Football season is almost upon us! The official season kicks off tonight in New York, but the Bucs won’t play until Sunday afternoon. Greg Schiano will make his NFL head coaching debut at Raymond James Stadium to face off against division foe, Carolina. The Panthers are coming off a solid season considering they had one just 2 games in 2010. We were introduced to rookie phenom, Cam Newton who took the NFL by storm. Even with being the first overall pick in 2011, he defied most expectations and cruised to Rookie of the Year honors. This Sunday will all be about stopping him, or at least slowing him down.
The good news for Buccaneers fans is that the team is relatively healthy to start the season. Of course, Davin Joseph is out for the year, which is a crucial blow. However, he is really the only notable absence at the start of the year. Arrelious Benn is currently the only player on the injury report, but he is probable at this point. He is buried on the depth chart anyways with the addition of Vincent Jackson to the lineup. He will be out to prove he is worth that $55 million contract he signed this offseason. Paired with Mike WIlliams, Josh Freeman has a formidable receiving core to work with this season.
He will need all the help he can get if he is going to rebound from a rough season last year. Freeman had a fantastic 2010 campaign, but took a huge step back last year along with the entire rest of the team. Overall, 2011 was not a good season for Bucs fans. Raheem Morris is no longer coaching the club, but the majority of the roster stays in place. Freeman will receive a pass for his poor season, and look to start fresh this year. He has more playmakers around him than any other previous season so this could be a make or break year for the young signal caller. The Panthers don’t have a particularly strong secondary, so this is perfect opportunity for Freeman to start off strong.
Doug Martin will be making his debut and expects to be a workhorse in his first game. Blount should factor in as well this game, but don’t be surprised to see him eventually weeded out of the offense if he encounters early struggles.
As for the opponent, expect a lot of offense. Carolina’s defense isn’t top notch and their best player, Jon Beason, isn’t at 100%. They will look to counter that with a consistent offense attack. For the most part, this is the same offense that flourished for much of last year. Newton has formed a great rapport with Steve Smith who quickly became his top target. He is coming off a foot infection which could leave him a little rusty entering this contest. Any help the Bucs can get they will gladly take. Jonathan Stewart is nursing an ankle injury and is not guaranteed to suit up. I expect him to play, but we may see a little more DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert than we would usually expect. This is a talented running team with four guys capable of carrying the football, and that includes Newton. The one guy I may be most worried about is Greg Olsen though. He has gained major praise from Coach Ron Rivera, and with Smith and Stewart both a little dinged up, we could see Olsen with an increase in targets.
Carolina is favored in this contest, but there are so many question marks involving the Bucs. If Freeman instantly clicks with Jackson and shows the potential he did in 2010, this could be a turnaround season for Tampa Bay. Of course they could also struggle much like they did all year last season. I think this game could turn into a shootout and either way will be a good, entertaining start to the season.