The Bucks are going to the playoffs! (If they can stop Carolina’s running game.)

TAMPA — Forget Sam Darnold. For the purposes of this conversation, you can also forget about Tom Brady.

There’s only one reality scenario that could allow the Carolina Panthers to win on Sunday and potentially derail Tampa Bay’s playoff hopes.

That is if they suppress the Buccaneers.

If their offensive line traps, confuses, misdirects and otherwise abuses Tampa Bay’s top seven with their run game. Like they did against Detroit last week. As they have done in nearly every win this season.

Carolina has a winning formula that doesn’t involve a lot of passing. In every game they’ve been forced to throw more than 25 times, the Panthers have lost. If you count, that’s 0-7. It makes sense if you go from Baker Mayfield to PJ Walker to quarterback Darnold.

In an era where teams are throwing more balls than ever before, the Panthers are doing the opposite. Since Steve Wilks took over as interim head coach in mid-October, few offenses have kept the ball on the ground better than Carolina. These teams have quarterbacks.

The Panthers and Ravens are the only offensive teams in the NFL with three different running backs to rush for 375 yards in 2022. That might explain why Bucs defensive line coach/run game coordinator Kacy Rodgers has an out box so he can work lunchtime and be in his office after midweek practice.

“Gives my stomach ache,” Rodgers joked watching video of the Carolina-Detroit game.

Panthers running back D'Onta Foreman (33) fended off a tackle attempt by Lions defensive end Josh Paschal (93) in the two teams' Christmas Eve game.
Panthers running back D’Onta Foreman (33) fended off a tackle attempt by Lions defensive end Josh Paschal (93) in the two teams’ Christmas Eve game. [ BRIAN WESTERHOLT | AP ]

The Panthers rushed for a franchise-record 320 yards that afternoon, with running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard both rushing for more than 100 yards first half.

Now, three years ago, that wouldn’t have been a worry. The Buccaneers ranked No. 1 in the NFL’s run defense in 2019. The same is true for 2020. Even last season, the Bucks ranked third in the league in run stoppers.

But 2022 isn’t kind to Tampa Bay’s defense. The Bucks have increased their rushing yards per game from 73.8 in 2019 to 80.6 (2020), 92.5 (2021) and 120.3 this year.

Some of them are injury related. The Bucs have held the team under 90 yards with both Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks in the lineup. The problem is that Vea hasn’t practiced much of the week, and his playing time will be determined by game time.

So what do the Bucs need to shut down the Panthers run game and force Darnold to try to beat them through the air?

“Later in the year, it’s all about technology and fundamentals,” Bucs defensive lineman Will Gholston said. “If you knock them back, you stay in your slot, you get out and make a difference, I feel like we’re going to be able to do what we have to do to stop them.”

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This is a fact. That’s not to say the Panthers are an unstoppable machine. As good as Carolina was against Detroit, Pittsburgh’s offensive line was completely manhandled a week ago.

When the teams faced off in Charlotte in October, the Buccaneers were without Hicks and managed to keep Carolina’s run game under control for much of the first half.

But the Panthers never stopped getting the ball as Tampa Bay’s offense struggled. They kept pounding until Foreman ran for 60 yards late in the third quarter, followed by Hubbard’s 17-yard touchdown.

Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard ran past Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone in the first half of a Dec. 24 game.
Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard ran past Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone in the first half of a Dec. 24 game. [ RUSTY JONES | AP ]

“They’re very cool running the ball,” Rodgers said. “They sort of know how they win. They run 40-plus times a game, minimize passing, don’t turn over, play defense well.”

While the Bucks have started with five backups for most of the season, they’re likely to pack an extra big man in the front seven to fill the paint.

That would basically challenge the Panthers to either hand the ball to Darnold or simply beat Tampa Bay’s defensive front.

“It’s football at its simplest. There won’t be any secrets,” Rodgers said. “When they catch Detroit with eight minutes left, they’re in a three-set tight end. You know what they’re doing. The worst thing in this league is when a team is doing something, you know They’re doing it and you can’t stop it. That’s the worst feeling in football.

“That’s what we think about the players this week. If we can’t stop them from escaping, nothing else matters.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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