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Uncertainty Under Center in Charlotte – Given what has transpired since March of 2020, the Panthers’ decision to cut ties (at least temporarily) with the brightest start in franchise history, Cam Newton, has not looked like a mistake. However, the team’s efforts to find a replacement franchise quarterback have not borne much fruit as of yet. The first solution was a sizeable three-year deal for Teddy Bridgewater, but that lasted one year before he was traded to Denver, with Carolina paying a big chunk of his remaining guaranteed salary. Next, Carolina traded for Sam Darnold, the third-overall pick in the 2018 draft, last offseason. That started well in the Panthers’ 3-0 start but Darnold ran into some injuries and saw his production decline steeply as the season progressed. Finally, the Panthers traded for Baker Mayfield, the first pick in that 2018 draft, and set up a battle for the starting job between those two draft mates. Mayfield won that battle and, just days later, Darnold suffered an ankle sprain in the preseason finale that put him on injured reserve. Darnold is still on IR and not expected back this week, while Mayfield is dealing with his own ankle injury that had him in walking boot on the sideline last Sunday. The Panthers turned by necessity to P.J. Walker, who had played for Matt Rhule at Temple, but Walker managed just 60 yards on 16 passes before he left the game with a neck strain. Walker seems confident that he will be available on Sunday against the Buccaneers, but Mayfield remains a significant question mark. Interim Head Coach Steve Wilks, asked on Monday if Mayfield would immediately return to his starting spot once he is cleared to play, responded with, “I can’t give you that answer.” Barring any late roster moves, the Panthers’ only other option would appear to be practice squad passer Jacob Eason, who finished up on Sunday when Walker went down. However, that could change a bit by Sunday, as Darnold has been designated to return from injured reserve and could theoretically be cleared at any time.

A Fix for Offensive Woes? – The Tom Brady-led Buccaneers paced the league in scoring over his first two seasons in Tampa with 30.4 points per game. In 2022, that average is down more than 10 points and the Buccaneers rank 20th in the league. As compared to a year ago, the Bucs have had to work through quite a bit of change to their offensive lineup, beginning with a front line that has new starters at all three interior spots. Tight end Rob Gronkowski retired, further changing how the Bucs operate on offense, and the team tried to reload with the likes of Julio Jones, Russell Gage and Kyle Rudolph but have not yet adequately replaced Gronkowski’s contributions. Tampa Bay’s coaching staff expected the 2022 offense to be a work in progress and felt that it would take a month or so to establish an identity on that side of the ball. They likely expected to be a bit farther along in that process by late October, but there is certainly a prevailing sense that the best days for this offense are still ahead. The Buccaneers have to find a way to be more productive in the red zone, where they have only converted 50% of their chances into touchdowns, and their have been some confounding woes on short third downs. In addition, the Bucs’ rushing attack ranks last in the league, and while that was never going to be the driving engine for this offense as currently comprised, a strong ground showing in the season opener in Dallas seemed to hint that it would be more of a force in 2022 than the previous two seasons. The Buccaneers’ search for the right mix on offense will continue in Week Seven in Charlotte.

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Secondary Shuffling – Compared to its offense, Tampa Bay’s defense had been relatively injury-free, apart from Akiem Hicks’ foot malady, which helped it get off to a very strong start over the first three weeks of the season. However, a recent rash of mishaps has shaken up the defensive backfield, with safety Logan Ryan now on injured reserve and safety Mike Edwards (elbow) and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (quad) dealing with recent injuries. In Week Six, the Bucs landed on an unexpected solution to the thinned ranks at safety by using cornerback Dee Delaney in that role in sub packages. That allowed the coaches to continue using their top playmaker, Antoine Winfield Jr., in a dual role at safety and slot corner. However, it also thrust an inexperienced player in Delaney into an unfamiliar role, while veteran Keanu Neal also played far more than in previous weeks with Edwards out. That secondary only allowed 211 passing yards to the Steelers’ pair of quarterbacks but understandable communication issues may have been largely to blame for Pittsburgh converting four straight third downs of 11 or more yards. Bowles indicated on Monday that it was a different defender on each of those four players that made the critical mistake. Edwards may be able to return from his injury against Carolina, which would return some of the secondary’s stability, but Ryan is now out for at least four weeks. Tampa Bay’s cohesiveness in the secondary will be tested in the month ahead, beginning Sunday in Charlotte.

Southern Supremacy – The best part about the Buccaneers’ underwhelming 3-3 start is that it includes a 2-0 record in divisional play. As noted above, the defending NFC South champions have already logged wins over the Saints and Falcons and now have a chance to go three-for-three against their division foes. The Buccaneers have not started out 3-0 in divisional play in any season since 2007, when they would finish 5-1 against the Falcons, Panthers and Saints and win the NFC South title. Doing so by winning on Sunday in Charlotte would put them in good position to duplicate that feat, particularly since two of their three remaining divisional games will be played in Tampa. The Falcons, also 3-3 but probably exceeding expectations in the minds of most NFL analysts, has a tough draw in Week Seven with a game in Cincinnati. The Buccaneers lost their grip on sole possession of the NFC South lead last Sunday but will have an opportunity to get it back this weekend.

Where Have the Turnovers Gone? – The Buccaneers have not lost the turnover battle in their last two games, but they haven’t won it either. Neither team gave it away a single time in Tampa Bay’s Week Five win over Atlanta or Week Six loss in Pittsburgh, which is low-key pretty remarkable. This is just the second time in franchise history that the Buccaneers have played two consecutive games without either team committing a turnover. Obviously, that’s a very welcome trend on offense, where Brady hasn’t thrown an interception since Week One, but the defense usually thrives on takeaways. Even with these last two games included, Tampa Bay’s defense ranks fifth over the last three seasons with 63 takeaways and the Bucs are first in that span with a +21 turnover margin. Some of this turnover drought, which also includes a Week Four loss against Kansas City with only one takeaway, has been the luck of the bounce, as the defense has forced two fumbles in the last two weeks but not been able recover either of them. Pittsburgh also put the pigskin on the grass late in last weekend’s game on an errant snap but Mitchell Trubisky barely beat Delaney to the ball. Overall, Tampa Bay’s defense has come up with nine takeaways in six games, but five of those came in a rush at New Orleans in Week Two, including four in one quarter. As mentioned earlier, Tampa Bay’s defensive rankings of fifth in scoring and seventh in yards are good and well-earned, but turnovers often make the difference between winning and losing and the Buccaneers want to get back to forcing a lot of them.

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KEY MATCHUPS

1. Buccaneers T Tristan Wirfs vs. Panthers DE Brian Burns

The Panthers saw their 2021 sack leader, Haason Reddick, depart for Philly in free agency and currently rank 29th in sacks per pass play (4.41%). However, 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns remains as productive and dangerous as ever, leading Carolina with 4.0 sacks, or nearly half the team total of 9.0. Burns has yet to hit double digit sacks in a season but he’s put up consecutive totals of 7.5, 9.0 and 9.0 and is well on his way to topping that in 2022. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Burns had the fifth-fastest get-off at the snap among edge rushers, at an average of 0.8 seconds. The Panthers move him from side to side so he’ll likely have some one-on-one battles with both of the Bucs’ tackles, Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith. In just his second season in 2021, Wirfs was named a first-team Associated Press All-Pro and he’s already considered one of the best right tackles in the entire NFL. Wirfs is amazingly nimble and athletic for a man of his size, which allows him to consistently stay between his man and the quarterback.

2. Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey vs. Buccaneers ILB Lavonte David

Christian McCaffrey’s 111.7 yards from scrimmage per outing through six weeks represents 42.9% of Carolina’s 32nd-ranked average of 260.0 yards per game. He leads the Panthers in both rushing yards (393) and receptions (33) and has accounted for three of the team’s seven offensive touchdowns. It is glaringly obvious that McCaffrey has to be the main focus for Tampa Bay’s defense in Week Seven. It’s worth noting that while he has averaged 113.6 yards from scrimmage per game in his career he has only exceeded 100 against the Buccaneers in two of his seven games against them. One constant in that history is Lavonte David, who has been at the heart of Tampa Bay’s defense since 2012. This season, David is second on the team with 47 tackles, just one behind Devin White’s 48, and he has also broken up two passes. Twenty-three of David’s stops have been on running plays as he has helped the Bucs’ defense allow the seventh-lowest yards-per-carry figure in the league so far. Tampa Bay’s defense has not allowed an opposing running back to crack 100 rushing yards in a game against it since Chicago’s Khalil Herbert in Week Seven of last season. David still has sideline-to-sideline range but he has also been one of the league’s best coverage linebackers in his career. Those skills will be needed throughout the game on Sunday.

3. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. Panthers CB Jaycee Horn

As discussed earlier, Todd Bowles is adamant about getting the ball to Evans more often than has been the case in recent weeks. Evans has the Bucs only 100-yard receiving game of the season so far, as he caught eight passes for 103 yards and two scores against Kansas City in Week Four. However, in the past two weeks he has four catches in each game and he was only targeted four times in Pittsburgh. Opposing defenses often give safety help to the defenders trying to contain Evans, either with two-high shells or a single safety shading in his direction, which makes it harder to hit big plays downfield. Still, Evans is a master of going up for passes in traffic and the Bucs should be able to get him more involved no matter what style of defense they’re facing. In years past, the Panthers liked to shadow Evans with their top cornerback, James Bradberry. Bradberry is now in Philadelphia, but Carolina might try the same tactic with Horn. In Week One, Horn followed Cleveland’s Amari Cooper around the formation, so it’s a role the Panthers are comfortable giving to their impressive second-year corner. Horn is dealing with a ribs injury that kept him out of Carolina’s last game but he returned to practice on Wednesday wearing a green no-contact jersey. After being picked eighth overall in the 2021 draft, Horn suffered a broken foot three games into his career and missed most of his rookie season. He has come on very strong in his second year, however, allowing an opposing passer rating of 23.8 when he is the targeted defender, the best of any cornerback in the league.

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4. Panthers C Pat Elflein  vs. Buccaneers NT Vita Vea


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