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  • The Bucs bottled up the Panthers' offensive attack on Thursday night, leading to their first victory of the 2019 season and putting Carolina in an early 0-2 hole.
By Alaa Abdeldaiem
September 13, 2019

It took longer than expected, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into Carolina on Thursday night and did what they needed to in a bounce-back week: take care of business.

It wasn’t always pretty––the Buccaneers were just 2-of-12 on third downs and committed too many penalties for comfort––but Todd Bowles's defense did just enough, stifling Christian McCaffrey for just 37 yards on 16 carries and keeping the Panthers out of the endzone on the final play of the game to overcome a 27-minute weather delay and give Bruce Arians a 20–14 win, his first as Tampa Bay’s head coach.

The Panthers’ offense carries the bulk of the blame for the team’s poor showing, but amid all of the concerns around Cam Newton’s health (he finished just 25-of-51 for 333 yards passing and no touchdowns) and the unit’s inability to move down the field, one other question on the opposite side of the ball is worth asking:

Where’s the Panthers’ pass rush?

For much of the 2018 season, Carolina found itself asking the same question. A unit that has been one of the NFL’s best at sacking the quarterback from 2012 to today—the Panthers rank first in total team sacks (316) and first in total sacks by defensive linemen (242.5) during that stretch—was suddenly coming up empty.

Two weeks into 2019, it still is. Once lauded for their ability to rush only four players and still crash toward the quarterback without blitzing, the Panthers haven’t been able to do the same in recent memory. The team finished 27th in sacks last year and continued to struggle with bringing the heat in Week 1 despite a vaunted defensive line, recording just one sack in their 30–27 loss to the Rams.

Carolina’s inability to get to Winston for a majority of the game on Thursday was especially concerning considering Winston should have been the perfect sack candidate. Prone to hold the ball too long, Winston is notorious for uneven performances. He was sacked three times, threw three interceptions (two of them pick-sixes) and fumbled twice last week against the 49ers.

But Thursday night presented us with a slightly different picture. Winston finished the game 16-of-25 for 208 yards and one touchdown for a passer rating of 103.4.

For three and a half quarters, no one on Carolina’s defense seemed to phase him with a rush. Only Brian Burns was able to get to Winston in the first half, bringing him down for a seven-yard loss. The Panthers’ rush almost got to Winston again in the third quarter before letting the fifth-year quarterback escape to his left and find Chris Godwin for a 24-yard strike. An unnecessary roughness penalty on Gerald McCoy the following play gave the Buccaneers another 15 yards, setting up a 16-yard touchdown run by Peyton Barber four plays later.

It wasn’t until after Carolina’s defense gained momentum with a safety in the fourth quarter that the unit started bringing the heat, sacking Winston twice for a 14-yard loss on a single drive with about 10 minutes to play.

But by then it felt too late. The Panthers’ offense couldn’t get anything going all night, coming up empty on 11 of their 14 third downs and all three of their fourth-down attempts. When the final opportunity presented itself, conveniently half a yard from the goal line, the Buccaneers made the play, regained possession and clinched a win in the division.

And while the Panthers' defense can’t—and shouldn’t—carry the loss entirely on its shoulders, there’s certainly an urgency for the unit to rediscover the pass rush that set it apart from the rest of the league for so many years.

With matchups against Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees on the horizon, they’ll need it.

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