TAMPA — Forget Sam Darnold. For the purposes of this conversation, you can forget Tom Brady, too.
There is only one realistic scenario that allows the Carolina Panthers to win on Sunday and potentially torpedo Tampa Bay’s playoff hopes.
And that’s if they steamroll the Bucs.
If their offensive line traps, confuses, misdirects and otherwise abuses the Tampa Bay front seven with their running game. Just as they did last week against Detroit. Just as they have done in virtually every one of their victories this season.
Carolina has one formula for winning, and it does not involve a lot of passing. In every game when they have been forced to throw more than 25 times, the Panthers have lost. That’s 0-7, if you’re counting. Which makes sense if you’ve gone from Baker Mayfield to P.J. Walker to Darnold at quarterback.
In an era when teams are throwing the ball more than ever, the Panthers have gone the opposite direction. Since Steve Wilks took over as interim head coach in mid-October, only a handful of offenses have kept the ball on the ground more than Carolina. And those teams have running quarterbacks.
The Panthers and Ravens are the only offenses in the NFL with three different running backs who have topped 375 yards in 2022. Which might explain why Bucs defensive line coach/run game coordinator Kacy Rodgers had a to-go box so he could work through lunch in his office after a mid-week practice.
“Makes my stomach hurt,” Rodgers joked about watching video of Carolina’s game against Detroit.
The Panthers rushed for a franchise record 320 yards that afternoon, with running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard both going over 100 yards in the first half.
Now, three years ago, this wouldn’t have been a worry. The Bucs had the No. 1 run defense in the NFL in 2019. In 2020, as well. Even last season, the Bucs were third in the league in stopping the run.
But 2022 hasn’t been as kind to Tampa Bay’s defense. The Bucs have gone from giving up 73.8 rushing yards a game (2019) to 80.6 (2020) to 92.5 (2021) to 120.3 this year.
Some of that has been injury-related. When Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks have both been in the lineup, the Bucs have held teams under 90 yards rushing. The problem is Vea has been held out of practice most of the week and his availability will be a game-time decision.
So what will it take for the Bucs to shut down the Panthers running game and force Darnold to try to beat them through the air?
“It’s all about technique and fundamentals this late in the year,” said Bucs defensive lineman Will Gholston. “If you knock them back, you stay in your gap, you shed and you make the play, I feel like we’ll be able to do what we’ve got to do to stop them.”
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There is truth to that. It’s not as if the Panthers are an unstoppable machine. As good as Carolina was against Detroit, the offensive line was completely manhandled by Pittsburgh a week earlier.
The Bucs were missing Hicks when the teams faced off in October in Charlotte and managed to keep the Carolina running game in check for most of the first half.
But, because Tampa Bay’s offense was struggling, the Panthers never stopped running the ball. They kept pounding until Foreman broke loose on a 60-yard run late in the third quarter and Hubbard followed with a 17-yard touchdown run.
“They’re very hard-headed about running the ball,” Rodgers said. “They kind of know how they win. They run it 40-plus times a game, minimize the throws, don’t turn it over, play good defense.”
While the Bucs have opened up with a five-man secondary in most of their games this season, they’ll likely go with an extra big man in the front seven to crowd the box.
It will basically challenge the Panthers to either put the ball in Darnold’s hands, or to beat Tampa Bay’s defensive front head-to-head.
“This is football in its simplest fashion. There ain’t going to be any secrets,” Rodgers said. “When they were up on Detroit with eight minutes to go, they were in three-tight-end sets. You knew what they were doing. And the worst thing in this league is when a team is doing something, you know they’re doing it, and you can’t stop it. That’s the worst feeling in the National Football League.
“That’s how we put it to the players this week. If we can’t stop them from running, nothing else matters.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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