CHARLOTTE -- The game plan for this one is simple.
The Carolina Panthers are going to put their best attribute front and center. So are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Which one performs better -- the Panthers' rushing offense or the Bucs' rushing defense -- will likely determine the outcome of the game.
These two teams are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the running game.
The Bucs have only allowed one rushing touchdown all year, fewest in the league. They've also surrendered just one individual 100-yard back (surprisingly, both were achieved by Kansas City).
"They're a very good defense," Panthers fullback Brad Hoover said.
The Panthers have scored 19 touchdowns on the ground, second-most in the NFL behind only Tennessee. While running back DeAngelo Williams saw his streak of four straight 100-yard games snapped last week, he did make up for it by scoring four touchdowns.
"Offensively, they are running the ball with complete authority right now," Tampa coach Jon Gruden said of Carolina.
Monday night, they'll meet in the middle.
In the first game, the Panthers were held to a season-low 40 rushing yards, though the tone was set early. After falling behind 14-0, they actually drove to Tampa's 1-yard line, but Jonathan Stewart and Jake Delhomme got tangled up and fell, causing them to miss a scoring opportunity which could have gotten them back into the game.
"One of many things," Panthers coach John Fox said when asked about the need to run better this time. "We really did not execute very well. We had the ball at the 1-yard line that our quarterback and running back ran into each other and fell down. We were probably fortunate that we didn't fumble the ball and lose it. There are a lot of areas that we need to improve in. The running game is definitely one of them."
So while the Bucs focus on keeping wide receiver Steve Smith in check, cornerback Ronde Barber said the key to holding the Panthers to just a field goal in the first meeting was doing the dirty work on the ground.
"We stopped the run, period," Barber said. "If you go back and look at that game, which we've done already, not that we shut them out, but we controlled their explosive plays in the running. We had some things set up for Steve that kind of limited him in the passing game, although he did get loose a little bit later on in the passing game. By that point, we were up pretty big. We're just familiar with them like they're familiar with us. We made very little mistakes in that football game and tried to force their hand, and it worked out for us that time.
"This time, it will obviously be a little bit different. Both teams had a bunch of weeks in between them, and adjustments will be made on both sides. ... Whoever makes the least amount of mistakes and finds a way to make one or two big plays will win this thing."
The Panthers should benefit from being healthy, as right tackle Jeff Otah and center Ryan Kalil remain in the lineup after missing the first Bucs game. Meanwhile, the Bucs could be without defensive tackle Jovan Haye, who has been out of practice all week with a knee injury.
But regardless of personnel, the Panthers make no bones about their plan. They're going to run, run and run some more. They're one of just seven teams in the league with more rushing attempts than passes, and they're going to pound at you even if it doesn't look like it's working.
Williams and Stewart have combined for 36 rushes for negative yards (18 each), but have countered that with 39 for 10 yards or more (23 for Williams and 16 for Stewart). Williams said he doesn't care how the yards come, as long as they provide wins, and so far, that has held.
But while the Panthers have gone against good rush defenses before (Minnesota, Chicago), this presents a unique challenge.
Williams laughed, telling reporters that during the Panthers' film study, they had to go back to last year's playoffs to see more than one touchdown scored against the Bucs. He said it helps that their personnel has been relatively stable, but that Tampa's clearly a well-schooled defensive unit.
"You can tell they've been together a while and know the ins and outs of that defense," Williams said. "They know their strengths and weaknesses. They try to show you their weakness, but in actuality, it's their strength.
"They don't really have a weakness on that defense."
Hoover, who has butted heads with the Bucs' defense for nine years now, said that kind of technical excellence shows in the tendencies he sees when he watches tape. Disguised coverages they use against other teams simply don't turn up in Carolina games, and the kind of tells you could normally pick up on aren't there because of the familiarity.
"They play every team in the league differently than us when we come to play them," Hoover said. "All the telltale signs are totally opposite when they come up against us. We just have to be ready to play."
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