After a disastrous 2011 campaign, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are starting over.
They'll open the Greg Schiano era at home Sunday against the NFC South-rival Carolina Panthers, who will be trying to build off their surge from a season ago.
The Buccaneers were a surprising team on the rise following the 2010 season, winning 10 games under second-year head coach Raheem Morris. However, Morris' loose style wore thin following a 2011 campaign in which Tampa Bay only won four games, and he was fired in early January.
Schiano was hired as his replacement before the end of the month, becoming the ninth head coach in franchise history following a successful 11-year stint at Rutgers University.
The 46-year-old will bring tighter rules and details to his first gig as an NFL head coach while preaching accountability.
"We're going to try and play the kind of offense and the kind of football that we want to play, and it's complimentary football," Schiano said. "Offense complimenting the defense, defense complimenting the offense and special teams bridging the two. Part of that will be explosive, take shots, part of that will be run the football. Whether that keeps up with somebody else, I don't know that answer."
While Schiano is slated to start three rookies, he did succeed in jettisoning some problem players while bringing in a number of veterans this offseason, most notably All-Pro left guard Carl Nicks, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Dallas Clark.
Those additions should help Josh Freeman in his third full season as a starting quarterback. The 2009 first-round draft pick had issues with turning the ball over a season ago, but in typical Schiano mantra, he won't be expected to carry the offense alone.
"I think Josh is an important part to this team, but I don't think he has to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders either," stated Schiano. "He just needs to go do his job, just like the right guard has to do his job, all the way down the line/"
While Tampa Bay won't rely solely on its quarterback in an attempt to go from worst-to-first for the third time since 2000. there is no doubt who the big name is on offense for the Panthers.
Carolina looks to take another step forward in 2012 behind quarterback Cam Newton, who is coming off one of the best rookie seasons the league has ever seen.
Newton was the Panthers' prize for a 2-14 campaign in 2010, as the franchise selected him first overall in the following draft. The 23-year-old Auburn product went on to set a number of records in winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, taking Carolina up to six wins while shaking off doubts of his ability to thrive in the pros.
Despite his success last year, the confident Newton isn't changing his attitude for the coming season.
"I don't think nothing has changed. So many people still have expectations, feel a certain way about me, but I don't think none of them will ever be as high as mine," said Newton. "I said that once and I'll say it again: I'm not surprised by anything I do. The only thing that surprises me is when I don't play to my potential."
While Newton's potential helped Carolina's offense take huge steps forward in 2011, the defense is aiming for a similar turnaround thanks to the return of more than a few healthy bodies.
Carolina is missing just two players -- guard Travelle Wharton and tight end Jeremy Shockey -- from the starting lineup of last season's finale, though running back Jonathan Stewart's status for this game is in doubt due to an ankle issue. He has not been able to practice, but did make the trip to Tampa.
Panthers lead 14-9
Streak: Panthers have won last two meetings 2011 Meetings: Panthers 38, Buccaneers 19 (Dec. 4 at Tampa Bay) Panthers 48, Buccaneers 16 (Dec. 24 at Carolina)
Panthers HC Ron Rivera vs. Buccaneers: 2-0 Buccaneers HC Greg Schiano vs. Panthers: 0-0 Rivera vs. Schiano Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Tampa Bay swept 2010 season series, following up a 20-7 triumph in Charlotte during Week 2 with a 31-16 home verdict on Nov. 14. Panthers have won in seven of their last nine visits to Raymond James Stadium.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Carolina: 7th overall (389.8 ypg), 3rd rushing (150.5 ypg), 13th passing (245.2 ypg), tied 5th scoring (25.4 ppg)
Tampa Bay: 21st overall (319.3 ypg), 30th rushing (91.1 ypg), 16th passing (228.1 ypg), 27th scoring (17.9 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Carolina: 28th overall (377.6 ypg), 25th rushing (130.8 ypg), 24th passing (246.8 ypg), 27th scoring (26.8 ppg)
Tampa Bay: 30th overall (394.4 ypg), 32nd rushing (156.1 ypg), 21st passing (238.4 ypg), 32nd scoring (30.9 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Carolina: +1 (24 takeaways, 23 giveaways) Tampa Bay: -16 (24 takeaways, 40 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Carolina: 57.9 percent (57 possessions, 53 TD, 14 FG) -- 7th overall Tampa Bay: 50.0 percent (38 possessions, 19 TD, 12 FG) -- 19th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Carolina: 58.9 percent (56 possessions, 33 TD, 16 FG) -- 27th overall Tampa Bay: 57.1 percent (70 possessions, 40 TD, 19 FG) -- 24th overall
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Newton won't have much change around him this season, with only fullback Mike Tolbert and rookie left guard Amini Silatolu set for their Carolina debuts on Sunday. That should help the quarterback thrive after throwing for an NFL- rookie record 4,051 yards while completing 21 touchdown passes and adding another NFL single-season best for field generals by scoring 14 rushing touchdowns. Newton became the first player in league history to pass for 4,000 yards and run for another 500 in the same season, and helped Carolina's offense go from dead last in the league in total yards and points to seventh and tied for fifth overall, respectively, in those categories. He is part of a multi-headed rushing attack that also features running backs DeAngelo Williams (836 rushing yards, 7 TD) and Stewart (761 rushing yards, 47 receptions 5 total TD), though Williams is likely to shoulder most of the load in this game due to the latter's injury. Tolbert (490 rushing yards, 54 receptions, 10 total TD with Chargers) will also be called upon for the tough short yards. Accomplished veteran wide receiver Steve Smith (79 receptions, 7 TD) is still in the mix and should play despite a foot issue, while Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil anchors the line.
The Buccaneers ranked last in the NFL a season ago in rushing and scoring defense and hope that a pair of rookies will help improve things along this year. Tampa grabbed strong safety Mark Barron seventh overall in April's draft and he'll be alongside veteran Ronde Barber (79 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT), who is slated to start his 200th straight game and moves to free safety after spending his entire career at cornerback. Barron steps in for last year's leading tackler Sean Jones, who was not re-signed. The Bucs also used a second-round selection to grab outside linebacker Lavonte David, whose work ethic should help him turn into a force on the field. Cornerback Aqib Talib (34 tackles, 2 INT) has had his troubles off the field at times and will need to show from Week 1 on that he can keep himself out of those situations. Middle linebacker Mason Foster (84 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) was one of Tampa Bay's leading tacklers as a rookie a season ago, while right end Adrian Clayborn (42 tackles, 7.5 sacks) had nearly a third of the team's total sacks in his 2011 debut.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Following a breakout 2010 season, Freeman regressed a bit despite posting a career-high 3,592 passing yards. His touchdown total through the air dipped from 25 to 16, however, while he was picked off 22 times in 2011 after tossing just six interceptions in 16 starts the previous year. Freeman can make plays with his feet, rushing for four scores last year, and should benefit from the presence of Jackson and Clark. After a contract dispute saw him play in just five games in 2010, Jackson appeared in all 16 games with the San Diego Chargers last year and notched 1,106 yards on 60 catches while matching a career high with nine touchdowns. Clark (34 receptions, 2 TD with Colts) missed 10 games two years ago with a wrist injury and saw his numbers dip again last year for the Indianapolis Colts because of Peyton Manning's season- long injury. The Bucs are hoping for a turnaround from the veteran, who replaces Kellen Winslow after last season's leading receiver for Tampa Bay was traded in the offseason. LeGarrette Blount (781 rushing yards, 5 TD) led the Buccaneers in rushing last year, but he is expected to serve as the No. 2 running back behind 2012 first-round pick Doug Martin.
Injuries derailed the Panthers' defense last year, but Carolina is expected to have a number of healthy bodies back for this game. It starts with middle linebacker Jon Beason, who suffered a torn Achilles in last year's season opener and missed all of 2011. He should be ready for this game despite a pulled hamstring sustained in preseason. Weakside linebacker Thomas Davis is slated to back up rookie Luke Kuechly -- the Panthers' first-round pick in April's draft after appearing in just nine games the past two seasons due to a pair of torn ACL's, while run-stopping nose tackle Ron Edwards returns after sitting out all of 2011 with a torn right triceps. Strongside linebacker James Anderson (145 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 INT) topped the club in tackles last year and right end Charles Johnson (40 tackles, 9 sacks) was the team leader in sacks. Carolina signed free safety Haruki Nakamura (12 tackles with Ravens) in the offseason to strengthen a secondary led by corner Chris Gamble (45 tackles, 3 INT).
The Buccaneers and Panthers get right into division play with different expectations. For Carolina, it is looking to move forward behind Newton, who took the league by surprise a season ago. That won't be the case in 2012, with teams better prepared to handle his skill set. Tampa Bay, though, isn't one of the candidates to slow down the reigning Rookie of the Year as it tries to find its blue-collar identity under Schiano. Carolina should have little issues with moving the ball -- especially on the ground -- against a Tampa Bay team that did not add an impact defensive player outside of the draft this offseason.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 24, Buccaneers 13