KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Cam Newton was efficient as a passer and dangerous running the ball at Indianapolis and should be able to do more of the same at Tampa Bay, which ranks 30th in the NFL against the run and 28th against the pass. Admittedly more comfortable running, Newton can dissect the Bucs' poor-tackling front seven but must be wary of a secondary that likes to jump routes. RB LeGarrette Blount cannot put the ball on the ground -- as he did twice at Tennessee last week -- if the Bucs' weary defense is to hold up. The ground game is critical, especially with QB Josh Freeman potentially a game-time decision (shoulder).
FAST FACTS: The Bucs have lost six of their last seven, including five straight. ... Newton averages 304.2 yards passing on the road.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Just when the Panthers were starting to get something going in their return game it appears they might have hit a bump in the road.
Rookie Kealoha Pilares, who has suddenly become the NFC leader in kickoff return average, missed practice for the second consecutive day Thursday with a quad injury he suffered in last week's win over the Colts.
Pilares had a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Lions two weeks ago.
Then last week he had a 76-yard kickoff return against the Colts that led to a key fourth-quarter field goal.
Head coach Ron Rivera said punt returner Armanti Edwards would get a shot at returning kickoffs if Pilares can't go on Sunday at Tampa Bay.
A college quarterback at Appalachian State, Edwards has been trying to make it in the league as a receiver and returner.
He's been the team's punt returner this season but it only averaging six yards per return. He had two returns for 39 yards in the 2010 preseason.
If the Edwards experiment doesn't work, the team could also use Jordan Pugh in that role.
Backup quarterback Josh Johnson has taken repetitions with the first-team offense the past two days while starter Josh Freeman is unable to throw in practice due to a shoulder injury he suffered on the final play of the Bucs' 23-17 loss to the Titans.
"I'm trying not to get too high or too low, just kind of trying to play even keel and be ready if they call upon me," Johnson said. "I feel real excited to get back out there and play a whole four-quarter game. If the opportunity presents itself, I'm interested to see how it goes. I've been working hard the past two years for an opportunity like this and I'm trying to get out there and execute the game plan."
Freeman has shown progress since injuring his right shoulder Sunday and made a couple of "soft throws," during the walk-through period Thursday. Coach Raheem Morris says the team may not decide which quarterback will start until just prior to Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers.
Freeman has a history of playing through pain.
He broke his right thumb in the preseason in 2010 and did not miss a start. Earlier this year, he sprained the same thumb against the Bears in London Oct. 23 and did not miss a start.
"We look at the progress," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said of Freeman. "And from where he came on Sunday immediately after the game, to yesterday and then today, there's been a tremendous amount of improvement. Obviously, you take a player's pain tolerance into factoring on whether or not you think he's going to be able to play. Just based upon the improvement from yesterday until today, I feel pretty good about it."
Freeman was injured after fumbling the snap on fourth-and-1 last Sunday. He's been limited the past two days to executing mostly the running game portion of practice.
"He went out, threw a couple of soft throws early in walk-throughs this morning," Morris said. "He's getting better. We'll have to see, man, he's a day-to-day type of guy. He's a big man, strong guy, wants to play, wants to be there for his football team. We're preparing J.J. right now, Josh Johnson."
Johnson, who will become a free agent after the season, has not started a game since 2009 when he went 0-4, losing to the Redskins, Eagles, Panthers and Patriots before Freeman took over for good after a 0-7 record. During his streak of starts, Johnson completed 59-of-115 attempts for 649 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
This season, playing mostly in the wildcat formation or mop-up duty, Johnson is 2-of-7 passing for 14 yards and has five rushes for 17 yards, but Olson said the Bucs won't hesitate to start him.
"I know the locker room has a lot of trust in him," Olson said. "And it's just a matter of him getting a chance to go out there and play. He hasn't played now in two years, but he'll get a chance to go out if (Freeman's shoulder) doesn't come around. I think he's excited about the opportunity and I think some of the guys are excited he may have an opportunity to play."
Johnson isn't ready to rule Freeman out of Sunday's game.
"You never know with Free," Johnson said of Freeman. "I've seen him play through a lot of injuries, a lot of stuff, be tough, be a warrior."
--WR Kealoha Pilares is suffering from a quad injury and has missed the last two days of practice and his status for Sunday will be questionable.
--LB Jason Phillips remains out with a lingering calf injury.
--OL Reggie Wells was cut from the team but the Panthers have not filled his roster spot.
--DE Charles Johnson needs 2.5 sacks this season to post his second straight double-digit sack season.
--WR Legedu Naanee seems to have bounced back from Achilles tendinitis and is practicing this week. He did play Sunday against the Colts.
--QB Josh Freeman was limited in practice Thursday and did not throw passes for the second straight day to rest his sore right shoulder that was injured at Tennessee last week.
--DE Michael Bennett has a groin injury and did not practice again Thursday. He is not expected to play against the Panthers.
--DE Adrian Clayborn, who missed Wednesday's practice with a back injury, returned to workouts Thursday and is expected to play against the Panthers.
--DT Albert Haynesworth was held out of practice Thursday to rest a sore knee.