TAMPA — There's an urgency to tonight's Bucs' game at Carolina, with both teams having struggled to 1-3 records. But win and the Bucs are 2-0 in the NFC South, with both wins on the road, and they'll have a much-needed dose of positive momentum going into their bye week. Injuries will be a huge part of the story line. Here are five other things to watch:
1 THE RETURN OF DEREK ANDERSON, BUCS NEMESIS. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the reigning NFL MVP, will miss the game while in the league's concussion protocol. His replacement, Anderson, has started only two games since the start of 2011, both of them 2014 wins against the Bucs. Carolina won those games despite scoring just 20 and 19 points. A team does that by not making mistakes; Anderson had three touchdown passes and zero interceptions in those games. He has a history with Bucs coach Dirk Koetter going back to 2002. The two squared off three straight years in college games, with Koetter's Arizona State team winning twice and Anderson once at Oregon State. He threw eight interceptions in those games. He has lost his past six NFL starts against anyone other than the Bucs.
2 Bucs tight ends vs. Carolina defense. Only Atlanta and Detroit had allowed more touchdowns by tight ends entering this weekend than the four Carolina has surrendered: San Francisco's Vance McDonald had a 75-yard score, Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph a 15-yard score, and Atlanta had touchdowns from Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper. 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 team to have three tight ends score touchdowns this season, and their four total touchdowns matched the Steelers, Patriots and Colts for most in the NFL entering the weekend.
3 bucs qb JAMEIS WINSTON VS. A DEPLETED CAROLINA SECONDARY. Josh Norman bolted for Washington as a free agent in the offseason, 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 cornerback. Rookie Daryl Worley will start, and Carolina likely will 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; McClain is 5 feet 9.
4 A DECIMATED, PATCHWORK BUCS DEFENSIVE LINE. The Bucs could be without four of their top five defensive linemen. That would make it Will Gholston and friends. That would mean rookie DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward would have to play a ton, inside and outside, and tackle John Hughes, signed off the street this week, would have 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.
The wild card? Daryl Smith, who at 34 has been used sparingly as the Bucs' strongside linebacker. He got an emergency cameo at defensive end late last week against the Broncos, and at 250 pounds, he's only a pound lighter than Noah Spence and 12 pounds heavier than Howard Jones. Don't be surprised if he has a hand in the dirt as a nickel defensive end some against the Panthers.
5 Bucs CB VERNON HARGREAVES VS. Panthers WR KELVIN BENJAMIN. While at Florida and Florida State, respectively, the two met only once in college, and Benjamin went off for nine catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns — with Jameis 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. "(Benjamin) 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." Benjamin missed last season with a torn ACL but has returned strong, getting four touchdown catches in his first four games. It's a motivation, too, for the Bucs' Mike Evans, another member of that talented 2014 receiver draft class.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.