Carolina Panthers

Grading the Carolina Panthers in their win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London

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Panthers vs. Buccaneers

Expanded coverage of Carolina’s game vs. Tampa Bay in London

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Perhaps it sounds weird to call a game in Week 6 against a sub-.500 team a “must-win,” but that’s what Sunday felt like at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. The Panthers had already lost once to divisional foe Tampa Bay, and the thought of getting swept by a fellow NFC South opponent that could be pushing for a wild-card spot in December brought all types of potential troublesome playoff scenarios.

No need to worry. The Panthers won, 37-26

Passing offense

A-minus: Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen, for the first time this season, didn’t look like a backup being asked to not lose a game. Sunday was his fourth start of the year, and he looked completely in control, even if his receivers did him no favors in the first half (Curtis Samuel, D.J. Moore and Jarius Wright had their share of drops). But receivers cleaned up their act after halftime, and Allen was balanced in his distribution with four of his targets having at least four catches.

Sunday was Allen’s first multi-touchdown game since his Week 3 debut at Arizona when he shocked everyone by throwing four TD passes. He had been kept in check since (one touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey) but finally looked like more than Cam Newton’s seat warmer. To be fair, Tampa Bay, by far, possesses the NFL’s worst pass defense. But Allen’s performance is nothing to be overlooked — 20 of 32 passing for 227 yards and two touchdowns.

Allen is the first quarterback in NFL history to go his first five career starts without throwing an interception.

Rushing offense

C-minus: The Buccaneers made it a point in Week 2 to not let McCaffrey beat them — and it worked. Sunday? They focused on shutting him down again, and did a good job in terms of yardage, even if he still scored twice — a third effort on a one-yard touchdown run, and a 25-yard reception.

McCaffrey had 22 carries for 31 yards. Curtis Samuel added an 8-yard rushing score on an end-around.

Passing defense

B: Unlike last week, when the Jaguars’ Gardner Minshew made the Panthers’ secondary look silly, Jameis Winston was no match for the Carolina defense. Look beyond the boxscore — more than 200 of his passing yards were in the second half when the game was already in hand.

Winston was intercepted by James Bradberry on the game’s first play (and again on the Bucs’ last), threw another pick in the second quarter to Javien Elliott, a third for good measure to Luke Kuechly in the third quarter and one more to Ross Cockrell in the fourth. But it wasn’t only the secondary making big plays; the Panthers’ pass rush again looked like it may be the NFL’s best.

Carolina sacked Winston six times in the first half (seven in the game), four of which came on back-to-back plays. No two sacks were more notable than Vernon Butler’s with less than 2 minutes to play in the second quarter. The Buccaneers had first-and-10 from the Carolina 12-yard line when Butler forced a strip sack of Winston; however, Tampa Bay recovered. The next play, Butler again had a strip sack, but this time the Panthers fell on the ball, and were able to get out of the first half with a 17-7 lead.

Winston had more success through the air in the second half and finished with 399 passing yards and a touchdown.

Rushing defense

A: We had to doublecheck the box score to make sure the Bucs even used a running back. They did, to little effect. Tampa Bay had 14 carries for 42 yards. Ronald Jones and Dare Ogunbowale scored touchdowns on short runs after drives that were put together through the air.

Special teams

C-plus: The point of this special teams report card is not to try and pile on the Panthers’ Ray-Ray McCloud. Honestly! He’s just been so bad, it’s hard to ignore the liability he has become. McCloud, Carolina’s kick and punt returner, has three fumbles this season (all against Tampa Bay), including one that led to a Bucs’ touchdown Sunday.

There has to be a better option in the return game that’s already on the roster. Reggie Bonnafon? How about Gerald McCoy?

Joey Slye, who missed three kicks in last week’s win against Jacksonville, made 3-of-5 field goals Sunday. One of his misses was on a free kick, and we just appreciated the spectacle of the ordeal.

Coaching

A: Don’t call him “Riverboat Ron” Rivera, call him “Analytics Ron.” If you watched the NFL Network broadcast of Sunday’s game, you’re probably tired of hearing that schtick. Whatever you want to call the Panthers’ coach, just know this: He and his staff were good Sunday.

On fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the first quarter and the score tied 0-0, he decided to go for it. Rather than a poor trick-play call from offensive coordinator Norv Turner like what we saw on the Panthers’ final snap against Tampa Bay in Week 2, Carolina went up the gut with McCaffrey, who stretched the ball across the goal line on a third effort. That set the tone for the game.

And how about a shoutout to special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn who told Brandon Zylstra to be sure to call a fair catch right before halftime so they could try a free kick with 0:01 showing on the clock?

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