The defending NFC champions need to turn their season around and quickly. The 1-3 Carolina Panthers sit two-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Atlanta Falcons through a quarter of the season, and instead occupy the NFC South cellar with the New Orleans Saints and their Monday night opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Since securing a season-opening win against the Falcons, the Bucs have lost three in a row, including two home games that were delayed by thunderstorms. Jameis Winston has regressed so far in his sophomore season and the rest of his team has been hampered by injuries as they head into a crucial divisional matchup.
Here is what we're watching for ...
- No Cam, no problem? The Panthers will be without their franchise quarterback, who has been in concussion protocol for the past week, on Monday night, but fear not: Derek Anderson is a more than capable backup. Carolina's Newton-led offense amassed 141 yards, six first downs and no scores through three quarters against Atlanta last week; it wasn't until Anderson came in for the injured Newton that the Panthers' offense moved the ball and put pressure on the Falcons. Anderson also has a history of beating up on the Bucs as a backup; he filled in for Cam twice against Tampa Bay in 2014 and completed 66 percent of his passes in two wins. The Panthers will miss Cam's mobility, but against a decimated Bucs front seven, Anderson has all the tools to fare quite nicely in the MVP's absence.
- Carolina's secondary is a different story altogether. Less than a week after getting historically railroaded by Julio Jones and Matt Ryan, the Panthers gave up on their starting cornerback, cutting Bene' Benwikere on Friday. In his stead, coach Ron Rivera will start rookie Daryl Worley alongside Robert McClain on the outside and in nickel situations, Teddy Williams or recently promoted Zack Sanchez will replace McClain, who will move inside. All this manic roster movement should have Winston licking his lips. The Bucs quarterback is in the midst of a deep sophomore slump and, despite throwing eight interceptions in four games, hasn't turned gun-shy. Winston leads the league in passing attempts, but ranks 30th in yards per attempt (6.3), 28th in completion percentage (58.2) and 30th in passer rating (72.9). For his own sake, Winston would be smart to get Mike Evans and Adam Humphries involved as early as possible against this Carolina backline that sorely misses the dearly departed Josh Norman.
- For yet another week, Winston might have no other choice but to attack through the air. The Bucs will likely be without both of their starting running backs; Doug Martin and Charles Sims were originally listed as doubtful with respective hamstring and knee injuries (Sims was placed on injured reserve Monday). Enter Jacquizz Rodgers, the former Falcons and Bears scat back, who is averaging 5.3 yards per rush this season. Still, whether the third-down back can carry the load for the entirety of the game is a lingering concern. Even with Martin and Sims healthy, the Bucs have yet to go over 100 yards rushing in a game this season, so a big night on the ground for Rodgers is unlikely.
- Where is Tampa Bay going to find its pass rush? Three of the Buccaneers' top playmakers on the defensive line -- Gerald McCoy, Robert Ayers and Clinton McDonald -- are listed as doubtful, and promising defensive end Noah Spence barely practiced this week. The Bucs embarrassed the Broncos' O-line in the first half last week, sacking Trevor Siemian four times and knocking him out of the game, but then their linemen succumbed to their respective injuries and Paxton Lynch moved the ball with ease. Tampa Bay will need transcendent games from Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David if they're going to disrupt Anderson and replace the sack and tackle production they've lost in the front seven.
- With Cam and Jonathan Stewart on the sidelines, Carolina will hope to limit its struggles in the running game. As the Panthers' top rusher, Newton is able to extend plays, absorb hits reserved for his tailbacks and pick up yardage after the tackle; Anderson does not have that gift. Backup tailbacks Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne don't strike fear into any defensive line, and won't frighten the Bucs. Tampa Bay is fourth in the league with rushing yards allowed per attempt (3.3); of course, the health, or lack thereof, of its front seven could allow for a breakthrough up the middle for Carolina's run game.