The Carolina Panthers didn’t expect to be in the same situation as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a quarter of the way through the season.
One of them will take a step in the right direction in Monday night’s game at Bank of America Stadium.
“Four games doesn’t make a season. We have been in this situation before,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “This is a challenge. We have to accept this challenge. We have to take it one game at a time, and that’s the approach.”
Both teams hold 1-3 records.
While the Buccaneers are in a rebuilding phase with a first-year coach, the Panthers are the defending NFC champions.
“I think we should be better than we are,” Rivera said. “We’ve had some opportunities that we haven’t taken advantage of.”
Tampa Bay is playing back-to-back games against last season’s Super Bowl participants after a home loss to the Denver Broncos. Adding to the task is several injuries that have created uncertainties.
“Somebody needs to rise up anytime another guy is down,” Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said. “We have high expectations for everybody.”
The tricky part for the Panthers is preparing to be without quarterback Cam Newton, who was placed in the NFL’s concussion protocol after a late-game hit last week in Atlanta and was officially ruled out on Saturday.
Derek Anderson will make his third start for Carolina since joining the team in 2011. He was 2-0 in his other two starts, both against the Buccaneers in 2014 when Newton was injured.
Anderson finished last Sunday’s game, completing 17 of 23 pass attempts for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He completed 49 of 74 pass attempts for 501 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in his other two starts for the Panthers.
“We’re going to do what we do, play who we play,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said after Saturday’s practice. “We’ve done this before. It’s that next man up mentality. We’ve done it before.”
Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston hasn’t been immune from hits that have drawn concerns as well.
“Jameis is taking some hits that we would like him not to take because he is trying to extend some plays,” Koetter said.
If Winston is sharp, he might uncover some cracks in the Panthers, who have defensive issues to sort through.
The Panthers were torched by Atlanta receiver Julio Jones, who gained 300 yards, in last week’s game in a defensive meltdown that was disturbing.
“We tried to take some things away,” Rivera said. “A lot of these young guys are starting to learn how to play.”
This week’s task for the Carolina defense comes with Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans, who’s one of two players in the NFL ranking in the top 10 in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
The trouble for Tampa Bay has been turnovers. The Buccaneers are minus-9 in turnover ratio and that’s not a formula that’s working.
“We can’t put our defense in that position,” Koetter said. “That is killing us right now.”
Koetter said Winston is his own harshest critic and he expects an appropriate response.
“Jameis is such a competitive guy,” he said. “He is always trying to make a play when sometimes there is no play to be made. … We can’t force the football. He has got to be able to cut our losses. There’s nothing wrong with punting.”
But until rushing attack improves from 82.5 yards per game, there are going to be some tough spots for Winston.
“We’re not running the ball efficiently enough,” Koetter said. “We’re not being productive enough in the run game and we’re having to rely too much on our pass game.”
The Panthers are perplexed because they have the same personnel in many areas from a year ago when they lost only once during the regular season. Rivera called for patience to some degree, pointing out it’s a process.
“It’s learning to play with all the tools we have,” he said.
Tampa Bay officially ruled out only wide receiver Cecil Shorts III due to a hamstring injury and likely will be missing other key players as well.
The Bucs are expected to be without their top two running backs in Doug Martin (hamstring) and Charles Sims (knee), who are listed as doubtful.
In addition, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (calf) was listed as doubtful on the Bucs’ final injury report Saturday. Defensive end Robert Ayers (ankle), who had 9.5 sacks last season, has missed the last two weeks and also is listed as doubtful.
“Injuries are a rough part of this game,” coach Dirk Koetter said Saturday. “They’re no fun, especially for the players. The rules are the rules. They’re the same for everybody and we’re gonna be ready. The guys that we put out there, they’re gonna play their tails off.”
McCoy’s potential absence complicates matters for the Buccaneers’ defense.
“He usually is going to draw a double team,” Koetter said.
The Buccaneers added defensive tackle John Hughes since the Denver game to provide depth for a banged-up front.
Both teams have lost to Denver. Tampa Bay’s victory came at Atlanta, where the Panthers lost last week.
The Panthers have won the last six matchups with the Buccaneers, including at home in last season’s regular-season finale. They’ll meet in this season’s finale in Tampa, Fla.