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By STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Published September 24, 2006
THE BASICS: Who is this 0-2 team visiting Raymond James Stadium today?
It hasn't looked much like the Carolina Panthers, not when you consider they've given up 375 yards per game and scored just one offensive touchdown.
But the Panthers, like the Bucs, have veteran leadership on both sides, so don't look for those trends to continue.
Instead, expect savvy quarterback Jake Delhomme to find a way to get the offense going, especially with the expected return of receiver Steve Smith. Smith has been out since the preseason with a hamstring injury, and his absence has left the offense hamstrung. But pairing him with physical possession receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who will be making his return to Tampa, will add another dimension.
The offensive threat is not only limited to the passing game, though. Expect rookie running back DeAngelo Williams to get more and more touches after gaining 5.7 yards per carry in a loss to the Vikings last week. Williams, a first-round pick, will probably combo with veteran DeShaun Foster for a potent 1-2 punch.
If they can get their running game going, it is going to set up the passing game, and the Bucs could find themselves off-balance.
On defense, the Panthers have been particularly weak against the run. They have given up 392 yards through two games, though 252 came against Michael Vick and the Falcons in Week 1. (Maybe they can compare notes with the Bucs on that topic.) There was more concern last week when Chester Taylor piled up 113 yards in the Vikings' win.
While the Panthers' defenders work through their struggles, this much is clear: Defensive end Julius Peppers is in midseason form (as evidenced by his three sacks and eight tackles against Minnesota). He always has been a load for Tampa Bay tackles Kenyatta Walker and Anthony Davis, the latter of whom is considered a better run-blocker than pass protector.
Smith vs. Bolden: It appears likely that Steve Smith will play and Brian Kelly will not, meaning Carolina's star receiver will be covered much of that day by backup CB Juran Bolden. It's a matchup the Panthers will try to exploit, especially considering Bolden's tendency to gamble (and not always successfully).
Peppers vs. Walker: This pair will do their biannual dance today, and maybe the dance floor will continue to level a bit. Kenyatta Walker had one of his best games of 2005 against Julius Peppers, when the 6-foot-7 end registered only a pair of tackles and a pass deflection in a Tampa Bay win. It was a much-improved performance from the season's first meeting, when Peppers racked up three sacks and Walker couldn't keep track of the snap count.
Rice vs. Gross: Whoever draws Simeon Rice from week to week has a tough assignment, but Jordan Gross handled it admirably last season. The Bucs' sackmaster was a nonfactor in both games, and considering he will be coming off a knee injury sustained during practice last week, he might not be up to the task of facing a formidable tackle such as Gross.
INJURIES: Out - Linebacker Dan Morgan (head). Doubtful - Safety Shaun Williams (foot). Questionable - Receiver Drew Carter (hand), running back Nick Goings (thigh), center Josh Hartwig (groin), cornerback Ken Lucas (neck), receiver Steve Smith (hamstring). Probable - Linebacker Jason Kyle (shoulder).
BUC BEATER: Smith is likely to play today, and that means the Bucs have to be keenly aware of his position on every snap. Smith was dangerous against the Bucs (and everyone else) last season, averaging 104.5 yards.
SERIES: The Panthers lead 6-5. Though the Bucs won four of the first five meetings beginning in 1995, Carolina won five straight from 2003-05. The Bucs snapped the streak with a 20-10 road victory last season.
KEEP IN MIND: The Panthers have been particularly stingy on third down, allowing conversions just 21.4 percent of the time. That's second in the NFC and fourth in the league. As for the Bucs offense, it has converted 38.4 percent of its third-down attempts.
Should Peppers get in a few shots, it might not be long before Chris Simms looks rattled and nervous in the pocket, much like he has the past two weeks. Walker and Davis must rise to the challenge against a defensive line that also features tackle Kris Jenkins and end Mike Rucker.