We've seen the Carolina Panthers get off to a good 0-2 start, but ole Riverboat Ron had patented slow starts long ago, and let's face it. This time last year, we were 1-3, so things aren't quite so bad as they may seem in some ways.
What's going well? Right now, that's a short answer-type question. Cam Newton, despite being banged up and hobbled with a lingering ankle issue, has been nothing short of spectacular considering everything going on.
He hasn't been healthy and he's not getting protected by his offensive line. He has still managed to improve on his play from last year, and his being hobbled could be a blessing in disguise as it will force him to learn to be a better pocket passer.
Then there's rookie phenom Kelvin Benjamin, whom we're all familiar with and hopefully as high on as I am.
I'll be honest....I always am in my writing, but specifically here. I didn't like the pick when it was made for two reasons: Kelvin was a redshirt sophomore coming out of FSU and hence I figured he'd take a year or two to develop his potential.
What I didn't realize is the vast potential he apparently has. If he's only going to get better in the rest of the season and next, the sky really is the limit for this kid.
The other reason I didn't like his selection was his propensity to drop easy passes in college.
It looks like receivers' coach Ricky Proehl has coached a lot of that out of him. Dropped passes are almost always an issue of focusing. The NFL is so bang-bang that a split-second makes a difference, and I can see how tempting it is when an open receiver wants to take a peek upfield as the ball arrives for a catch. You HAVE to watch the ball into your hands, THEN turn and look - not the other way around, or passes get dropped.
All WRs will have a drop here or there; that's just how it is. Kelvin hasn't seemed to drop any more than any other given receiver and has actually emerged as the team's #1 receiver. That's frankly unheard of in the NFL these days.
Thankfully, TE Greg Olsen has been the steady hand on offense and made some very nice plays the first month. Against Baltimore last week, he showed he still has a nice burst on that catch he made at the 15 or so and turned up the sideline to run in for a score, so that was encouraging.
The thing is, if we could get healthy on offense, especially with the running backs, the Panthers ARE built to be a power running team that plays tough defense. Yes, the D hasn't played well at all the last two weeks, but the talent is there and they've shown their capabilities so hopefully it's something that can be fixed. If it can be, a healthy offense could be more potent than last year's but the lack of pass-blocking talent at the tackle position has to be considered when forming their game plans. Adjustments need to be made, but I think things can be turned around....but we don't have the luxury of much time.
Now for the bad. This is a long list, I'm afraid.
Number one, the offensive line really IS offensive, and the warnings I issued before the season started (and got creamed by fans for pointing out) are splayed wide open. I said the o-line is like a tiny college basketball team - they start a center and four guards.
I stick to that statement. I knew the line was in trouble when Dave Gettleman tried to sell all us fans a horrible bill of goods about the situation at tackle when Rivera had to move Byron Bell from the right side to the left, while Gettleman said "Sometimes the answer is right there on your roster."
As I've also said before, as far as that statement goes, it's true enough. Where the lie starts is one of omission - what he didn't say: "and sometimes the answer is NOT on your roster."
That is very much the case in Charlotte.
To his credit, Gettleman didn't reach for a tackle with the top pick or with ANY pick for that matter. I saw the "top-tier" offensive tackles were gone, and even at the bottom of the first round, you don't draft a second-tier guy. You find a top-tier guy at a position of need and draft him, or simply draft the "best player available" which Gettleman subscribes to, and fully explains the Kony Ealy pick in the second round.
At any rate, the OT position wasn't addressed at all when Jordan Gross retired, and we're paying for it now. My nickname for Byron Bell for some time now has been "the Turnstile." Byron "The Turnstile" Bell has earned that nickname by often letting pass rushers get by him without him hardly even touching them.
You see, there's a difference between tackles and guards in the NFL. Guards, for lack of a better descriptor right now, are kinda "square" guys. Byron Bell is built like a typical NFL tackle. He's got SOME height at 6' 4", but he's 340+ pounds.
That's a guard.
Usually, offensive tackles are a bit taller and leaner than Bell is. It's not uncommon to have a left tackle that's 6'5" to 6'7" and hits the scales at about 310-315 pounds....taller and leaner than Bell.
They're almost always guys with much quicker feet than those of Bell, or RT Nate Chandler for that matter.
Neither is a starting-quality offensive tackle. Both went undrafted out of college, and Chandler started his NFL career as a defensive tackle. So we have Bell playing WAY out of position and Chandler just really learning the right tackle position.
And we're well into the season. Ouch.
Since the tackle position went completely un-addressed, the only way anything can be done about it this season is via a trade with another team. Perhaps Greg Hardy could be bundled with a middle-round pick for a good tackle, but Hardy's trade stock is at an all-time low at the moment because of his own legal issues connected to the Ray Rice domestic violence issue. We don't even know if Hardy will ever play another NFL down, AND he's playing under the franchise tag. I don't see another team clamoring for his $11 million+ salary this season and having to try to sign him after the season is over, nor do I see him contributing much this year.
The other two ways to address it are via free agency next season and then the draft in the spring. To fix this, Gettleman likely would have to pick up a decent guy in free agency as well as adding a rookie to the roster in the draft.
What about the defense?
The defense has looked atrocious in both losses. Granted, Le'Veon Bell may be a top-five RB in the NFL these days, but teammate Legarrette Blount is not. Both hit us up for over 100 yards, and last week in the Blood and Guts Bowl, our old WR reject, Steve Smith, completely torched us for well over 100 yards and 2 TDs....even if that first "tip drill" TD made me think I was watching last season's Auburn/Georgia game.
Luke Kuechly isn't playing like the Defensive Player of the Year he was last year and has already played himself OUT of ANY consideration to repeat that honor this year. I saw too many players out of position on any given play as well.
Part of this is the "rent-a-defensive back" strategy we've seen from Gettleman the past two seasons. We're taking on rejects from divisional defenses that weren't any good at the time they were let go....Thomas DeCoud from Atlanta and Roman Harper from New Orleans, to be precise. While DeCoud has played fairly consistently (if unspectacular in doing so), Harper has been in the wrong place way too much.
The defensive line isn't putting pressure on the opponent like it has in the past, either. This isn't just because of no Greg Hardy; one thing the team does have is depth at the DE spot. It's NOBODY is playing up to last year's bar, which I acknowledge was set quite high, but the entire front-seven returned from last year's second-ranked unit, save Hardy and his situation.
Without getting deeper into the specifics as this post is already quite lengthy, the line isn't pressuring the QB or disrupting the backfield. The secondary isn't covering consistently well and is playing out of position on a lot of running plays. The linebackers are the same way...even Kuechly hit the wrong hole on that long gain by Le'Veon Bell the previous week.
Harper was WAY out of position against Tampa Bay when their fullback went 54 yards on a quick-opener running play. The list goes on and on. And on. And on. I haven't even mentioned our entire backfield is injured, either.
In fact, as per The Charlotte Observer, Ron Rivera said he counted 14 plays against the Ravens where at least two defenders were out of position. Apparently the vaunted front-seven isn't immune to falling back to Earth as well.
Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott needs to come up with some fixes and fast. The team is in the bottom-five in stopping 3rd down conversions and that was a strength last year. You name it, we're worse in that defensive category than last year. WAY worse.
But why is all this happening? The offensive woes could be explained with personnel issues and with injuries to the backfield including Cam. As well as Cam's playing under bad circumstances, just think how electrifying the 2013 version would be, and he continues to get punished as Ron Rivera took him out of the game two consecutive weeks to "protect" him. That's never a good thing.
It's the defense that makes me wonder. Yes, the secondary is largely made up of 1-year rentals but so was last year's. No corners seem to want to step forward yet to claim the #1 spot, but rookie Bene Benwikere (whom I call "The Fed Chief" and Al Michaels referred to him the same way on Sunday Night Football) could work himself up that ladder as he's the most talented and instinctive CB we have, and has locked down the nickel spot for now.
It still doesn't explain why Kuechly has seemingly regressed somewhat as his own instincts have seemed to fail him on a number of occasions this year, but he's not the only person not playing up to par.
In fact, on defense, I can't think of anyone that IS!
Hang in there, gang. Looks like it could be a long year unless the defense can begin keeping us in games. We have the talent, but can the coaches pull things together?
All we can do is watch, root for the team, and time will tell on that one.
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