Who can hit Fitz­patrick, pre­vent more ‘Fitzmagic’?

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Panthers Vs. Bucs - BY BREN­DAN MARKS bmarks@char­lot­teob­server.com Bren­dan Marks: 704-358-5889, @bren­dan­r­marks

Each week the Carolina Pan­thers play in 2018, the Observer will choose a po­ten­tial game-changer – the player most likely to make a huge im­pact on the game. This week’s choice:

De­fen­sive ends Wes Hor­ton, Mario Ad­di­son, Efe Obada and Julius Pep­pers

Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers quar­ter­back Ryan Fitz­patrick didn’t earn his nick­name with­out rea­son.

If peo­ple are call­ing you “Fitzmagic,” you bet­ter be able to back that swag­ger up on the field.

For the most part this sea­son, Fitz­patrick has done that. He has thrown for more than 1,500 yards and 13 touch­downs in less than four full games. He was benched mid­way through the team’s Week 4 loss to Chicago, and then played the end of last week’s game against Cincin­nati af­ter Jameis Win­ston was benched. With only five in­ter­cep­tions dur­ing that same span, he’s cap­tained the Bucs to the NFL’s No. 1 of­fense.

That means when the Pan­thers host Tampa on Sun­day, the bearded guy sling­ing the ball all over the place will be the pri­mary fo­cus.

And that, in turn, makes it paramount that Carolina’s de­fen­sive line gets to Fitz­patrick early and of­ten.

Whether it’s Julius Pep­pers, Mario Ad­di­son, Wes Hor­ton or Efe Obada, the Pan­thers will need their full sta­ble of pass-rush­ers at peak per­for­mance to make sure there isn’t any Fitzmagic float­ing around.

“It’s a group ef­fort,” Hor­ton said. “It’s not just one in­di­vid­ual get­ting home, col­lec­tively it’s guys on the in­side and guys on the out­side.”

Tampa has al­lowed 21 sacks this sea­son, and while Fitz­patrick has only been in for eight of those, it proves that the Bucs of­fen­sive line is vul­ner­a­ble.

It’s also not as if sacks are the only thing that mat­ter, as Hor­ton pointed out last week.

“It’s just af­fect­ing the quar­ter­back, you know? It doesn’t al­ways have to be a sack,” Hor­ton said. “If we can col­lapse the pocket, make that quar­ter­back throw out of a well, if we can get our hands up, make a quar­ter­back el­e­vate a ball – there’s dif­fer­ent types of ways to af­fect the game, so it’s not just all about the sacks.”

Coach Ron Rivera also ex­plained Thurs­day why the team’s pass rush has been so ef­fec­tive of late, record­ing five sacks in the past two games against Bal­ti­more and Philadel­phia.

“A big part of it has been that the rush has been match­ing the sit­u­a­tion,” Rivera said. “When you get teams in sec­ond-and-long and stuff like that, you want to be able to get pres­sure on the quar­ter­back. On cer­tain third down sit­u­a­tions, third-and-medium, third-and-long, you want to be able to get pres­sure on the quar­ter­back.

“But the big­gest thing more so than any­thing else is on first down, you’ve gotta be suc­cess­ful. You can’t be in sec­ond-and-2, sec­ond-and-3, and then that trans­lates to third-and-2 or third-and-3. So again, it’s about hav­ing suc­cess ear­lier in the downs as op­posed to later on.”

The one po­ten­tial thing Carolina has go­ing for it?

Tampa’s deep pass­ing at­tack re­quires Fitz­patrick to hold the ball longer than for, say, a quick out pass or even an in­ter­me­di­ate one.

DeSean Jack­son and Mike Evans are great tar­get, but those routes take time to de­velop … and give Carolina’s pass rush more time to get home to Fitz­patrick.

Of course, Tampa usu­ally keeps ex­tra men in for pro­tec­tion on those routes, Hor­ton ex­plained, but the (overly sim­pli­fied) for­mula is still there:

Wait for Fitz­patrick to drop back on some of those long passes, and then strike while he’s hold­ing the ball longer.

Poof – no more Fitzmagic.

FRANK VICTORES AP

Tampa Bay quar­ter­back Ryan Fitz­patrick (14) and wide re­ceiver Mike Evans (13) cel­e­brate a touch­down dur­ing the sec­ond half of last Sun­day’s game at Cincin­nati.

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