What to watch for in Buccaneers-Panthers on TNF

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  • By Grant Gordon NFL.com
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As the second week of the NFL season nears, a trip down to the NFC South is first on the agenda.

Two former Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall picks -- Cam Newton and Jameis Winston -- lead their teams into Thursday Night Football live on the NFL Network at 8:20 p.m. ET, as the Panthers host the Buccaneers.

Though it's but Week 2, the division tilt already has plenty of importance as preseason favorite New Orleans was the only NFC South squad to open with a victory and the loser Thursday is going to find remaining in contention a difficult task right out of the gate.

One of four games between 0-1 teams, the Panthers are coming off a nailbiting defeat to the Rams, while the Bucs were on the wrong end of a sloppy loss against the 49ers.

Prevailing storylines surround the strength of Newton's shoulder, the strength of Winston as a starter and, of course, longtime Bucs defensive line stalwart Gerald McCoy lining up against his former team following a bitter split.

Carolina handily leads the all-time series with a 23-14 advantage, has won three of the last four and Panthers coach Ron Rivera is 11-5 against the Bucs. But Tampa Bay is still looking to turn things around under Bruce Arians.

Thus, both teams are aiming to rebound from Week 1 setbacks, with the victor earning their first win of the season and the loser finding the climb up the NFC South all that much steeper.

Here's what to watch for during Thursday night's Week 2 showdown:

1. Will it be Cam Newton or Jameis Winston who quiets the critics (for now)?

Three interceptions and a season-opening slip-up did nothing to quell talk that Winston's days as Tampa Bay's franchise quarterback need to conclude. The addition of Arians to the sideline and his quest to refine and revamp the Bucs' 2015 top pick met an unfortunate start in Tampa's 31-17 loss to San Francisco. Sure, it's only Week 2, but the time is now for Winston to start showing up and doing so consistently. The numbers, unfortunately, are not in his favor. Heading into Charlotte, Winston has lost 12 consecutive games on the road -- the most for an active starting QB -- and he's 0-3 on TNF. Numbers on the good side for Winston are that he hasn't had a pick in his last two tilts against the Panthers, including a Week 13 win last season. Getting a win and limiting the turnovers is exactly the outcome and performance Winston is aiming to accomplish. While another poor showing is sure to draw the ire of Bucs fans, Arians and Co. want to see progress, but they're planning on staying put with Winston for the time being.

"My understanding is the Bucs are still very confident in Jameis Winston," NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Thursday on NFL NOW. "Obviously last week was not as good as they wanted. But in Bruce Arians' tenure -- first of all, he's gotten success out of basically every single quarterback, but it does take some time. They know that. And even his best reclamation project, Carson Palmer, took several weeks to really get into it and understand the offense and get comfortable and kind of limit some of the mistakes. Not to say Jameis Winston is going to be (Palmer), but at the very least they are confident."

There are myriad common accolades for Winston and Newton as they've each won BCS National Championships, Heisman trophies, were top overall picks, have been Pro Bowl selections and, since 2015, are tied for the most games with three-plus interceptions (seven).

However, Newton's predicament isn't quite what Winston's is. Nobody's calling for the Panthers QB to show he can still lead the team, they are calling for him to flex a little shoulder strength. In the team's season-opening 30-27 loss to the Rams, Newton failed to find the end zone and threw the ball more than 20 yards just once in 38 attempts, per Next Gen Stats. Over the last two seasons, Newton's air yards have decreased and he averaged just 6.3 on Sunday. On Thursday, a win is what's most important for Newton and Carolina, but the three-time Pro Bowler can begin to silence doubters with some deep balls. Still, it should be noted that even though he's coming back from shoulder surgery, Newton also retooled his throwing motion in the offseason in hopes of throwing a more catchable ball.

"His receivers have noticed, the fastball is a little different," Rapoport reported. "It's maybe not as fast this year. He's throwing with a little more anticipation. He's got a little more touch on his passes. He hasn't quite really let it loose yet. All of that means is the Cam Newton we see tonight on Thursday Night Football is going to look a little different than the Cam Newton we've seen the last six or seven years or so."

2. How will Gerald McCoy impact the game against his old team and new foe?

Released in the spring following nine standout seasons in Tampa Bay, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy wasn't a fan of the way things ended with the Bucs, contending he rarely heard from anyone on the coaching staff as his days were numbered in Florida.

He also took exception to Ndamukong Suh -- who signed with the Bucs after McCoy's exit -- being given his old jersey number -- No. 93.

And here we are with a short week of practice, but months of build for McCoy to face his former team (though it's under a new coaching regime).

While McCoy's lofty price tag was likely the No. 1 reason behind his release, his production has also waned, evidenced by the 28 tackles and six sacks from last season. The tackles were his lowest since a six-game 2011 season. His debut with the Panthers saw him tally just one tackle against the Rams.

This is good, old-fashioned NFL storytelling. A former face of a franchise has moved on and is returning with a division rival and there's some bad blood brewing. More pertinent for McCoy and the Panthers might be if the old-fashioned McCoy shows up, however, and provides reason to believe the 31-year-old, six-time former Pro Bowler can still be a game-changer.

3. If you haven't realized how special Christian McCaffrey is, here's another chance.

As long as No. 1 is under center, Carolina will always be Cam Newton's team. And with a bevy of backfield talent such as Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott and others, standout RBs can get lost in the mix.

But as the Panthers and Bucs take center stage, it's important to drink in just how special McCaffrey is and just how much fun it is to watch him play the game.

Against the Rams, McCaffrey had 19 carries for 128 yards and two scores and 10 catches for 81 yards. That's not an every week, ho-hum game or something only fantasy friends should be excited about. That's special and McCaffrey's special game in and game out.

According to NFL research, only McCaffrey and Walter Payton, arguably the greatest running back of all-time (minus the arguably if you ask the person writing this), have racked up 50 yards rushing, receiving and passing in one game.

Last season, McCaffrey became the first player since 2011 to have 100-plus yards rushing and receiving in a game and he ended the year with 107 catches, an NFL record for a running back.

Blessed with phenomenal hands to go with educated feet, McCaffrey can very truly do it all and for as much acclaim as his pass-catching skills garner, his ability rushing the ball looks to be getting better -- scary (and special) as that is.

4. Will Ronald Jones continue to emerge and erase last season's showing?

As a second-round rookie in 2018, Jones had 44 yards rushing for the season. Enough said (er, written).

Things changed quickly in Jones' sophomore season, as he rushed for 75 yards in 13 carries against the Niners. His 5.8 yards per carry was strong and promising.

The Bucs offense and Winston, in particular, need a balanced attack.

Peyton Barber's 4.1 yards average on eight carries last week was just fine, but Jones teased the promise that caused Tampa to take him in the second round in 2018.

Against a formidable Panthers defensive front, if Jones can put in another solid outing, he will continue to establish himself as the Buccaneers lead back that they very much need.

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