Any Given Sunday: Panthers Over Bucs

Any Given Sunday: Panthers Over Bucs
Any Given Sunday: Panthers Over Bucs
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

With the Hard Knocks hype, as well as an offseason in which they reeled in DeSean Jackson and found prized tight end O.J. Howard at No. 19 overall, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a popular sleeper team coming into this year. Then again, the Bucs have always been a popular sleeper team, and we have always been at war with Eurasia. The thought process that declared the Bucs a potential division winner involved two leaps of faith. Let's see how those are going.

1) 2016's defensive improvement would be sticky

Last year's Bucs were, by DVOA, the best Bucs pass defense since 2008. The narrative looked a little something like this: Everyone is coming back, the defense improved down the stretch, and Tampa won all their games in which they allowed 21 or fewer points. Practiced Football Outsiders readers will jump on that term improved down the stretch. As solid as Tampa's defense was playing, this was a turnaround mostly predicated on turnovers. From Week 10 to Week 14, the 2016 Bucs collected 14 turnovers. In Week 17, they found three more against the Panthers. In fact, in all, they had seven turnovers against the Panthers alone last season.

While the Bucs roared out of the gates this year with three turnovers against the Bears, they haven't had a game with more than two turnovers since. After this week's games, Tampa is now 30th in defensive DVOA, with a majority of the problem caused by their 31st-ranked pass defense.

Tampa's defensive problems have come from a few areas. One is that almost all of their important players have missed time this year. Their leader in defensive snaps is third-round rookie linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Gerald McCoy hasn't missed much action, but Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander have, while Noah Spence will miss the rest of the season after tearing his labrum. Another issue is that the players that have made it onto the field have regressed. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III has been torched this year, and is the one that the media seems to have picked up on most. But Tampa's three main corners -- Hargreaves, Brent Grimes, and Robert McClain -- were the NFL's three worst qualifying cornerbacks in Success Rate according to Sports Info Solutions' charting numbers through Week 7. McClain is at an earth-shattering 29 percent success rate on 24 targets.

Finally, there's the issue that without a pass rush, Mike Smith's defenses tend to look extremely bad. McCoy leads the Bucs in sacks ... with two. While McCoy also has seven tackles for loss, proving that he's at least getting penetration, nobody else on the team has more than three. Tampa is last in Adjusted Sack Rate by a mile, at 3.2 percent through Week 7 compared to 31st-placed Tennessee's 4.2 percent. Last year the Bucs were sixth in ASR at 7.1 percent. Spence has obviously done little, but Robert Ayers has also fallen off.

And yet, the Bucs defense actually did pretty good in this game! They only gave up 154 passing yards. The Panthers only had three drives that gained more than 11 yards. In this game, the problem was the other leap of faith...

2) Jameis Winston would make the leap

The thought was that Winston, helped along by new weapons Jackson and Howard, would take a giant leap forward. While I am not going to bury Winston for playing poorly in this game given that he played with a banged-up shoulder, the status report on that leap is somewhat complex.

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Winston is sixth in DVOA among quarterbacks after this week, which is a number that surprised me as someone who doesn't watch the Bucs on a weekly basis. However, it makes sense that we would be surprised, because he has gotten big boosts from opponent adjustments and his worst game came on national television.

Winston's best games have come against Chicago, the New York Giants, and Buffalo, three teams that have played well on the whole but are hardly dominant. When given the prime-time Thursday Night slot -- the one people actually watched against the Pats -- the Tampa pass offense looked dead in the water for three quarters against a bad pass defense.

Objectively, this year for Winston has a lot of leapish qualities. Subjectively, I'm a little more bearish on his work. Consistency is still lacking, and I'm not sure we'll think of any of the defenses Winston shredded as great by the end of the year.

And in this game, Winston was dreadful, even if we are writing it off to injury. The breakout as a whole is going well; it's just not happening in a Wentzian fashion that provides an easy narrative.

By the VOA

CAR -19.8% -42.5% 11.2% 33.8%
TB -29.5% -1.4% -4.0% -32.1%
CAR -5.5% -39.2% 11.2% 44.9%
TB -38.1% -12.0% -4.0% -30.1%

The Panthers, it turns out, have a pretty smothering defense. Let's hold on to that thought for a second.

Questionable Coaching Decision of the Week

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Fourth-and-2 at the Carolina 42, down 7-0 in the second quarter, Dirk Koetter calls for the punt. It's a great punt, of course, and is downed at the 2. We also have to take into account that Koetter made his entire pre-game speech about the swirling winds in Raymond James. But still, punting on fourth-and-short in positive territory is always going to draw quant ire.

The Bucs play in this area of the field was atrocious, by the way. Tampa crossed the Carolina side of the field five times en route to their three points. Winston got strip-sacked at the Carolina 37 on the next drive, on second-and-14. On their first drive of the second half, Winston got sacked on third-and-7 to move the ball out of field goal range. After the field goal drive, two more possessions made it to Carolina territory and ended with zero points.

Should You Run Screens At Luke Kuechly? A Photo Essay

By now, you know that the Carolina defense is good. What you may not know is what happens when you isolate the games that Luke Kuechly has played over the past two years compared with those that he has missed. Carolina's run defense DVOA is -22.6% in games that Kuechly starts, and -9.7% in games that he does not. He also defends screens OK, I think:

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So, to answer the question in our subhead: no, you should not.

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Even when you set things up perfectly, he will STILL get you.

A lot has been made of Cam Newton's health, perhaps because it's a more comfortable topic to talk about than Kuechly's repeated concussions (particularly in light of how graphic the big one was last year).

But the Panthers have not one, but two injury-prone superstars. And whenever Kuechly is on the field playing like this, it's easy to understand why the Panthers continue to pay him big money even despite the missed games. The combination of instincts and tackling ability is unmatched.


6 comments, Last at 02 Nov 2017, 10:12am

2 Re: Any Given Sunday: Panthers Over Bucs

I liked how Tampa FINALLY got into the Red Zone, by like a yard... and the Panthers are like "Nope! You know you aren't allowed in here! Get back out!"

3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Panthers Over Bucs

The second GIF for Kuechly is just incredible--double teamed in the middle of the line and he still runs down and makes the tackle.
Also, Case Keenum is top five in both DVOA and DYAR--never thought of Zimmer as a quarterback whisperer.

6 Re: Any Given Sunday: Panthers Over Bucs

"But the Panthers have not one, but two injury-prone superstars."

I don't really view Cam as injury prone. Other than the concussion he sustained last year, he doesn't miss many games. He's played with broken ribs and a bad shoulder, but just about every QB has suffered that type of injury during a career.

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