CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers are like two ships passing in the night.
The Bucs have won four of their last five games to improve to 5-4 and put themselves in playoff contention in the top-heavy NFC. The Panthers (2-7) have lost five of six and the only meaningful postseason question left is whether coach Ron Rivera will be back for a third season.
The Bucs look to stay hot Sunday when they go for a series sweep of the Panthers. Tampa Bay beat Carolina in the season opener 16-10.
"I think guys are getting a little more comfortable with what we're doing," said Bucs first-year coach Greg Schiano said of his team's recent success.
It appears that way.
Since the bye week, the Bucs have played like a completely different team despite losing four starters to injury and trading away a fifth in cornerback Aqib Talib to the New England Patriots.
Amid those distractions, the Bucs have rediscovered their offense, averaging 35.6 points per game over the last five games. They have scored no fewer than 28 points per game during that span.
Quarterback Josh Freeman has thrown 13 touchdown passes and only one interception, while versatile running back Doug Martin has rushed for 615 yards and six touchdowns, including 251 yards and four scores two weeks ago against the Oakland Raiders.
He may only be a rookie, but Martin has Carolina's respect — and attention.
"It's all about yards after contact," Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said of Martin. "Guys are not bringing him down. You have to gang tackle him. If you try to bring him down by yourself, it's not going to work."
Rivera called Martin a "dynamic" football player.
"He's the running back a lot of people envisioned he would be," Rivera said. "He runs with a low center of gravity and has great cutback ability. You have to pay attention to him on check downs. He will sneak out of the backfield and they will run some screens with him."
Martin has 15 receptions for 243 yards and a touchdown in the past five weeks to go along with his gaudy rushing numbers.
As is so often the case in the NFL, when the running game is clicking the passing game follows, and that's what has happened in Tampa. Nobody in the NFC has been as hot as Freeman. He's throwing the ball like a marksman and his confidence is soaring.
Conversely, the Panthers haven't been able to consistently establish a running game which Rivera said has been the team's biggest bugaboo this season.
The struggles started in the opener against the Bucs, when they were held to 10 yards rushing in a 16-10 loss to Schiano's energy-infused defense. Things were so bad that day that receiver Kealoha Pilares finished as Carolina's leading rusher.
No one saw that one coming.
Last season, the Panthers destroyed the Bucs on the ground, rushing for a ridiculous 433 yards and seven TDs in two games against them while outscoring their division foes 86-35. Cam Newton, in particular, was unstoppable scoring a total of eight touchdowns — four rushing and four passing — in the series sweep.
The Bucs turned the tables in the season opener, holding Carolina to 301 total yards. Newton was a non-factor after Schiano and his staff spent months preparing for Carolina's zone read option, which was Newton's bread and butter in his stellar rookie season. He had 4 yards rushing on five carries.
"Coming from college we had seen a lot of zone read and that's the wave and crave of college football right now," Schiano said. "We had some things that we thought might be effective."
Running back Jonathan Stewart believes the Panthers have to get back to what they do best — running the ball.
"That means holding the blocks a little longer and finding the holes," Stewart said.
But perhaps that's a strategy best suited for another day. The Bucs are, after all, first in the league against the run and last against the pass.
The problem the Panthers have is they aren't exactly lighting it up in the passing game.
In a 36-14 loss to Denver last week Newton was harassed all game by Von Miller and sacked seven times. Things were so bad the Panthers went out and signed free agent guard Jeremy Bridges to start against the Bucs.
"The toughest thing for a quarterback is if he's getting hit, why is he getting hit?" Rivera said. "Do you lose confidence in (whether you) are being protected or not? Do you lose confidence in your decision-making ability?"
Carolina's offense never seemed to recover from the beating they took from the Bucs in the opener and it appears defenses have caught up to Newton, last year's AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Carolina has dropped from fifth in scoring last year to 27th this year and seventh in total offense to 23rd.
They've lost four games after leading in the fourth quarter and are in the midst of a season of upheaval.
Carolina owner Jerry Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney six games into the season and Rivera acknowledged he could be next if things aren't "trending upward" the rest of the season.
So far, that hasn't happened.
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