TAMPA — The Bucs have come to know Cam Newton well in his three years in Carolina. In his four wins against Tampa Bay, Newton has accounted for at least three touchdowns in each, beating the Bucs by an average score of 36-13.
The Bucs' two wins against Newton, both in 2012, came by six points each, having held the 2011 No. 1 overall draft pick to a single touchdown in each. As Cam goes, the Panthers go, so the Bucs' defensive players understand the need to get to him, and much faster, than they did last year.
"He's a linebacker, a defensive end at quarterback, and you have to get him down on the ground," said defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who had one of three Bucs sacks of Newton last season. "And he's faster than most of us."
Last year Newton literally ran away from the Bucs defense, with a 56-yard run that was his longest of the season.
"I know we didn't have enough up front," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He got comfortable. He's not a guy you want to get comfortable, because then he gives you those highlight plays, making those Barry Sanders-type cuts, making people look bad."
As the Bucs open their season at home Sunday against the defending NFC South champions, they have a new-advantage in their battle against Newton: Lovie Smith, who edged Newton twice as the Bears' coach, his players returning an interception for a touchdown to help each time.
Consider this: In two games against Smith teams, Newton has as many interceptions returned for touchdowns (two) as in the other 47 games in his NFL career combined. That experience and an unusual familiarity with Carolina will help Smith this week.
"I think I've coached or had on my staff eight guys off (Carolina's) staff," Smith said. "I know quite a bit about (the Panthers). All great guys, great coaches. In the end it comes down to execution. We respect what they do. They're a challenge, and I can't wait to compete against them."
Newton is relatively vulnerable right now. Recovering from ankle surgery, he suffered a hairline fracture to his ribs in a preseason game against the Patriots and did not practice Wednesday. He still is expected to play Sunday, but he might not be 100 percent.
"It's been painful, but he's worked his way through it," coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday. "He's gone through our walkthroughs, done the things he's been allowed to do with the trainers. We'll see how he is and how he progresses day by day."
Smith didn't have it easy in either Bears victory against Newton. His Bears trailed 17-6 in the fourth quarter of one game, taking the lead on a pick-six, losing it again, then winning on a field goal as time expired.
"(Newton has) just been growing as a player," said Bucs linebacker Mason Foster, also in his fourth NFL season. "Watching him from when we first came into the league, playing against him twice a year, he's definitely gotten a lot better."
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier faced Newton last season as the Vikings' coach and saw him pass for three touchdowns and run for a fourth score in a 35-10 Panthers romp. There's no lack of experience on the Bucs defense in trying to stop Newton, and players say they'll trust their defense to contain him.
"You've got to play your game," Foster said. "Don't try to think too much about what he's doing. It's not about him. Just execute our calls."
Times writer Matt Baker contributed to this report. Contact Greg Auman at [email protected]m or (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.