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Early Division Clash for the Panthers

Sharon Thorsland
September 11, 2019 - 8:35 pm

It's a key game for the Panthers, who take on the Bucs Thursday night in an NFC South matchup.

Both teams are looking for their first wins of the season on a short week - the Panthers lost a close one to the defending NFC champion Rams on Sunday, while the Bucs fell to the 49ers 31-17 in their season opener.

After a 5-11 season, the Bucs cleaned house and hired two-time NFL coach of the year Bruce Arians to try and right the ship in Tampa. Ryan “Fitzmagic” Fitzpatrick is now in Miami, leaving Jameis Winston to run the offense on his own.

But “Famous Jameis” isn't doing so hot, continuing his pattern of erratic play to start the season.

Winston threw three interceptions against the 49ers, two of them returned for touchdowns.

Decision making might be a problem for the fifth-year quarterback, but he isn't lacking for talent.

He's s a dual-threat who can make plays with his arm and his feet.

“He's an escape artist, he gets out of a lot of jams,” said Panthers rookie linebacker Brian Burns. “You gotta gather yourself when you go get Jameis.”

Winston has an excellent group of receivers, led by two-time Pro Bowler Mike Evans.

He's racked up over a thousand yards in each of his five seasons. Throw in speedy Breshad Perriman and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, and you've got a challenge for the Panther secondary.

The Bucs have had trouble running the ball for a while now, but things are looking up this season.

They picked up 121 yards behind Peyton Barber and second-year back Ronald Jones.

That's an area the Panthers would like to shore up after getting gashed by the Rams for 166 yards on the ground.

Like the Panthers, the Bucs have switched to a 3-4 defense this season, bringing in former Jets coach Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator.

The early returns look good – the Bucs held the 49ers to just 256 yards and one offensive touchdown. With Gerald McCoy now in Carolina, the Bucs also brought in veteran defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to pair with defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, although he's still out with a neck injury.

The Bucs also have their version of Luke Kuechly – Lavonte David leads a talented group of linebackers that also includes rookie Devin White, the first-round pick out of LSU.

They'll have their hands full with Panther running back Christian McCaffrey, who put on a show against the Rams picking up over 200 combined yards with two touchdowns.

The Bucs have a really young secondary after drafting a pair of cornerbacks and safety Mike Edwards, who quickly earned a starting role.

Fourth-year cornerback Vernon Hargraves is the veteran of the group, he had a pick-six against the Niners.

“They have a lot of good players,” said tight end Greg Olsen. “They're going to be fast, they're going to attack, they're big upfront. It's going to be a good challenge.”

After losing their opener at home, Olsen and the Panthers want to get back on track Thursday night, especially on the national stage.

And it may be early, but this is a big game. It's a division match-up, it's a rivalry game, and no one wants to start the season 0-2.

“We'd like to have a good showing,” said Olsen. “You know, get to 1-1, take the long break and keep plugging along - that's our goal.”

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