Know your opponent: Reeling Carolina Panthers will visit the past in Tampa Bay Bucs game

It’s true that the Carolina Panthers have a lot going on right now — what with a league-worst 1-10 record and firing their head coach less than a year into his tenure.

But they still have a game to play on Sunday.

And they’ll visit part of their past in doing so.

The Panthers play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 4:05 p.m. Sunday in Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs, led by former Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield, are 4-7 and still very much in the NFC South divisional title race — as strange as that sounds — with the Saints and Falcons sitting at 5-6.

Here’s what you need to know about the Bucs.

Baker Mayfield hot start has cooled off

In some ways, Mayfield can relate to Frank Reich — the coach who was fired Monday 11 games into his stint in Carolina.

That’s about when his future as a Panther became clear, too.

Carolina traded for Mayfield ahead of the 2022 season, and that spawned a bunch of optimism and playoff aspiration. By the first week of December, though, the team had released him, and he was busy trying to find a new NFL life.

Mayfield modestly impressed with the Los Angeles Rams and then won the starting job in Tampa Bay ahead of Week 1 this year. He started off hot — leading the team to three wins in its first four games — but then substantially cooled off.

He’s recorded a 64.7 completion percentage and thrown for 2,588 yards and 17 touchdowns on the season to date. The quarterback who grew up idolizing gunslinger Brett Favre also has his fair share of interceptions with seven and has been sacked 26 times.

The Panthers’ defense has remained solid all season. It has held good quarterbacks at bay even while the secondary is still recovering from piles of injuries. It has gotten better against the run, too, which was showcased last week against the Derrick Henry-led Titans, who struggled to put the game away on the ground because of a stout run defense.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield (6), here protected by right tackle Luke Goedeke (67), has done a nice job of keeping plays alive even after pressure arrives. (Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield (6), here protected by right tackle Luke Goedeke (67), has done a nice job of keeping plays alive even after pressure arrives. (Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

Bucs’ key weapon on offense

Mayfield isn’t the only ghost of games past the Panthers will have to visit on Sunday. The other guy? Mike Evans.

The star receiver was the hammer that Tom Brady used a year ago to effectively kill the Panthers’ playoff push at the end of last year. In that Week 17 matchup last year, Brady threw for 432 yards — 207 of which were to Evans, who also added three touchdowns in a 30-24 thrilling Bucs win.

Evans, again, is the Bucs’ top target this year. He has a team-high 91 targets for 54 catches and 850 yards and nine touchdowns (which is six more than any other pass-catcher). The team’s leading rusher is Rachaad White, who has 156 carries for 559 yards and four touchdowns.

It’s worth noting that the Bucs’ pass play percentage is ninth-highest in the NFL (60.44%) this year, and that they rank 23rd in points per game with a 19.3 average and 22nd in yards per game with a 304.1 average.

Can Bryce Young have a big game vs. Tampa Bay?

Rookie quarterback Bryce Young has yet to truly break out in a Carolina uniform. Could that change Week 12?

That might be tough.

The Bucs are quite good at turning their opponents over — they average a +0.5 turnover margin, which ranks seventh in the league — and that spells trouble for a quarterback who has thrown nearly as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns (nine).

They’re also pretty decent as a pass rushing unit. Young has suffered 40 sacks and many more pressures this year — it’s part of the reason why this offense has been so uninspiring — and the Panthers’ offensive line will have its hands full again.

Leaders on the Bucs’ defense include linebacker Lavonte David, who leads the team in tackles with 90; Vita Vea, who leads the team with 5.5 sacks; and defensive backs Christian Izien and Dee Delaney, who each have two interceptions on the year.