Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers game preview
Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly signed lucrative extensions with the Carolina Panthers this offseason to anchor their respective sides of the ball for many years to come.
Newton’s latest performance helped the Panthers get off to their best start in 12 years, but Kuechly hasn’t taken the field since suffering a concussion in the opening week.
The defense – with the addition of a veteran pass rusher – again could be without Kuechly as it looks to make life difficult for Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Jameis Winston on Sunday in Florida.
Carolina is 3-0 for the first time since winning its first five and making the franchise’s lone Super Bowl appearance in 2003. Newton, who signed a $103.8 million extension in June, ranks 28th in the NFL with a 56.6 completion percentage, but he went 20 of 31 for 315 yards and two touchdowns while adding another score on the ground in last week’s 27-22 win over New Orleans.
It was just the second time in his last 29 games that Newton threw for at least 300 yards. Greg Olsen caught both scoring passes and registered a career-high 134 yards.
"We can throw for 300, but if he runs for a touchdown and converts a couple of third downs with his legs, those are game-changing plays," Olsen said. "He was great. What can you say?"
The Panthers’ defense surrendered 380 yards, but only 70 of them came on the ground. It ranks second in the league in points allowed per game at 16.0 and third in opponents’ average yards per rush at 3.34.
Most of that has been accomplished without Kuechly, who signed a $62 million extension three days before the season began. He left the opener against Jacksonville in the second quarter with a head injury and has missed the last two.
Kuechly wasn’t at practice Wednesday, and Carolina could choose to keep him out again Sunday with the bye week following.
The Panthers also lost defensive end Charles Johnson to a hamstring injury and placed him on injuried reserve with a designation to return no earlier than the Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas. To compensate for that loss, Carolina dealt a conditional sixth-round pick in 2016 to Chicago for Jared Allen, who passed a physical and is expected to start against the Bucs (1-2).
He’ll be reunited with former Bears teammate Charles Tillman, who signed with the Panthers in the offseason and gave his endorsement to acquire Allen.
"He’s a pass rushing specialist and he plays the run very well," coach Ron Rivera said. "He rushes with violence. He doesn’t just sit there and work one way or the other, he’s got counter moves. We watched a lot of tape on him just to make sure that this could potentially be a fit for us."
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was Minnesota’s head coach in 2011 when Allen’s 22 sacks for the Vikings tied for the second most in NFL history. Frazier and coach Lovie Smith will be tasked with keeping Allen and the rest of the Panthers’ defense away from Winston, whose 52.2 completion percentage is the worst in the league.
Smith still believes Winston is coming along well after he finished 17 of 36 for 261 yards, one touchdown and one interception in last week’s 19-9 loss at Houston. He was sacked seven times through the first two games but wasn’t brought down by the Texans’ vaunted front line.
"He learned something new each week, which rookies do," Smith said. "Again, there’s a lot of us that need to play a lot better – of course him included – but we’re going to win a lot of games with him."
The Bucs are tied for 29th in the league in scoring at 16.3 points per game and 27th in rushing yards per attempt with 3.56. Winston has their only touchdown on the ground.
Tampa went 1 for 12 on third down last week, and Winston’s completion percentage dips to 40.6 with all three of his interceptions coming in those situations.
Now he’s focused on helping the Bucs end a 10-game home losing streak.
"It’s about team development," Winston said. "When we start gelling and start clicking right, I know we’re going to have some success."
Carolina has won four straight meetings, including both last season when Newton sat out with injuries. Newton has a 64.6 completion percentage with passing 10 touchdowns and six on the ground in six career games against the Bucs.