By STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Published November 13, 2006
THE BASICS: The neurotic Panthers are at it again.
They started the season 0-2. Then they reeled off four straight wins. Now they've dropped their past two contests?
What gives? Who knows?
This much the Bucs are certain of going into tonight's matchup: The Panthers are a team to be reckoned with.
The talent is particularly plentiful on defense, where Carolina is led by standout end Julius Peppers, who is having a monster season - even for him. Peppers is on pace for career highs in tackles and sacks. (He already has eight.)
But this is no one-man show. The Panthers have end Mike Rucker lined up opposite Peppers and Kris Jenkins in the interior. It is a front line that has had some dominant performances against the Bucs in the past.
But as has often been the case with Carolina, one never knows which team will show up. The same defense that has consistently been one of the league's toughest has been toasted in recent games.
In its last game, against the Cowboys, Carolina yielded 156 rushing yards while allowing Tony Romo to throw for 270 yards in his first start.
Offensively, the Panthers seem nearly as enigmatic. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has not been sharp, ranking in the bottom half of the league among starting quarterbacks in passer rating (80.3) and touchdowns (eight). But on days he has been in synch with receivers Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson, the offense has been a sight to be behold.
The key for the Bucs is preventing the big play. The deep ball hurt the Bucs in the first meeting, and there is no reason to believe the Panthers won't try to exploit an obvious weakness of the Bucs defense.
If the Panthers can get their running game together, it will make things infinitely easier on Delhomme and company. But they can go to the air in spite of a failed running game as they did against Baltimore earlier in the season, passing for 356 yards despite rushing for just 58.
Bucs: Out - Linebacker Shelton Quarles (knee); defensive end Simeon Rice (shoulder); defensive tackle Ellis Wyms (ankle). Questionable - Running back Michael Pittman (shoulder); cornerback Juran Bolden (hip).
Panthers: Out - Defensive tackle Jordan Carstens (chest). Doubtful - Center Justin Hartwig (groin). Questionable - Cornerback Ken Lucas (groin).
BUC BEATER: Johnson made a statement in his return to Tampa in September, catching a season-high seven passes, including a touchdown, and scoring on a reverse. Johnson's unceremonious exit from Tampa serves as motivation.
SERIES: The Panthers lead 7-5 all-time. The Bucs snapped a streak of five losses in last season's second meeting, but the Panthers won 26-24 in September.
KEEP IN MIND: Cornerback Ronde Barber needs one interception to tie the franchise record of 31 held by Donnie Abraham. Some of Barber's notable games in recent seasons have come against the Panthers. It was last season at Charlotte when Barber notched his 20th sack, making him the first cornerback with 20 sacks and 20 interceptions. Barber also intercepted Delhomme that day.
Jeremy Trueblood vs. Julius Peppers
The reason this qualifies as a key matchup is obvious. One of the league's premier defensive ends is going up against a rookie right tackle who was pressed into starting duty because of an injury. Trueblood has shown some fortitude this season, going against the likes of Michael Strahan of the Giants and doing a respectable job. This is an altogether different challenge, however.
Jermaine Phillips vs. Steve Smith You can bet this matchup is going to come to pass at some point. The Bucs' defensive scheme calls for the safeties to carry a lot of responsibility, and lately, they haven't. When the receiver leaves the cornerback's zone, the liability falls largely on the safety lined up on that side of the field.
Joey Galloway vs. Chris Gamble
This duel between former Ohio State players will be critical to the outcome largely because the Tampa Bay offense needs its top receiver to be successful against a key cornerback. Seeing how he caught one pass for 8 yards in the first meeting - whether his fault or the quarterback's - he needs to come up bigger this time.