What’s-left-of-the-Bucs faces Carolina

by Gary Shelton on December 22, 2017 · 2 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Winston faces a solid Panther defense./CARMEN MANDATO

Winston faces a solid Panther defense./CARMEN MANDATO

Friday, 2 a.m.

For the Tampa Bay Bucs, the question might not be what's left in the season. It might be "who's left?"

The Bucs, battered and bruised and bullied throughout most of the season, have lost another five players with two games to go. They will travel to Carolina without guard J.R. Sweezy, linebacker Adarius Glanton, safety Justin Evans, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.

In particular, the injuries have been a challenge to the offensive line.

“Caleb (Benenoch) has been out there the last three games," said Bucs' coach Dirk Koetter. "He is a draft pick

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from a couple years ago that we thought had nice upside. He has definitely flashed that at times. Another guy out of the same class — an undrafted guy – Leonard Wester has increased his role a little bit as the jumbo tight end. He is now the next man up in the six spot that has to be able to play a lot of spots.

"We had a play in the game the other night where Evan Smith’s knee brace broke and so Leonard went in at right tackle (and) Caleb kicked down to right guard, so for those two guys that is their first experience right in the middle of it. Now, we are changing again. When you have seven O-linemen up on game day, that is just what you have to do. That is why a lot of teams will have one or two veteran guys to go to. We were fortunate that we had Evan and Joe (Hawley).”

Without Evans and Hargreaves, the Bucs face a challenge in stopping quarterback Cam Newton.

“I think the thing those teams did a good job of is they focused on stopping Cam," Koetter said. "They have other weapons, but Cam Newton is what makes it go. The things that Carolina is doing in their run game — they are more like what you see from college teams. They have all different kinds of read-options. I know for a fact in our first game, one of those was not a called read-option out of the shotgun and Cam just saw the end squeeze and pulled it in and ran for a first down.

"I think those teams were just really disciplined on keeping Cam contained and saying we are going to make the other guys beat us. Now, they have other good guys too. But, when you just look at Carolina from afar, to me it’s not hard to see that Cam Newton is the guy that makes them go. We’ve got to remember, two years ago he was the MVP of the league. I know there have been some injuries or whatever, but it seems to me like he is playing at an extremely high level again. They’ve got a different cast around him. They’ve built more through their running backs now and with (Greg) Olsen back, a different set of wide receivers back than they had, but it still all goes through him.”

In the first game the teams played this season, however, it was the Carolina defense -- not the offense -- that led the way in a 17-3 victory. Carolina's defense is rated fifth in the NFL.

“I think what they have — first of all they do a really good job schematically – I think they are fairly simple until you get to third downs, but I think they’ve got an unbelievable leader — (a) savvy, aware linebacker that makes them start with that," said Bucs' offensive coordinator Todd Monken. "From there, they’ve got a lot of really good players. The two ends that have 10 sacks a piece — really good players.

"(Kawann) Short inside – really good player. The other nose tackle (Star Lotulelei) — really good player. Thomas Davis – really good player. (Shaq) Thompson – really good player. (James) Bradberry – a really good player. Their other corner (Daryl Worley) was a draft pick. (Kurt) Coleman is a guy that gets it and plays like a linebacker and (Mike) Adams has played in this league. I think they had one Pro Bowler – I think that’s all they had, if that’s what I saw — but when you look at them, collectively, it’s not like you are staring at holes. You can play some other teams where, ‘Wow, they’ve got two, three or four really good players, but the drop-off between the next guy (is significant).’ No, they throw 11 guys out at you and say, ‘Okay, we’ve got 11 darn good football players. That’s what makes it hard. (They are) really well coached, do a great job and they send out a really good group of people.”

As for quarterback Jameis Winston, he said he was looking forward to playing against Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly.

“Yeah, a couple weeks back we were talking about how people said our offense was predictable," Winston said. "When you play a guy like Luke Kuechly, he is going to tell you what the play is. He knows what is coming. Your job is to beat him. He is going to be who he is. He is an amazing player. I love playing against him, so it’s going to be fun.

"But, we’ve got to do what we do. One person can’t be able to determine how we are on offense. We’ve got to play because we know that defense over there is really good, so we’ve got to do our job.”

For the Bucs, the game against Carolina begins Sunday at 1 p.m. in Charlotte.

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