Monday Night Football Preview: A Carolina Panthers Rebound?
With the reigning league MVP in Cam Newton and fresh off a Super Bowl appearance, the expectations were high for the Panthers to once again be a contender in the NFC.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers were looking to improve upon their 2015 6-10 record while seeing continued development in Jameis Winston in Dirk Koetter's first year as head coach.
Yet, here they are, each sitting at 1-3 and each desperately needing a win to keep the 2016 season from slipping away.
Following a Week 1 shootout victory over division rival Atlanta Falcons, the Buccaneers enter this matchup losers of three straight. The Panthers, on the other hand, are coming off two losses against two of the top teams in the NFC in the Minnesota Vikings (5-0) and the Falcons (4-1).
Both the Bucs and Panthers will be down a number of key contributors Monday night on both sides of the ball, but none being more notable than Newton. As Newtown recovers from a concussion suffered in Week 4, Derek Anderson will make his first start for the Panthers since 2014.
Here are some key storylines to watch in this Week 5 matchup.
Jameis Winston Is Struggling
After torching the Falcons in Week 1 for four touchdowns, Winston has struggled since, throwing 7 picks and taking 10 sacks over the last three games. Over that span, he's completed only 55 percent of his passes for 827 yards and 4 touchdowns.
According to numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures a player's efficiency compared to historical expectation, Winston has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league thus far.
Of the 27 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts on the season, Winston ranks 24th in Passing NEP (-6.00), better only than Ryan Tannehill (-6.59), Blaine Gabbert(-8.71), and Case Keenum (-13.56).
This week, Koetter said he's "very concerned" with Winston's performance, but told reporters that he didn't believe Winston was regressing from his rookie year.
Maybe this week, WInston might be able to find some success against a Panthers pass defense that has taken a step back from last season.
According to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics, the Panthers defense overall has been eighth best in the league, but the pass defense has been more generous compared to the run defense. The Panthers run defense ranks fourth best, but the passing defense ranks 12th through four weeks.
How Badly Do The Bucs Miss Doug Martin?
Perhaps one of the biggest factors into Winston's struggles early this season is the lack of a running game without Doug Martin.
Martin injured his hamstring in Week 2, and is set to miss his third straight game this week. He's tentatively expected back following the Bucs Week 6 bye.
Charles Sims had been starting for the Bucs, but he suffered a knee injury in the team's Week 4 loss to Denver and he's listed as doubtful for Monday night. Jacquizz Rodgers, whom the Bucs signed just before the start of the season, will draw the start with Peyton Barber, an undrafted free agent out of Auburn, expected to mix in as well.
In two full games without Martin, Sims and Rodgers have struggled, combining to average only 3.1 yards per carry on 39 touches.
This has led the Bucs to really air it out, with Winston attempting 93 passes over those two games. Somewhat surprisingly, Winston leads the league in pass attempts this year with 177. On the season, the Bucs are one of the most pass-heavy teams and have the seventh highest pass-to-run ratio, throwing the ball on about 65 percent of their offensive snaps.
With Martin and Sims out, the Bucs running games might continue to struggle this week. On the season, opposing backs are only averaging 3.5 yards per carry against the Panthers.
In limited action through the last three games, Rodgers has 13 carries for 69 yards for the Bucs, adding 2 receptions for 12 yards. Rodgers played sparingly with the Chicago Bears last season, appearing in only five games, recording 14 carries for 41 yards. His last start actually came in 2014 as a member of the Falcons.
Derek Anderson Replaces Cam Newton
With Newton sidelined with a concussion, Anderson will start his first game for the Panthers since 2014.
In relief of Newton last week against the Falcons, Anderson went 17 of 23 for 172 yards and 2 touchdowns to go along with 2 interceptions. Of Anderson's 23 passes, 9 were targeted to Greg Olsen.
In 2014, Anderson saw action in six games, including two starts in relief of an injured Newton, with both games ironically against the Bucs. For what it's worth, the Panthers won both of those games.
Anderson was effective in those two starts, completing 64 percent of his passes for 507 yards and 3 touchdowns. Anderson's Passing NEP per pass of 0.36 was tied for the best among all quarterbacks to attempt more than 100 passes in 2014. Only Aaron Rodgers (0.36) posted similar numbers in that category.
Anderson should be able to find some success against the Buccaneers, as similar to the Panthers, the Bucs have been able to stop the run this season, but have struggled at containing opponent passing games.
Through the first four games of 2016, the Buccaneers defense ranks 21st overall, according to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics. But the Bucs rank seventh at stopping the run, while the pass defense ranks 21st.
The Bucs have allowed nine touchdown passes this year while only recording one pick.
How Will the Panthers' Defense Bounce Back?
Last week, Julio Jones torched the Panthers secondary to the tune of 12 receptions for 300 yards and a touchdown. Cornerback Bene Benwikere was the culprit for much of Jones' production, and the Panthers were so disappointed in Benwikiere that they released the third year cornerback early this week.
With Benwikiere out of the picture and rookie corner James Bradberry injured, the Panthers are expected to trot three new starters in the secondary out onto the field Monday night. Veteran Michael Griffin is expected to start at free safety, while Robert McClain, a seven-year veteran, and rookie Daryl Worley will start at the corners.
The group will have their hands full one week after Jones' historical performance, as they face off with Mike Evans, who is also off to a strong start in 2016. Through four weeks, Evans has 26 receptions for 360 yards and 3 touchdowns, which ranks him in the top 10 amongst all receivers in each of those categories.
On the season, Evans ranks third in Reception NEP (36.77), behind only Julio Jones (43.15) and Marvin Jones (39.11).
Although the Panthers secondary faces another stiff challenge in containing Evans, the Panthers might be able to get their pass rush going again, having only generated nine sacks on the year (21st in the league). The Tampa Bay offensive line has allowed the most quarterback hits (40) and 13th most sacks (10) through four games.
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