TAMPA — When the Bucs “host” the Carolina Panthers Sunday in London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, they’ll be facing a much different team than the one they edged on Thursday Night Football four weeks ago.
In the Bucs’ 20-14 win over Carolina at Bank of America Stadium, they left quarterback Cam Newton broken and star running back Christian McCaffrey beaten.
The league’s top run defense held McCaffrey to 37 rushing yards, his lowest total in any game with double-digit carries. And Newton re-aggravated a foot injury that dates to last season.
The Panthers have won three straight since, thanks in large part to Newton’s replacement, Kyle Allen.
Allen has emerged as a capable game manager — and it doesn’t hurt that McCaffrey rebounded from his Week 2 struggles to become the league’s leading rusher — with five touchdown passes, no interceptions, and, most importantly, a 3-0 record.
With Sunday’s 34-27 win over Jacksonville, Allen became the first undrafted quarterback to win his first four starts (dating to last season) since Hall of Famer Kurt Warner did it in 1999 with the Rams.
And McCaffrey, after gaining 240 total offensive yards and scoring three touchdowns against the Jaguars on Sunday, is averaging 201.4 offensive yards, including 140 rushing a game, since being shut down by the Bucs.
“Offensively, it’s really Christian stepping up,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera told reporters Tuesday. “He had a couple good games to begin with, but the last few, you really see him stepping into his role, and you see Kyle distributing the ball to different guys as well. It’s just really everybody finding our footing is the right way to put it.”
Allen is averaging just 225.2 passing yards a game, and he has fumbled six times, losing four, over his three-game win streak, so there is room to grow. But he is completing 66.7 percent of his passes and the Panthers have a 41.6 third-down conversation rate with him as a starter, compared to the 21.4 percent (3-for-14) Newton had in Week 2.
“I think there’s always room for improvement,” Allen said Tuesday. “I think you saw it in the last game. We rode our hot hand and we ran the ball extremely well. … I don’t think I was asked to so as much in that game because we were running the ball so well. For me, I try to focus on ball security, I try to focus on making plays when they matter.”
Allen’s path to this point is a remarkable one. Despite being the top pro-style quarterback recruit coming out of high school, Allen never played a full college season, making his play at the pro level even more remarkable.
He committed to Texas A&M and started the final five games of his true freshman season, but the following year ended up splitting time with a true freshman by the name of Kyler Murray. Allen transferred to Houston, and after sitting out a year, earned the starting job for the Cougars but was benched after five games.
Allen decided to declare for the draft, but his uneven college career didn’t garner a combine invite and he went undrafted. The Panthers took a chance, but released and re-signed Allen five times before he finally earned a spot on the active roster last December. He won his only start last year, a Week 17 victory over a Saints team that was resting most of its regulars in anticipation for the postseason. And the Panthers used a third-round pick to draft West Virginia quarterback (and former Florida Gator) Will Grier in April.
Allen said he has studied film on the Bucs’ Week 2 win, in which Tampa Bay held the Panthers without a touchdown and held them to 4.8 yards per offensive play, this second lowest average of the season. But he expects Tampa Bay to give him a slightly different look. In their past three games, the Panthers established the run, averaging 184 yards a game. The Bucs enter Sunday second in the league in run defense at 69.8 yards allowed a game.
“I don’t think they’re going to do the same thing," Allen said. "I think they’re going to come back and adjust some things, so you’re got to be able to adjust on the fly and at the same time take some of their core principals with you.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard