Burning questions for Buccaneers-Panthers ‘TNF’ game

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head to Carolina to take on the Panthers in a huge divisional game for both teams Thursday night.

Tampa is coming off a mistake-filled home loss to the San Francisco 49ers in its season opener. Meanwhile, the Panthers lost a hotly-contested affair to the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams.

This is as close to an early-season must win as there is for both teams. Since 2007, only 11 percent of the teams that start 0-2 earn a playoff appearance that season.

It’s in this that we give you five burning questions heading into the all-important NFC South matchup.

Can Jameis Winston avoid the turnovers?

Winston simply did not give Tampa Bay a chance to win this past Sunday. Not only did the former No. 1 pick throw three interceptions, two were returned for touchdowns. That was the difference in a 31-17 home loss to San Francisco. All said, Winston has now turned the ball over 79 times in 57 career games.

This has to be troubling for new head coach Bruce Arians and Co. The hope was that Winston’s turnover proneness was a thing of the past. If Tampa Bay is going to get a road win and avoid an 0-2 start, Winston must play flawless football. It’s that simple.

Will we get a Christian McCaffrey encore?

This star running back followed up an absurd sophomore campaign with potentially the best single-game performance of his career in Week 1. McCaffrey tallied 209 total yards and two touchdowns on 29 touches. Carolina’s reliance on him led to a rather hilarious comment from quarterback Cam Newton.

McCaffrey has now gained a whopping 2,174 total yards in his past 17 games. That includes 117 receptions out of the backfield. It’s not going to be easy Thursday against a Bucs defensive front that includes Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. Is McCaffrey capable of repeating last week’s performance?

How will the Buccaneers generate a pass rush?

It’s not a surprise that Tampa Bay struggled getting to 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 1. The signal caller has the second-quickest release in the NFL. Tampa Bay is also without last season’s leading sack getter, Jason Pierre-Paul, as he recovers from an off-season car accident. Even then, a total of one hit on a quarterback is not going to get it done.

Who will provide a pass rush against a quarterback in Cam Newton who was hit five times and sacked three times against the Rams last week? Given the Bucs’ secondary issues, this is a major question heading into Thursday night.

Is Ronald Jones the answer in Tampa Bay?

This former second-round pick got it going big time against San Francisco last week. Jones recorded 93 yards on 14 touches after gaining a total of 77 yards as a rookie last season. He seems to be ahead of Peyton Barber when it comes to touches in Bruce Arians’ offense this season.

One has to wonder if this could lead to a David Johnson-like performance. The Arizona Cardinals back broke out big time under Arians back in 2016. It could be huge for the Buccaneers given the turnover machine that is Mr. Winston. It’s also not going to be easy against a Panthers defense that boasts Gerald McCoy and Kawann Short in the defensive front.

Can Cam Newton rebound from bad Week 1 outing?

Newton will be the first to tell you he was rusty during an otherwise ho-hum Week 1 performance. That’s to be expected. The former NFL MVP is coming off shoulder surgery and has changed his delivery. It’s going to take some time to get used to.

With that said, Newton has a plus-level matchup against a Buccaneers defense that has no real pass rush. If the quarterback struggles in a game that should suit him well, it will be telling moving forward on the season.