Panthers vs. Buccaneers Week 1 Preview: Keys to the Game
Carolina Panthers football is finally back, as the team will travel to Tampa Bay on Sunday to take on the division rival Buccaneers. At first glance, it looks like a win for the Panthers, as Cam Newton and co. look to be even more explosive on offense this year than last, and the Buccaneers are rolling into 2012 with a rookie head coach and new faces on both sides of the ball.
My guess is the Panthers run away with this one, but they’ll still have to take the field to prove me right. After all, just about everyone thought the Giants would top the Cowboys on Wednesday night, and look what happened there.
Here are five things to watch for in Sunday’s divisional matchup:
1. Luke Kuechly Lets Loose
Kuechly has been the talk of the summer after the Panthers took him with their first-round draft pick in the 2012 draft, and rightfully so. The kid is a flat-out tackling machine, and simply has a knack for being involved on almost every play. I have no doubt that he’s an instant impact defender, and I think we’re all going to see his talent and dedication to being ready pay off right away in week one. Look for Kuechly to flirt with 10 tackles in his pro debut.
2. Brandon LaFell All Day
I know Steve Smith is typically the Carolina receiver to drop jaws over, but I get a feeling he’ll be quiet in this game. First, because he was held to just three catches for 41 yards in two combined games against the Bucs last year. And secondly, because he’s still not quite 100% after dealing with a foot infection. He’ll be fine, but I think he plays decoy a bit this week, which means third-year pro LaFell has a chance to shine as the new full-time number two guy. He’s a big, physical target that could really put up some nice numbers if he and Newton can develop the right chemistry. With Smith slowed or bottled up, look for LaFell to have a nice season debut.
3. Both Team’s Ground Attacks
Both the Panthers and Buccaneers’ ground attacks will be fun to watch. Obviously Carolina has one of the most talented and deepest corps in the league with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, while Tampa Bay has rookie sensation Doug Martin starting with pounder LeGarrette Blount right behind him. The big thing here is that both of these team’s run defenses were atrocious in 2011, and could possibly be pretty suspect again to start 2012. It certainly doesn’t do either side any favors that their matchup boasts a solid corps of backs, either. I think DeAngelo Williams could have an explosive day in this one, while the rookie from Tampa Bay is the guy I’ll have my eyes on.
4. Cam Newton, Of Course
No Panthers pregame list is complete without some talk of Newton, and he’s just too talented and explosive to fall to number five on the list. I’m excited to see him quiet down all of that “sophomore slump” talk, and start to develop a better connection with Greg Olsen and Brandon LaFell. I’d even like to see something with him and slot man Louis Murphy, if possible. Keep a close eye on Newton’s role when the team gets inside the 20, as it’ll be interesting to discover if they hand off the ball more or continue to let Newton add to his 14 rushing touchdowns. Tampa Bay’s defense still leaves a lot to be desired, so there’s a fairly good chance Newton will put on a show to start the season. Don’t miss it.
5. Vincent Jackson’s Debut
Last, but certainly not least, I’m intrigued by the addition of Vincent Jackson to the Buccaneers’ passing game. I don’t know if he’s going to blow up in his first game with the team – especially since he’ll almost certainly draw Panthers’ stud cover man Chris Gamble in week one. However, his presence could end up being felt in the form of a ripple effect, as Gamble locking him down on one side could free things up for number two guy, Mike Williams. Even if V-Jax gets held out of the end-zone or completely shutdown, it’ll be worth noting how much he’s targeted, and in what capacity he is used.
Ultimately, this is set up to be an offensive explosion on both sides of the ball, and I’ll admit I will be disappointed if this game isn’t in the mid 30′s. Neither defense has shown us enough yet to suspect they’ll suddenly be elite, so both offenses have a really good chance at finding success early and often in this one.
It’s a road game for Carolina, but at the end of the day they’re the better team with a higher ceiling on both sides of the ball. I think the Panthers get off to a nice start this year and take this one, 34-31.