Originally posted on Pro Sports Daily  |  Last updated 9/3/12

Carolina at Tampa Bay

Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 715

*TV announcers: Ron Pitts, Mike Martz, Kristina Pink

*Keys to the game: The Bucs brought in a big-play weapon for QB Josh Freeman in the form of WR Vincent Jackson, but new coach Greg Schiano wants to hit the ground running - literally - to set up play-action. That means getting the ball in the hands of rookie RB Doug Martin and letting him test a Panthers linebacking corps that includes veterans Jon Beason and Thomas Davis returning from injuries along with rookie Luke Kuechly. Carolina lacks a strong pass rush outside of DE Charles Johnson, so stopping the run on first and second down is paramount. In fact, neither quarterback may feel much pressure. Tampa Bay had just 26 sacks last season, although the Bucs believe they'll be able play more man and blitz from all angles with CB Eric Wright added opposite Aqib Talib. The Panthers still want to run the ball significantly behind RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to help protect QB Cam Newton. The trio typically forces an eighth defender toward the box, opening big-play shots to WR Steve Smith.

*Matchup to watch - Panthers FS Haruki Nakamura vs. Freeman: Nakamura isn't as athletic and doesn't cover as much ground as Sherrod Martin, but the Panthers are counting on Ed Reed's former understudy to be more assignment-sound. Jackson was brought in to provide more punch to the Bucs' downfield passing game, so Nakamura's range will be tested.

*Player spotlight - Panthers CB Josh Norman: One of the pleasant surprises in training camp, the fifth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina is likely to play the boundary spot in nickel packages. And Norman can expect to be tested often whenever he's in the game.

*Fast facts: Newton's 35 combined touchdowns last season were more than nine full teams had. ... Freeman didn't throw a first-quarter touchdown all of last season.


While the Bucs are a work in progress, the Panthers believe they're poised to turn last season's close losses into victories. With a strong ground game capable of chewing up the clock, they get a key one on the road to kick off the season.

*Our pick: Panthers 24-16

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