Backups, everywhere: Five things to watch in Bucs-Panthers
There's an urgency to the Bucs' game at Carolina, with two teams struggling to 1-3 records. But win, and the Bucs are 2-0 in division with both wins on the road, with a much-needed dose of positive momentum going into the bye week. Injuries will be a huge part of the storyline, but here are five things to watch on Monday night:
1. The return of Derek Anderson, Bucs nemesis. Cam Newton, reigning NFL MVP, will miss the game as he's still in concussion protocol. Anderson has started only two games since the start of 2011, both wins against the Bucs in 2014. Carolina won with him despite scoring just 20 and 19 points -- you do that by not making mistakes, as he did with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Anderson has a long history with Dirk Koetter going back to 2002 -- the two squared off three straight years in college, with Koetter's Arizona State team winning twice and Anderson getting one win as an Oregon State QB. He threw eight interceptions in those three games, and he's lost his last six NFL starts against anyone other than the Bucs.
2. Bucs tight ends vs. Carolina defense. Only two NFL defenses -- Atlanta and Detroit -- had allowed more touchdowns by tight ends entering this weekend than the four that Carolina has surrendered. San Francisco's Vance McDonald had a 75-yard score, Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph had a 15-yard score, and Atlanta had two TE TDs from Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper in last week's drubbing. Opposing tight ends have piled up 254 yards against Carolina, the eighth-highest total in the NFL entering the weekend.
That bodes well for Bucs tight end Cameron Brate and his backups -- Tampa Bay is the only NFL team to have three different tight ends score touchdowns this season, and their four total touchdowns match the Steelers, Patriots and Colts for the most in the NFL this season.
3. Jameis Winston vs. a depleted Carolina secondary. Josh Norman bolted for the Redskins, second-round rookie James Bradberry is out with turf toe, and another starter, Bene Benwikere, was inexplicably cut Friday, leaving the Panthers with precious little NFL experience at corner.
Third-round rookie Daryl Worley will start, and they'll like use nickel Robert McClain as another starter, with the top two backups being rookie Zack Sanchez, promoted from the practice squad, and Teddy Williams, who was inactive last week when Atlanta's Matt Ryan shredded Carolina for 503 passing yards.
There's an enormous opportunity for Winston to exploit inexperienced corners thrust into big roles. There's a size mismatch too, as McClain is only 5-9.
4. A decimated, patchwork Bucs defensive line. The Bucs could be without four of their top five defensive linemen -- it's Will Gholston and friends. That means rookie DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward have to play a ton, inside and outside, and DT John Hughes, signed off the street this week, has to not be a liability. Akeem Spence, who had 38 total snaps in the first three games, will again be counted on as a starter getting major playing time inside.
What helps the Bucs is that Carolina's starting running back (Jonathan Stewart) and left tackle (Michael Oher) are also out, so you have backups against backups with so much on the line for a pair of 1-3 teams.
The wild card? LB Daryl Smith, who at 34 has been used sparingly as the team's strongside linebacker. He got an emergency cameo at defensive end late against the Broncos, and at 250 pounds, he's only a pound lighter than Noah Spence and 12 pounds heavier than Howard Jones is listed at. Don't be surprised if he has a hand in the dirt as a nickel defensive end some against the Panthers.
5. Vernon Hargreaves vs. Kelvin Benjamin. The two met only once in college, and Benjamin went off for nine catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns -- with Winston throwing to him -- on the way to a national title in 2013. Hargreaves, then a true freshman, wasn't in coverage on the first two scores, but he was on the third, the first score he allowed in his college career.
"He was a great player then and he's done nothing but get better since then," Hargreaves said. "I'm excited to get after him and go compete with him. Hopefully I can make some plays."
Benjamin missed last season with a torn ACL but has returned strong, getting four touchdown catches in his first games. It's a motivation, too, for Mike Evans, another member of that talented 2014 receiver draft class.