1. Panthers WR Adam Thielen vs. Buccaneers CB Christian Izien
Thielen, the long-time Viking in his first season with Carolina, is the Panthers’ leading pass-catcher by a very wide margin. Thielen has been a high-volume receiver for his new team, hauling in 77 passes and scoring four touchdowns, though his per-catch average is a career-low 9.5 yards. No other player on the roster has more than 28 receptions. The Panthers have been using Thielen primarily out of the slot – through the first 10 games of the season he had run 70.5% of his routes out of the slot, the highest average of his career – and all four of his touchdowns have come from that starting point. That means he’ll see a lot of rookie Christian Izien, the Buccaneers nickel corner, who is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. The 6-2 Thielen will have a height advantage on the 5-10 Izien, but the Bucs’ rookie has shown the change of direction skills necessary to survive in the slot and has also proved to be a sure open-field tackler. Izien should expect a busy day, as Carolina passers (mostly Bryce Young but Andy Dalton started one game) have already targeted Thielen an even 100 times through 11 games.
2. Buccaneers T Luke Goedeke vs. Panthers OLB Brian Burns
Luke Goedeke will also draw one of the Buccaneers’ most important tasks on Sunday as he will spend much of the day trying to prevent Burns, who rushes from both sides but somewhat more often over the right end of the offensive line, from getting into Baker Mayfield’s personal space. Burns leads the Panthers in sacks (6.0) and quarterback pressures (30) and he’s exhibited a blazingly-fast get-off rate at the snap of 0.81 seconds on average. This is not a new development for Burns, a 2019 first-round pick who had at least 7.5 sacks in each of his first four seasons, peaking at 12.5 last year when he made his second Pro Bowl. Goedeke has answered one of the Bucs’ most pressing questions from before the season by playing well at the right tackle spot that Pro Bowler Tristan Wirfs had vacated to move to left tackle. The Bucs originally drafted Goedeke to play guard in 2022 but chose to move him back to his natural college position this year to pleasing results. Though the Bucs’ pass protection has slipped a bit in recent weeks and Goedeke has faced some very challenging opponent, through the first seven games of the season he had allowed the ninth-lowest pressure rate among right tackles in the NFL. Goedeke’s 6-5, 312-pound frame makes him tough to go through on power rushes and he’s shown the nimble feet needed to reroute speed rushers on most Sundays this season.
3. Panthers G Chandler Zavala vs. Buccaneers NT Vita Vea
On the other side of the ball, the Buccaneers will hope to find a matchup to their advantage in Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea against the Panthers’ starting left guard, Chandler Zavala, a rookie drafted in the fourth round this past spring. Vea will likely see a lot of action against veteran center Bradley Bozeman, but he does move around the line and attack from different angles so he should come into contact with Zavala plenty of times as well. In addition, opposing teams often try to double-team the powerful and mountainous Vea with a center and a guard, so Zavala could factor into the efforts to stop him that way, too. Vea leads the Buccaneers with 5.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits, while also serving as a key figure in the team’s run defense because of how hard he is to move in the trenches. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Zavala had allowed a 14.7 QB pressure rate through the Panthers’ first nine games of the season, third highest among interior offensive linemen. The Buccaneers obviously want to get pressure on the Panthers’ talented rookie quarterback, but given that he stands 5-10 it would probably be particularly effective to have those rushers come up the middle and shut down throwing lanes.
4. Buccaneers RB Rachaad White vs. Panthers LB Frankie Luvu
Frankie Luvu, who originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent and didn’t get a qualifying offer after his third season with the Jets, has stunningly emerged as the next in a long line of standout Panthers linebackers. That has been a particularly welcome development for the Panthers after Shaq Thompson saw his season end after just two games due to a broken leg. Luvu actually emerged as a top performer last season when he got his first extended opportunity to start and produced 111 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, one interception, four passes defensed and one fumble recovery. He hasn’t slowed down in 2023, leading the team with 83 tackles and making plays as a pass-rusher (3.5 sacks) and in coverage (four passes defensed). Luvu’s pass-rush win rate of 22.6% is ninth among all NFL players who have had at least 50 pass-rush snaps, so Rachaad White will have to be on point with his blocking skills when he stays in for pass protection. Of course, White is one of the NFL’s leading pass-catching running backs, with 43 catches for 364 yards, so he’ll flip the challenge to Luvu when he leaves the backfield. White seems to be getting into more of a groove as a runner, too, and he’s coming off his first 100-yard game of the season in Week 12 at Indianapolis.