Panthers look to halt struggles vs. Bucs

The most promising aspect of the Carolina Panthers’ remaining schedule is that there isn’t a Manning left on the slate.

They have come and gone, leaving the Queen City with emphatic victories. Eli and the New York Giants took apart the Panthers 36-7 on a Thursday night in mid-September, and this past Sunday, Peyton and the Denver Broncos cashed in on defense and special teams to go with the legend’s methodical passing game to cruise to a 36-14 triumph.

Up next are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team Carolina dominated a year ago, but struggled against in losing the season-opener on the road. The Bucs (5-4) beat Carolina in the first game, 16-10. The Panthers rushed for a franchise record-low 10 yards that afternoon. 

At the time, it seemed like somewhat of an anomaly given that the Panthers (2-7) won last year’s contests – 38-19 and 48-16 – and combined to run for 433 yards in the victories. 

But with a new scheme fully implemented under first-year coach Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay is No. 1 in the NFL against the rush, allowing only 80.1 yards per contest. Considering the Panthers’ continued struggles generating a consistent ground game, rekindling last year’s flame will be a significant challenge.

“They’ve gotten out to a couple of early leads, and teams have had to throw the ball against them,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “It’s an opportunistic defense, for sure.”

But it may not even be about the Buccaneers. 

The Panthers have been rather self-destructive. From the defense blowing some early opportunities to a special teams so erratic its coach, Brian Murphy, was fired earlier this week, to an offense that has sputtered much more than it’s hummed, it comes down to Carolina putting things together. 

The running game was supposed to be one of the NFL’s best. But DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have combined for just 519 yards, and even with the sacks, second-year quarterback Cam Newton leads the club with only 354 yards. The addition of Mike Tolbert (52 yards, 14 receptions) was supposedly the missing link, especially in the red zone. But the unit has woefully under-performed.

Newton is having a sophomore slump nobody in the organization saw coming. He has completed 57.2 percent of his pass attempts and has thrown just eight touchdown passes to go against 10 interceptions. Newton’s passer rating is 27th in the NFL. 

The offensive line has been horrendous much of the time, including last Sunday when it allowed seven sacks. And just think, Newton is still elusive, yet looks slow sometimes because pockets often close before he can even check off a single receiver.

The players again took responsibility following the loss to the Broncos. And just like that, the road victory over the Redskins the week before seemed like a distant memory because the cages of this season’s realities were once again rattled. 

Veteran tight end Greg Olsen says there’s only one way for the Panthers to handle the current situation. 

“You don’t have a choice,” Olsen said. “We have seven games left, and if you pack it in this week you’re not going to last long. There’s not a quitter in this room. … You got to play well and let the chips fall where they may.”

Tampa could be vulnerable, though it has won three consecutive games. Two were over San Diego and Oakland, which have losing records. And with just two more home games after this weekend, Panthers’ fans are getting restless. 

Rivera says the same things each week about the team getting back to work, correcting the wrongs, and being positive going into the next game, regardless of the opponent. He was a bit more matter of fact earlier this week.

“We are going to keep fighting,” he said. “That’s all we can do. We just show up, we fight and we’ll give the best effort we can. We expect to win each time we show up.”

If this season is going to adopt a different tone, Rivera’s expectations must be fulfilled this weekend against a team the Panthers should believe deep down they can defeat.