Lovie Smith views Sunday’s regular season opener against the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium as a statement game. Smith is eager for the new-look Bucs to establish a true home field advantage, creating an atmosphere at Raymond James Stadium that opponents fear.
“It’s critical for our fans," said Smith. "It’s been a while since they’ve really been happy with the product that they’ve seen out at Raymond James. We've been working to do something about that and we hope that they would come out to see. We’ve talked a lot about what we’re going to do, we would hope that they would come out and give us a chance. Once we get our fans in the stands, we’ve got to play good football, it’s as simple as that.”
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy agrees that Sunday’s game against the defending division champs can set the tone for the entire season.
“Opening game is always a statement game, regardless of who you play," said McCoy. "If we weren’t playing at home and not playing a division opponent, it would still be a statement game. It’s a stamp on what this season is going to be like. You always want to start fast and finish faster. So yes, it’s definitely a statement game.”
The Bucs dropped two games to Carolina last season, including 27-6 drubbing in December in which the Panthers’ top-ranked defense kept the Bucs at bay.
“We lost. That’s about it,” McCoy said when asked about the 2013 losses. “Past that, details aren’t really clear, but I do know we didn’t have enough up front, I do know that.
“He (Cam Newton) got comfortable,” McCoy added. “He’s not a guy you want to get comfortable because then he gives you those highlight plays making those Barry Sanders-type cuts, making people look bad. So we don’t want him to get comfortable.”
With whispers that Carolina’s offensive line may try triple teams against him, McCoy said he welcomes the challenge, adding that such tactics would benefit his teammates.
“I don’t care. It is what it is,” McCoy said. “Buffalo tried the same thing and you saw what happened. So if they want to try it, then go ahead. It is what it is. I’m not trying to play for myself; I play to get triple teamed. I play so I make my teammates better. That’s one thing that No. 99 [Warren Sapp] always talks about: are you making the people around you better? That’s one thing he did and that’s one thing I’m working for. I want everybody around me to be great. It’s not about me – it’s about everyone around me.”
While McCoy is looking for the Bucs’ defense to step up and perform to its potential, the defensive front of the Panthers is already there. The Panthers led the league with 60 sacks last year and finished the year second behind only the Seahawks in yards (301.2) and points (15.1) allowed per game.
McCoy believes the Bucs have addressed the unit’s shortcomings in free agency and can have the top defense in the league. In responding to the proclamation, Smith said, “You have to have that talk. As I told our front seven out there today, you talk to anybody in the country, and they’re going to talk about Carolina’s front seven, their front four. And they should. They had what, 60 sacks? They have great personnel, they play hard every down. I mean, that’s what everyone else is saying. For our guys, yes, we want to move in that position. So yes, I want our players talking that way. That’s our goal for people to talk about us; If not the best, one of the best.”
Question marks for the Panthers heading into Sunday’s game revolve around the offense. Reports out of Carolina insist that Newton looks good despite practicing with a hairline rib fracture. He wore a flak jacket during Monday’s practice.
“He looked good, threw a few more passes than we expected, said coach Ron Rivera on the team’s web site. “We felt pretty good about it. He’s sore, but it’s not like it was when it first happened. He moved around a lot better. I’m excited about it.”
Rivera is not the only one excited about Sunday’s game. McCoy is on tilt for the season opener.
“Offseason sucks. Camp sucks. But game day is lovely,” he said on Monday. “Game week is lovely. You’ve got to love it. You’ve got to love everything that goes into preparation because it’s here now. Coach told us it would go quick. Well it’s here now, so there isn’t any time to be scared now. You got to love it.”
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