TAMPA, Fla. The Greg Schiano Era officially gets underway this weekend, and the new coach has one ultimate goal in mind for his Tampa Bay Buccaneers: turning the pirate ship back into a championship.
But first, Schiano and his revamped team will need to show that they can compete again in the powerhouse NFC South Division and snap the 10-game losing streak that accompanies them into the 2012 regular season.
The latter task wont be easy given the opponent and the quarterback theyll be facing at 4:25 p.m. Sunday inside Raymond James Stadium: the fast-improving Carolina Panthers, powered by the electrifying passing and running of second-year pro Cam Newton.
The curiosity factor over the new-look Bucs and the chance to watch them try to stop one of the NFLs top playmakers wasnt enough to prevent another blackout.
The club announced Thursday that not enough tickets had been sold 72 hours prior to kickoff, so the game that will feature defensive back Ronde Barber making his landmark 200th straight start wont be televised locally, much to the frustration of many Bay Area fans. And the run of blacked-out Buc games on local airwaves continues, with only two contests shown in the Tampa Bay area since 2010.
Perhaps the memory of how the 6-10 Panthers pummeled the Bucs twice last year by scores of 38-19 in Tampa and 48-16 in Charlotte put a damper on ticket sales. Newton threw for one touchdown but ran for three more in their first meeting; in the second, he passed for three touchdowns and ran for one.
Carolina has plenty of offensive weapons the running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and dangerous wide receiver Steve Smith to name a few but the name of the game for Tampa Bay will be trying to contain Newton.
In his first NFL season last year, Newton set a rookie record by passing for 4,051 yards, while combining for 31 touchdowns (17 by air, 14 on the ground). He also rushed for 706 yards both in designed plays and scrambling out of the pocket.
The Bucs know theyll have their hands full trying to stop the Panthers ground attack, which also means finding a way to corral Newton better for a change.
They will run what is the zone-read game, where their backs are in the shotgun and Cam is reading it and he is running it, Schiano said. Hes also throwing off it. So there is a lot of different things he does for that offense. Its going to have to be an all-encompassing effort. He is certainly one of the elite athletes in the league. So we need to make sure we have different things to account for him.
Someone asked the question earlier in the week about how do you shut him down? I don't think you do. I think you just try to limit him."
The Bucs, of course, arent the same team that got steamrolled by Carolina a year ago, the two wins giving the Panthers a 14-9 all-time lead in the series. Schiano was hired by the Glazer Family and general manager Mark Dominic to replace Raheem Morris, whose young squad jumped off to a 4-2 start before falling apart at the seams with virtually no free-agent talent or veteran leadership.
Schiano, known for his detail-oriented, disciplined approach, left behind a successful program he built at Rutgers to try to turn around the floundering Bucs. Hes overhauled the offense, installing a pound-the-run approach to set up passes downfield. And hes stressed a hard-nosed, attacking style of play on defense.
The Glazers also opened up their bank account to compete on the free-agent market, shelling out big bucks for wide receiver Vincent Jackson (55.5 million over five years, offensive guard Carl Nicks (47.5 million over five) and cornerback Eric Wright (37.5 million over five).
And theres also an infusion of promising newcomers, with a pair of first-round draft picks in the starting lineup: tailback Doug Martin of Boise State and strong safety Mark Barron of Alabama.
Im really excited to get out there. Ive been looking forward to this day ever since training camp, Martin said. I have a lot of confidence in the offense and have been training and practicing very hard. Hopefully itll show on the field.
Tampa Bays success much like that Carolina's hinges on the quarterback. The face of the franchise, Josh Freeman, hopes to bounce back from a down season in 2011 surrounded by a stronger supporting cast.
The Bucs hope that Jackson will elevate the receiving corps significantly, and create more openings for incumbent No. 1 wideout Mike Williams, as well as speedster Arrelious Benn (returning from a knee injury that kept him out most of camp). Martin, a muscular 5-9. 233-pounder, won the starting job in battle with burly 6-0, 247-pound LeGarrette Blount. But the combination of the darting, elusive Martin and the power running of Blount gives the team a 1-2 punch it hasnt had since the old Warrick Dunn-Mike Alstott days.
Defensively, the secondary looks strong with Wright and Aqib Talib manning the right and left corner spots, respectively, with Barber moving inside in his 16th season as free safety next to Barron. The linebacking corps is anchored by two-year pro Mason Foster in the middle, flanked by promising Nebraska rookie Lavonte David on the weak side and six-year veteran Quincy Black on the strong side.
The biggest question is the defensive line, which could wind up shuttling players in and out to create the pass-rush the Bucs hope to generate. With starting tackle Brian Price traded to Chicago, Roy Miller anchors the middle alongside former first-round pick Gerald McCoy, who missed much of the past two seasons with separate biceps injuries. At right defensive end is Adrian Clayborn, the teams first pick from 2011, with Michael Bennett on the left side, taking over for injured second-year standout Daquan Bowers (torn Achilles).
Its really exciting to get ready to play against Cam Newton and the first game with Coach Schiano and all the new players weve got, Bennett said. So theres a lot of excitement around here. Theyve got Newton and Steve Smith and all those guys who are so good and went to the Pro Bowl last year. But weve got a lot of guys who are hungry this year. Were going to play as hard as we can.
Millers take on Newton: To us, hes the best scrambler in the league, so we just have to find a way to stop him. Thats hard, because he can throw and he can run. Theyve got a very, very good offense. All those running backs and receivers, theyre so well-balanced that they can hit you from any position. We just have to play fundamentally sound defense and be where were supposed to be.
Wright expects to see a lot of Smith on Sunday, but he says the defense is ready.
I think weve done a great job of knowing our responsibilities, and trying to make sure we execute the defense properly, said Wright. I think the chemistry is there.
The Panthers trained this past week at Bradentons IMG Academies, with the Democratic National Convention taking over downtown Charlotte. That gave them a chance to focus on the opener and get accustomed to the Florida heat.
This week is somewhat of a challenge for us to grasp not only a whole new scheme (employed by the Bucs and defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan) but wondering how these guys are going to attack us, Newton said in a conference call.
Newton hopes to build on the stellar foundation he built as a rookie, while helping the Panthers once again contend in the division. Its a new season and were coming in with a new slate, he said. A lot of things that we struggled at last year cant be the things we struggle with this year, Thats what we worked on in the offseason. Hopefully we can do the proper things we need to so we can get a win this week.
The same can be said of the Bucs: new team, new start, and high hopes of turning around the old pirate ship.