When the schedule came out this spring, fans of the Carolina Panthers generally saw an easy September, a harder middle of the season, with things unwinding a bit easier again down the stretch. What nobody considered was going into battle without the team's best player - middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
What to Expect without Kuechly in the Middle
A.J. Klein is set to man the MLB spot to start, but it'll be more telling to see who is in the sub-packages, such as the nickle/dime sets for pass defense. Rookie David Mayo should backup Klien and his presence (or lack thereof) should signal how much or how little faith Ron Rivera has in the later-round pickup from a small Texas school.
I've been watching A.J.'s development and was singularly unimpressed with his play up until this preseason. It's as if the light in Klien's head has started to flicker to "ON." He had played the WILL position in the past, mostly, but Shaq Thompson's selection this season pushed Klien more and more towards the bench.
Klein has good speed, not great, but lacks Kuechly's instincts. Then again, so does pretty much everybody else. The problem as I see it is to expect the middle of the defense to be softer, although not by a huge margin. Star Lotulelei looks to be back on the field at the 1-technique, helping to plug up running lanes, and Kawann Short will be right beside him to help solidify the interior defensive line, so it's a net-gain from last week against Jacksonville there. Klien and Mayo should see the vast majority of snaps at MLB tomorrow.
Hold the Mayo?
Mayo was selected, although relatively unheralded, during the draft this year and a lot of people were asking "Why draft ANOTHER linebacker? We took Shaq in the first, now we're adding to our best position on the entire field again?"
In short, Mayo is a "poor man's" Luke Kuechly, or so the thinking went during the pre-draft analysis process for the Panthers. He's a kid who was extremely productive - just like Kuechly was in college - but in a smaller pond of smaller schools. I don't think I'll ever get the acronyms right. I haven't since "they" changed from Division I, II, III, and the NAIA of yesteryear. FBS/FCS/FBI/AFL-CIO...whatever. The point is that Mayo's college career paralleled Luke's in many ways.
It's also why Mayo was available when he was drafted - not in the top-3 rounds where the "big boys" go. Smaller-school prospects are more hit-or-miss than those from bigger schools, so they tend to fall somewhat on draft day..especially if a squad has been burned by one not living up to expectations. Remember taking Amini Silatolu at the top of the second round? Once bitten, twice shy.
I think the Panthers will get an unexpected good, long look at Klien and Mayo after Sunday on the game film, which should in turn give the coaching staff a good full, REAL NFL game of film to look at the two of them against the same opponent. What this will do, down the road this season, is help show what Mayo needs to work on and what he may do that is better than Klien. Klien probably is better at pass coverage, but I wouldn't be too surprised to see Mayo play well against the run, depending on the amount of time and game situations he's used in.
What will the Defense be Like?
I think Luke's absence has to make the defense a bit less solid. I may be channeling Captain Obvious from TV, but the simple fact is you can't lose a talent like LK and expect the defense not to miss a beat. The coaches will help cover over things somewhat through scheme, but there's not really enough data yet to know the other team's tendencies for 2015.
That actually works in favor of both teams, as the Texans might have to re-think their OWN game-plan without Kuechly there. It'll be a guessing game in part, however, because this is Kuechly's first missed ball game and there's no data to go on about a Luke-less Panthers defense.
The defense doesn't have Arian Foster to worry about, but former Clemson WR DeAndre Hopkins has emerged as a bona-fide #1 wide receiver. For the Texans' part, they are a different team from years past as Andre Johnson is now with the Colts, so this game looks to be one of the more difficult ones to prognosticate.
I do think the Texans will test Klien whenever they can, however they can, and the rest of the game for the Texans on offense will depend on their results over their first few possessions. Whatever they're doing in the second half offensively will be because of what they experience in the first half - even more so in this game because of the circumstances.
The Panthers should still be a tough nut to crack on defense and I don't see the Texans scoring more than about 17 points in this road game.
The Texans aren't Healthy, Either
They don't have star RB Arian Foster, as I have mentioned, but they're also switching QBs. It's never a good thing to be swapping QBs in the second game if not due to injury, and former Arkansas Razorback Ryan Mallett takes the reigns of the Texans' offense. He has been in the NFL for a good five years or so, most as Tom Brady's backup in the ironically low-pressure atmosphere of Foxborough, MA.
Houston's offense is in more disarray than either side of the Panthers, so missing Luke in this particular game shouldn't be as big a concern as it might otherwise be if the Texans were a healthy group. I think the Panthers might actually be better off for knowing what things to be on the lookout for in the film room next week without Luke as it should splay open any areas that Luke's presence has helped cover up, making it easier for coaches to correct during the season. So, there's an actual upside to all of this: it helps build depth.
It's Still all about the Panthers "O"
The defense should still be formidable, but the offense could still struggle. The Texans have the best defender in the NFL in J.J. Watt and the most-hyped defender, without any production yet, in former Gamecock JaDeveon Clowney. Pair that with a couple of "journeyman" offensive tackles in Mike Remmers and Mike Oher and you have a recipe for quite a struggle just to keep Cam upright in the passing game.
Remember - rookie RT Daryl Williams has a leg injury and won't play, either. Not good against a top-5 defensive line.
In order to try to shorten the game, I see the Panthers giving the Texans a steady dose of Jonathan Stewart in the first half with the hopes of cracking bigger gains in the second half against a tiring defense. I would also look for Cam to go deep a few times for two reasons: keeping that defense honest and possibly connecting on a big play. The Texans secondary is their Achilles' Heel and if Ted Ginn or Philly Brown can smuggle some stickum into the stadium and apply it copiously to their meat hooks, Carolina might score a quick-6 if the edges can hold, and more likely, via some sort of trickeration like using play action.
Time of possession and slowing the Texans' pass rush should be key for Carolina, and if Mike Shula (what's with all the "Mikes" anyway?) has any fear for his job at all, he'll probably be calling running plays two-to-one vs. passing.
That's the biggest match-up to watch: our offensive line vs. their defensive one. It's a big, big test for this unit and their success or lack of it should let the coaches and player-personnel know exactly where the team stands with the weakest overall unit of the team. This game should also be a bookmark of sorts to keep in mind during weeks 15-17 to see how far they'll have progressed by then.
Luke Kuechly will be back next week. It's the offensive line that isn't so easily upgraded after this contest. I, for one, will keep this game in the back of my mind once the 2016 draft rolls around and the outcome of the game could well put that evasive position square in the sights of Gettleman after several years: a "hog molly" for the far left-hand side.
Time will tell.
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