TAMPA — The Buccaneers defense has one primary task in Sunday’s season opener against the Panthers — jolt QB Cam Newton out of his comfort zone.
Newton had his way with Tampa Bay last year as Carolina posted two lopsided victories. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft completed 41-of-61 passes for 484 yards and four touchdowns against the Bucs, adding 118 yards and two scores on the ground.
“He had too much time and got comfortable,’’ Bucs Pro Bowl DT Gerald McCoy said Monday, regarding last season’s effort against Newton. “He’s not a guy you want to get comfortable because then he gives you those highlight plays, making those Barry Sanders cuts and making people look bad.’’
Newton led Carolina to an NFC South title in 2013, but he will enter Sunday’s matchup nursing a hairline rib fracture.
“What I remember most is how big and fast he is in person,’’ Bucs second-year DT Akeem Spence said. “We’ve got to keep Cam in the pocket because once he gets out, he can outrun guys. When you see his stride in action and you’re taking 40 steps to catch up to his 10, it’s tough.’’
Newton practiced with a flak jacket Monday to protect the injury he suffered in the third preseason game.
“He’s sore, but not like he was when it first happened,’’ Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He moved around a lot better. I’m excited about it, but let’s see how he is (today).’’
Mike Evans of the Bucs won’t be the only rookie wide receiver on the field Sunday harboring big expectations.
Johnny Manziel’s favorite target at Texas A&M will make his pro debut on the opposing sideline from former Florida State standout Kelvin Benjamin, selected by Carolina in the first round.
“I know him real well and he’s a cool dude,’’ Evans said of Benjamin, who enjoyed a solid preseason and has the imposing size (6-5) to be an immediate red-zone threat. “Hopefully, our defense can shut him down and I can make some plays.’’
That won’t be easy against a Panthers defense that ranked among the NFL’s best in virtually every significant category in 2013.
“They have a great defense all around,’’ Evans said. “They’re a real physical team and hopefully we can match that physicality.’’
Here’s the kicker
Bucs fans might have been surprised when veteran K Connor Barth was released, but the man who beat out Barth took the news in stride.
Patrick Murray, a first-year player out of Fordham, won the job with a strong performance in August, offering management a younger, cheaper alternative to Barth, who was coming off a ruptured Achilles that sidelined him for the entire 2013 season.
“I wasn’t surprised,’’ Murray said. “I came in here and believed I was going to be the starter. I believe if you come in thinking a different way, it’s just not going to happen. Credit to Connor — he pushed me every single day. He’s a great kicker and I know he’s going to land somewhere really soon.’’
Murray’s believes his versatility was a factor in the decision.
“It helped, that’s for sure,’’ he said. “The fact I can kick field goals, punt and kick off, it’s definitely an asset that not many people have and hopefully I can utilize that to help this team win.’’
The Bucs filled out their 10-man practice squad by signing CBs Derrius Brooks and Brandon Dixon, LB Carlos Fields and S Kimario McFadden. ... Tampa Bay selected its team captains for the 2014 season — QB Josh McCown, WR Vincent Jackson, McCoy, LB Lavonte David and P Mike Koenen. “Those will be our five captains for the year and I do lean on them for a lot of things,’’ coach Lovie Smith said.