For the past two games, quarterback Kyle Allen has often been a supporting player in the Carolina offense. His primary role has been to get the ball to Christian McCaffrey and then get out of the way.
Not Sunday. With the way Tampa Bay plays defense, this will be Allen’s chance to sink or swim across the pond.
The Buccaneers are the one team out of five this season that have stifled McCaffrey. The Panthers running back has averaged an astonishing 203.3 total yards in Carolina’s four other games, and through five games overall, McCaffrey has more yards from scrimmage than any NFL player since Jim Brown did in 1963. Those numbers have inserted McCaffrey into the early MVP conversation (although he would still be considered a long shot behind Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson).
The Bucs held McCaffrey to 53 total yards and zero points in Tampa Bay’s 20-14 win Sept. 12. They also stopped McCaffrey on the game’s critical play: fourth-and-1 from the 2 on Carolina’s last offensive play. McCaffrey didn’t gain an inch before getting knocked out of bounds, prompting him to say afterward: “I blew it.”
On the other hand, Cam Newton threw for 333 yards in that game, despite basically playing on one foot (he hasn’t played since and didn’t make the trip to London). Three Carolina receivers had at least 89 yards receiving, although none of them scored.
Since that game plan worked for the Bucs, expect them to use it again in London. Eight men in the box. One or two guys concentrating on McCaffrey, above all else, on every play.
Tampa Bay has played great run defense all season — the Bucs’ average of 3.12 yards allowed per rush attempt is No. 1 in the NFL.
To get Carolina into the end zone (the Panthers never made it there in the first game, scoring on four Joey Slye field goals and a safety), Allen is probably going to have to throw the ball in there. The Bucs dared Newton to beat them, and he couldn’t. Now they will dare Allen.
▪ Given the Bucs’ excellent run defense, some receiver is going to have to make a big play for a long gain. My choice would be Curtis Samuel, who has scored only one touchdown this season.
Samuel knows Tampa Bay will frequently try to single-cover him as the Bucs load up against the run.
“As receivers, that’s what you like,” Samuel said Friday after a drizzly practice in London. “You want that one-on-one matchup. Their coaches trust their cornerbacks, and our coaches trust us. May the best man win.”
▪ McCaffrey had a career-high 37 touches two weeks ago against Houston. Given the back injury he has been nursing this week, as well as the cramps he suffered at the end of the Jacksonville game a week ago after scoring three touchdowns, I imagine the Panthers will be more careful. I’d guess McCaffrey will get closer to 23-25 touches in this game, and that backup tailback Reggie Bonnafon will get five.
▪ Prediction time. I moved to 3-2 picking Carolina games last week after correctly choosing the Panthers to beat Jacksonville. I feel like the Panthers will adjust well enough to edge the Bucs during this unusual week in London. If they don’t, it’s going to be a very long plane ride home. My pick: Carolina 24, Tampa Bay 20.