'Thursday Night Football' preview: 8 things to watch

Dark times in beautiful Tampa Bay.

It was just one year ago, in Week 8, when the young Buccaneers mowed down the Minnesota Vikings36-17 on "Thursday Night Football" to kick off a four-game win streak that earned praise for new coach Greg Schiano.

Tampa only has one victory since, and Schiano is under fire.

"How bad is it there? It's worse than you can imagine," one player who spent 2012 with the Bucs told NFL Media columnist Michael Silver. "It's like being in Cuba."

It doesn't get any easier for the winless Bucs tonight, who face a Panthers team that's hot-to-the-touch and riding a two-game win streak. Carolina (3-3) has the ability to pour on the points, outscoring opponents 103-25 in the team's three wins on the season. If Tampa becomes victim No. 4, it's fair to wonder how long Schiano will be around.

Here are eight things to watch ahead of tonight's kickoff:

  1. Even in his great games, Cam Newton usually throws in a handful of inaccurate "huh?" throws. That wasn't the case last week against the St. Louis Rams. Newton had two incompletions and was not throwing simple passes. He showed off his arm strength and hit a number of passes into tight windows. The two incompletions came on a drop and a desperation throw at the end of the first. Newton has enjoyed two sensational performances in successive games.
  1. The Panthers have let Newton run more, and he's done a better job choosing when to run. Like Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts, Newton is getting a nice feel of when he has to wiggle out of the pocket to pick up first downs.
  1. If Newton has a weakness, it's that he takes too many sacks, but even that is improving. Panthers receiver Steve Smith said the quarterback has gone "from playing checkers to playing chess," better managing the offense and tossing fewer scattershot throws into coverage. NFL Media's Bucky Brooks sees Newton opting for check-downs or scrambling for positive yards when his deeper options are blanketed. It's paying off, as Cam is completing a league-best 74.3 percent of his third-down passes and showing moxie under pressure:
  1. We asked NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell on Wednesday's "Around the League Podcast" if the Bucs should be encouraged by the start of rookie passer Mike Glennon:

"I think they'd be very happy," Cosell said. "I've watched every snap, and I think Glennon is, in many ways, your sort of prototypical pocket quarterback. He's got a feel for the pocket, the instincts of a passer, the ball comes out, he's got a little bit of pocket movement to him, which is very good. Some functional mobility. I wouldn't say he has a gun, but he can make every throw. So I would say they're very, very happy with Mike Glennon."

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  1. Keep an eye on Ted Ginn in this game. On balance, he's been Carolina's best wide receiver this season. Really. It's the longest sustained quality play he's had as a wide receiver. Steve Smith still can make tough catches, and he's crafty, but he's dropped too many easy passes and no is longer as big a threat in the open field.
  1. The Panthers really could use running back Jonathan Stewart on the field. The oft-injured veteran could play as early as next week after starting the season on the physically unable to perform list. DeAngelo Williams is a solid runner, but he's not as dynamic at making people miss anymore. It's telling that Mike Tolbert practically is splitting carries with him.
  1. Carolina's front seven is among the best in football. The Panthers' defense is second in the league in points allowed. Rookie defensive tackle Kawann Short almost is playing as well as fellow rookie Star Lotulelei, who has been rock solid. They have transformed the defense. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson make an excellent rush duo on the outside, and Luke Kuechly probably is the best inside linebacker in the NFL.
  1. Tampa's run game took a hit with the loss of running back Doug Martin to a shoulder injury, but keep an eye on backup Mike James. The team's sixth-round draft pick will make his first NFL start after showing well against the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday. James runs with a mix of power and vision and held his own as a blocker against Atlanta.

The "Around The League Podcast" spoke with NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell on Wednesday. Click here to listen and subscribe.

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