Well, I'm here to help put many of those fears to rest - I hope - as I see things in a bit of a different light.
1- I think first and foremost, the Panthers' offensive line looked about as clueless as as people who have no idea who Mr. Boddy is. Both tackle Nate Chandler and rookie guard Trai Turner stayed completely out of the game - didn't even dress - so our already thin o-line started the game with quite a handicap.
When you're trying to "gel" an o-line, it takes time, patience and practice. Getting the o-line to play like the fingers of a hand is always the ultimate goal, but is only achieved by repetitions as a unit. So far, the Panthers haven't had that luxury. Chris Scott was in at RG and Garry Williams, a career castoff, started at RT. I have always liked LT Byron Bell, but I call him "The Turnstile" for a reason. He struggled all night long mainly against Chandler Jones.
BTW, that brings up a point I've been wanting to make. Remember when Dave Gettleman was asked about the offensive tackle situation and his reply was "Sometimes the answer is right there on your roster?" Well, that was not an endorsement nor a definitive answer that the tackle IS on our roster. I still say NEITHER tackle is "on our roster," and both starting spots need upgrading. I have been on-record saying if Bell starts as our LT, Cam's blind-side protector, then we ARE in trouble. BIG trouble. It's the biggest trouble position on either side of the ball, including the secondary.
2- Cam is still very, very rusty. Yes, missing four months due to ankle surgery has negatively affected his game. If anything, HE is the one who has "regressed." However, I don't think of it that way. With a completely new group of wide receivers, his situation is similar to the problem hurting the o-line, lack of reps. The shot he took to his back didn't help either. He missed a play, returned, and really didn't throw very accurately afterwards. The team x-rayed him for precaution but he's healthy. Bruised, perhaps, but nothing broken.
With that rust, Cam missed a couple of probable scoring passes. On one, Greg Olsen had his man beaten by several steps with open real estate ahead. It would have been a monster gain at minimum, but Cam's timing is still off. Again, that will come with time and practice, but if we'd had 10 points on the board in that first half, things would have been a lot closer.
It wasn’t much later that Cam got kneed in the back and was no longer effective. I've been begging the Panthers' organization for years to let me teach Cam how to slide properly (I'm a former youth league baseball player myself), but nothing yet. They need to bring in a retired MLB player to do it or something - there's no reason for that.
3- Their starters played our "twos" for a good chunk of the game. Yes, for whatever reason, Bill Billichick replaced the ineffective Ryan Mallet with Tom Brady again then finished the game with their rookie QB, Garappolo, who looked better as a green rookie than Mallet has in four years. Side note? Mallet will be the 3rd-string QB very soon, at best. At worst, he'll be looking for another team, So, Brady was facing a defense that is quite average for the most part, which is akin to playing a lower-tier NFL defense. Even our second team, while adequate overall, can't hold up against an offense run by Tom Brady.
4- Tom Brady was SO "on" last night it wasn't even funny. Yes, he was accurate within mere inches on nearly every toss he made. The NFL's passing rules are SO liberal these days and in favor of the offense that if any given quarterback has a hot hand, he's going to be pretty much unstoppable. Since Brady rarely hangs on to the ball for very long, it largely negates our pass rush. We got close a number of times, but with Brady's pocket presence and with our defensive backfield being unable to disrupt the WRs routes much, Brady largely picked the low-hanging fruit.
5- Against Carolina’s starting defense, the Pats only scored 3 points up until 5:00 remained in the first half. On the next play, Shane Vereen scored a 40-yd TD pass on a wheel route, completely outrunning A.J.Klein. That's a play I looked at 4 or 5 times, and it was all Klein's fault. He had man-coverage on Vereen on a third down, but hesitated in getting outside to him. Brady saw it, completed the pass, and Vereen outran the LB for a TD. Not good for Klein, who wants Chase Blackburn's starting job. Now, if he's smart, he'll never EVER make the same mistake again, but there it is on film. It should be the video clip shown, with Klein highlighted, in the digital dictionary under "He who hesitates is lost." Had he not hesitated in his coverage, Vereen would still have gotten the first down, but probably not much more as Klein would have been there to shove him out of bounds.
7- Our secondary played horribly. That, my friends, is a myth. While the starters were in the game, they only allowed those 3 points. Against Tom Brady? That's AWESOME! AND Brady had his pinpoint accuracy a-goin'. Don't forget - that late second-half TD was due to a mistake by a young backup LB - NOT a starter - so we know he needs to "cook" a bit more. I don't think Klein is ready for a complete take-over as the starting WILL backer and this play showed it. I was also impressed by Blackburn in last week's goal-line stand against the first-team Buffalo Bills offense.
1- Despite Cam's inaccuracy post knee-in-the-back, Kelvin Benjamin drew in a high pass, even for him, for a first down. This kid is gonna be GOLD, folks. I admit I wasn't thrilled with the pick when it was made, thinking his redshirt-sophomore status at FSU would mean he'd be well behind the curve as a rookie and might not be able to be much help as a result. If early looks are any indication, he could be this year's Keenan Allen, and I don't say that lightly. In any given year, about one half of one rookie WR gets a 1,000 yard season. You read that right -it happens only once every couple of years. Generally speaking, receivers take a year, or sometimes two, to approach their total potential. If that's the case, Benjamin could be a dominant species next year. This year, he'll only be really, really good. A thousand-yard season now is NOT out of the question for Benjamin, considering the lack of help around him and the Carolina offense. Carolina will likely face plenty of 3rd and longs, and even when teams know Benjamin is going to be the target, his size alone means knowing and doing something about it are two entirely different things. The beauty of it is that when Cam misses, he often misses high, and Benjamin is the only player on EITHER side who often has a chance to make the catch. I can't say enough good things about how pleasantly surprised I am with this kid, and remember, I was a doubter at first.
2- Thomas Davis hasn't dropped a bit from last season. After 3 ACL surgeries to the same knee and entering his tenth NFL season (ninth if you don’t count 2010 when he didn’t play at all), he's no spring chicken. It sure doesn't stop him from playing like one, though. He was flying around the field at least as much as we've become accustomed from Luke Kuechly. He had at least one tackle for a loss by shooting the gap on a running play, and made several tackles for only modest gains that prevented what could have been 5-10 yards longer if he had NOT made the play. He's still on-point, so our front-seven should be even better than last year with another year of experience behind them, bringing me to the next good point:
3- Star Lotulelei was dominant, PERIOD! The Pats tried to run up the gut and got stuffed way more than BB would like, forcing the Patriots to be more creative in the running game. I saw one Statue of Liberty play and several misdirection runs away from Star, who played the strong-side DT (the run anchor), his natural position, and was annihilating anyone trying to block him one-on-one. I'm not sure of his official stats at the moment, but I know he had at least TWO tackles for a loss as well as assisting/stopping several other runs for minimal gains, despite what the official stat sheet says.
He also proved that, despite his immense size, he has a VERY quick first step off the snap. On one particular play, I saw the Pats' o-line call for a cross-block on him, and let me explain that concept before I go further:
There are 2 basic types of blocks o-linemen make (for our purposes at least). There's the straight-up, hat-on-hat blocking that we're all used to seeing. It's the most common style/type of blocking called for.
The play above isn't the one I'm specifically talking about but it illustrates Star's quickness. The guard in front of him was pulling right for a strong-side run while the center tried to kick out to block Star, but wasn't fast enough, and Star gobbled up the play in the backfield.
When the defensive line becomes overly aggressive, or if it's an obvious long-yardage/passing play, a good coach will often go to the cross-block. If you can visualize this: The LT blocks the DT, while the LG blocks the DE on their side - making an "X" or "cross" pattern to get leverage from the side and an assist in the physics because it's easier to knock someone out of a play from the side than it is blocking head-on. If the line is being aggressive and firing into the backfield, the cross-block often becomes effective as the defensive line does a lot of the work FOR you - and you're either clobbering the DE to force him way outside or hammering the DT into the center mass of the pile at the line, opening a gap for a runner. It's a very similar block to a "trap" block play, except the o-lineman doesn't have the momentum a "trapping" blocker has by virtue of having gotten a few steps of motion going.
Well...Star wasn't having ANY of that mess. The Pats tried it, but the guard simply couldn't kick out to cross-block Star quickly enough. On Star's first step, certainly it was a bit of a tight squeeze, but once through, nobody could get to him. The Pats' guard was reaching for him - anything to at LEAST disrupt his movement - but was not able to do so.
To me, Star was the "Star" of this particular game on the defensive side.
4- Greg Olsen is getting to be known to me as "Old Reliable." Although he's not THAT old, he seems to be the one constant that Cam can count on in the passing game. He is a student of the game, coming from a coaching family, who often helps coach up younger/newer players. He's as reliable a chains-moving TE as you'll find, and he's not the big red-zone target so many TEs are these days; that's why we got Coolness, the Kelvinator, in the first round.
5- In the 3rd quarter, Brandon LaFell was wide open but apparently hasn't gotten over his NFL-long bout with Agoraphobia as the pass hit him in a bad spot - right in the hands - as he dropped it. Twitter BLEW UP on that one, laughing at the particular play result. Panthers fans know the man well.
6- Fozzie Whittaker, Ed Dickson and Brenton Bersin - every team needs their role-players and backups that can contribute, and the Panthers have found a couple of gems here. Dickson we already knew about, but his presence alone will help with the play-calling. He's more of a 50/50 guy - decent at receiving, decent speed for his size, and a decent blocker, whereas Olsen is more of a receiver than a blocker. With Dickson in the game, it's harder for opponents to know if the upcoming play is more likely to be a run or a pass.
Fozzie "Bear" Whittaker continued to show how much he can contribute in a backup/special teams role and likely sees his opportunity right now. With Gaffney gone due to injury and Patriots' theft and with Kenjon Barner traded, Whittaker knows the team needs a 3rd-string back and has been impressive in doing what he has so far.
Then there's Brenton Bersin - the Greg Olsen clone of the long golden locks. He's the rookie (not OFFICIALLY a rookie, I get it, but he's never played an NFL down) from Wofford College, where the Panthers hold their camp, and has come out of nowhere to make some very good plays in his role with the Panthers. Right now, it looks like the 6'3" 215 lb kid could be a competitive slot WR with the ability to play on the outside with that size. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if he gets a roster spot over Tiquan Underwood at this point. While Bersin doesn't have Underwood's deep speed, he does seem to have a knack for getting open, and that's everything in the NFL.
While the Panthers got blown out via the score, they apparently found several guys who could become key backups and/or depth for the team when the games count. The Patriots largely went through this very process last season and had the advantage over us last night as a result.
I've mentioned Cam's rustiness, but that'll work itself out in time. He had decent enough numbers at first glance, but couldn't put things together to sustain a drive.
I think the worst thing for me was how ineffective the second unit on defense was, giving up big chunks of yardage at a time but especially in the second half. Jimmy Garoppolo had a lot to do with that, I think. His play was night vs. day better than that of Ryan Mallet, a guy who has always been thought of as a bit of an oddball since even before entering the NFL. I really think Garoppolo just numbered Mallet's days in a Patriots uniform unless they take advantage of being able to dress 46 for a game if they carry 3 QBs. However, that means only seven on the practice squad, so I doubt they'll carry three and Mallet likely won't pass through waivers - especially given the fact they stole Tyler Gaffney the same way from Carolina via waivers a few weeks ago - and some team is going to pick him up for a backup role himself. So Carolina's second-team defense, while looking bad, had a lot of help from New England's rookie QB. Also don't forget they had a number of 1st-year WRs in Foxboro LAST year, so they're improving and have more knowledge of their systems this preseason than they did at this point last year.
Backup QB Derek Anderson had an off game, even for him. He had an interception in the red zone with a long 61-yard return which put the ball around the Panthers' 35-yard line. Anderson's a veteran and should have easily read the short zone coverage defensive call, but didn't. Instead of scoring seven points, the Patriots wound up scoring a field goal for a ten-point swing. Oops.
In a nutshell, I'm more concerned about our secondary than anything else. They simply played a much worse game this time than they had in the first two preseason games. A lot of had to do with the Patriots' basic offensive scheme, but the secondary took a significant step back last night.
It's true that the final score looked lopsided, but it's a preseason game that doesn't count, so coaches don't push their stars or starters. We aren't going to see 11 backups on defense at any time in any game in the regular season....unless we're up 28-0 with 4 minutes remaining against the vaunted Raiders' offense, for example.
Cam will only shake more rust off as time passes. Kelvin Benjamin will only improve throughout the season. Trai Turner, the likely starter at RG, and Nate Chandler at RT, were both out for this game so the o-line woes are understandable at the moment. The first-team defense did their jobs, holding the Pats to only 3 points for most of the first half while that TD was against a backup LB.
RB Jonathan Stewart, the most versatile back that the Panthers have, has been healthy thus far and has looked pretty good. The patchwork offensive line didn't help, but don't forget, Stewie can do it all - run, block, catch, and he has great size at about 240 lbs with decent enough speed at that size to shrug off tackles and gain yardage in chunks.
I think the Carolina offense lacks three things that will ultimately prevent eye-popping numbers: 1- a true deep threat at WR, which Kelvin Benjamin COULD develop into from what I've seen out of him so far. His game-speed seems to be better than his combine numbers (4.61 40-yard dash) might suggest.
2 - a left tackle.
3 - a right tackle. (paragraph breaks for added emphasis)
I spoke with Bobby Agnese the other day via Facebook. He’s a writer at CatCrave.com who had a nice take on the Panthers' shift to the power running game. While we differ in that he says Kenjon Barner's being traded demonstrates this change, I've said since before last season that they were moving that direction. I think the Panthers are going to pull back on the zone/read to help preserve Cam and his ankle this season. The decision to draft Tyler Gaffney and Trai Turner told me they really wanted to complete that transition this season. With Gaffney gone on IR and with Turner not playing, we didn't see what the running game is morphing into. Add into that equation the fact the Patriots knew all too well about Cam's ankle and they were able to sit on the running game. Since we're missing our entire starting right side of the line, well, we just weren't able to get drives going.
That's why the score was so lopsided. It wasn't that the Patriots are head and shoulders better than the Panthers - one must only check last year's contest for the reasons there - but more like a lot of smaller issues piled up to contribute to that lopsided score....including the Pats playing Brady way after the Panthers had put backup QB Derek Anderson in for Cam. The Panthers even had trouble on the center-QB exchange multiple times where the Patriots don't have the turnover (as in personnel from last season) that we had on the field in the second half.
Overall, considering the Panthers played most of their entire roster, including a backup PUNTER, Ron Rivera likely did a better job in finding out about his team than Bill Billichick did about his. And unlike most fans, I don't care a bit about losing preseason games because they simply are nothing more than "glorified scrimmages" that you play to determine who will make your 53-man roster and finally, the 45-man roster. With the inordinate number of flags being thrown during these games to emphasize certain rules, preseason games this year have been as cacophonous as the early regular-season games were with last year's' "replacement refs."
The Panthers have a short week again, before they meet the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday. This could factor in again unfortunately. Remember, the team took a bit to gel last season and it appears the same may be in order this year. With Turner and Benjamin healthy, however, I think Carolina will start from a higher bar than last season and only get better from there.
When looking at this game, you really have to consider the fact that there were a ton of circumstances working against the Panthers. They’re playing away from home with a dual-threat QB healing from ankle surgery who has limited experience with ALL his WRs. Brady’s growing pains were last year with his who come into camp with a year of a complex scheme under their belts. As a result, the Patriots’ “ones” played more than did ours, so they were going up against our second-string defense with TOM BRADY, HELLO. A.J. Klein hesitated, giving up an easy six. Derek Anderson threw a pick in the red zone, which with the help of a penalty against the Panthers and a long runback, gave the Patriots the ball at our 35; still, we held them to only three points. That’s ten points due to the back-ups right there. Combine that with two of our five starting offensive linemen being out (including rookie third-round pick Trai Turner) with the fact we have to go again on Thursday night and I think you’ll have to agree this contest was stacked against us in many ways from the get-go.
Once the team gets their right-side starters of the o-line back, Cam heals up to 100%, and some of these emerging backups solidify their claims to spots and integrate into their roles, I think Carolina will be just fine.
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