, 2013
8/27/13
11:10
AM ET
Last week, we made a big deal about how Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman had taken so few snaps in the first two preseason games.

Well, that trend changed in the exhibition game against Miami on Saturday night. Freeman played 41 snaps (although he was ineffective for most of the game). That means he now has played 62 snaps this preseason. That leaves Freeman tied for 25th among the presumed 32 starting quarterbacks.

Freeman isn’t even the least used NFC South quarterback anymore. That honor now belongs to Drew Brees, who is No. 27 with 60 snaps.

Carolina’s Cam Newton is No. 11 with 80 snaps an Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is tied for ninth at 81.

#NFLRank Nos. 51-60

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
12:49
PM ET
The latest installment of #NFLRank (Nos. 51-60) is out and the NFC South has one player on the offense and two players on the defense. Let’s take a look.

Offense

Martin
51. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin

Stats & Info: Martin had 1,926 yards from scrimmage last season, the third-most by a rookie in NFL history behind Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James. In Week 9, Martin became the first player in NFL history with three rushing TDs of 45-plus yards in single game

Yasinskas comment: This ranking might be a little too low for Martin. He had a great rookie season and is only going to get better.

Defense

McCoy
McCoy
51. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy

Stats & Info: Since drafting McCoy in 2010, the Buccaneers defense has allowed 4 yards per rush with him on the field and 5 yards per rush when he is off the field.

Yasinskas comment: McCoy stayed healthy last year and ended up making the Pro Bowl. As long as he stays healthy, McCoy is one of the league’s best defensive tackles.

Johnson
55. Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson

Stats & Info: Johnson led all defensive linemen in the league with seven forced fumbles last season. He also had 12.5 sacks, third among defensive linemen behind J.J. Watt (20.5) and Cameron Wake (15.0).

Yasinskas comment: Johnson has made Carolina fans forget all about Julius Peppers.

NFC South showing to date:

Offense

51. Martin

65. New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston

70. Carolina center Ryan Kalil

71. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith

86. New Orleans guard Ben Grubbs

87. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson

98. Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross

100. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton

Defense

51. McCoy

55. Johnson

80. Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel

86. Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon

93. Atlanta safety William Moore

96. Atlanta defensive end Osi Umenyiora

97. Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron

98. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David

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