Why the Carolina Panthers Will Repeat as NFC South Champions

Yesterday, I posted a rather long piece of sober reality with a laundry-list of reasons why the Carolina Panthers won't repeat in the NFC South as champions. While the odds are stacked against it, since nobody has ever done so, but as the saying goes, "There's a first time for everything."

If you want the nuts and bolts of what goes into it, please go back and read that article because I'm not going to spend most of this piece repeating those things although I will briefly touch on some of them as points of reference.

Instead, I'm looking at a series of scenarios that, while they all could happen, are doubtful to all occur. However, if they should, the Panthers could wind up at the top of the heap:

Okay, first off, the breaks pretty much ALL have to go the Panthers' way. This is going to be true of any team winning their division, and often the case is exactly that. The NFC East excluded because you can screw up a lot, go 9-7, and win that division.

- The Panthers will HAVE to get off to an uncharacteristic fast start

One look through the Panthers schedule after September should clue you in as to why. Week six starts a murderous stretch where we play at Cincinnati, at Green Bay, at home against Seattle and New Orleans, then a road game in Philadelphia. That's five games we could all either win or easily lose.

The problem lies with the undeniable fact that we're using a journeyman (at best) guard-bodied, undrafted guy at left tackle in Byron Bell when last year we had an All-Pro tackle retire in Jordan Gross who made that Pro Bowl as recently as...last year.

Say what you will about Bell, but I certainly don't see him as a Pro-Bowl tackle. In fact, the offensive tackle spot in general is the weakest position of all on the entire team. Nate Chandler has "upside" at the right tackle position, but is still learning it so I expect up-and-down play from him especially to start the season. Garry Williams is the 3rd tackle and even HE played guard last year.

Byron Bell could play over his head

This is where coaching and Cam's growth and experience comes into play. Despite moving Bell to the left side, there IS a silver lining of sorts here: The two guys (Cam and Byron) came into the NFL together - albeit from diametrically opposed routes as Cam was the top overall draft pick and Bell wasn't even drafted at all - and therefore "grew up together." There has to be a bit of a kinship there that most All-Pro tackles and future Hall of Fame QBs don't have with each other. None of the others in the division have that wrinkle working in their favor.

Each guy knows what the other guy can and can't do well, so with any given play call, they'll have a slight step-up on things. Cam will have a protection scheme in mind should the coaches miss it and could audible for help in case of reading a pre-snap blitz so perhaps one of the backs can be another protection layer for Cam's blind side - if he needs it.

What Bell may lack in ability at the position he's been asked to play, he and Cam should be more "in-tune" with each other than most. With a number of tweaks to the pass protection and with more imaginative play-calling, the coach and teammates could collectively run a scheme that emphasizes blind-side protection, taking some of the direct heat off of Bell that way.

The dual-TE formation

Then, there's the dual TE set that so many people expect to see this season.  I like this idea because it gives the offense some options, but again, in the NFL there is no such thing as a free lunch....you gotta give up something to get something.

In this case, the offense will sometimes give up a significant portion of their route-tree so that guys like Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson can "chip" block whoever is going up against Bell. Often, that's all it takes for an average tackle to get the upper hand on even the most talented defender. I don't know exactly when this really became popular, but I do recall when Andy Reid was in Philadelphia, he'd pull his slot WR in towards the line so close that he looked almost like a TE split a tad wide instead.

Complicating this maneuver, however, would be straight-up press-man coverage. If the other defense is playing that type of scheme, if an eligible receiver "chips" a rushing lineman or a DE on a roll, he himself is likely to get punished because you can't chip-block AND fight off a press corner at the same time.

See what I mean about no "free lunch?"

However, I have faith in Ron Rivera as he has taken this team from winning only 5 games his first year to losing only 4 last season. Even after Rivera's patented 1-3 start last season and fans were calling for his head, I wrote "It would be a shame to get rid of Rivera now that he's got 75% of the job done." I really wanted to let him have the whole season played out before we went switching horses in mid-stream. Unless the coach is just entirely horrible, that rarely helps your team that year. It helps for the NEXT season - and only if you keep on the "interim" Head Coach.

Rivera's certainly no dummy and neither are his assistants. Neither is Cam. They'll all know if a receiver is called to "chip," he likely won't be where he's supposed to be when the ball has to come out, so Cam would mentally re-arrange his progressions to take that into account. Since that chip block will help buy him an extra second or two, it should give Cam the time to realize what his best match-up is, given the pre-snap read, and either get the ball to him, the "hot" receiver, or throw it away if need be.

The front seven is even better than last year

Yes, we have the same 7 starters plus some good depth - especially on the D-line - who have ALL been with the team for at least a full NFL season. This gives Sean McDermott the luxury of installing even more wrinkles to what that defensive unit does. You won't see too many missed assignments - that much I've noticed in the preseason. The most glaring one was on that wheel-route TD to Shane Vereen that Tom Brady threw, but that was AJ Klein's fault. He hesitated on his coverage. He ran wide, shadowing Vereen wide, then inexplicably stopped for a split-second. When he started again, Vereen was already starting down the sideline and past him for 6 points.

The pressure will be on our front seven even more this season, and it's quite possible that special group of guys can be even more special and up to the challenge, but it's still a tall order. With a defensive secondary that doesn't seem to have the "upside" that last year's did at this time as Mike Mitchell rose to the occasion and played himself into a nice contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers, this year we're forced to use safeties that nobody else in the division wanted.

Carolina's safeties earn their positions

Roman Harper missed half of last season as the Saints became tough on defense under Rob Ryan and therefore became expendable. Thomas DeCoud, a free safety-type, is a castoff from the worst defense in our division in the Atlanta Falcons, but has showed me that he can be a steady tackler that doesn't give up "truck" yards as I call it.

I think DeCoud will be a much steadier player this season than his time in Atlanta, which just highlights our superior coaching. Same guy - better player. Mike Mitchell last year? Same guy - better player. I see no reason DeCoud should be as well; it's just that he doesn't have the physical tools Mitchell did.

Perhaps he just fits better into our system - or both. Roman Harper always had high tackling numbers in New Orleans, but a lot of that was due to the offense. Teams would get destroyed by Brees & Co. and be forced early and often to the air. Harper made a lot of those tackles on intermediate routes, and is pretty good at what he does there. He's a smart guy who doesn't have a huge ceiling, but he's also got a fairly high floor in Carolina, I think. He should play about as expected this season and he's not afraid to step up and take on physical running backs in run support.

So long as our safeties aren't asked to become man-coverage guys but instead are allowed to play as their position name suggests - a SAFETY - then their jobs should be to clean up any messes on the back end. I don't see any problems there as the defense is a zone-style defense instead of straight-up man-on-man like those that teams like the Jets like to run.

Even with the mightiest front-seven, sometimes things get by them. If DeCoud and Harper can keep fairly big plays from becoming bigger ones or scoring ones, offenses are REALLY going to have to work and work hard in order to get a touchdown against us. Our red zone defense might even be second to none, with Seattle's right close there too. I have just seen too many successful goal-line stands for the rest of the NFL NOT to take notice on that. Wouldn't surprise me if we lead the NFL in fewest rushing TDs allowed, either.

Now - we've planned for the weakness at offensive tackle and let loose the hounds of the front seven to create as much mayhem as possible. So far, we've made our offense less explosive but more protective of the ball, and that's a trade-off I'm willing to make with the defense we have in place. Look to the 2015 draft - and even a possible first-round trade-up on our part - to snag a top-3 LT out of college next year and move Bell back to the right side then.

The Secondary needs to be steady without giving up big plays

*I* think the keys in the secondary are going to be Melvin White's development and that of rookie 5th-round pick Bene Benwikere...."The Fed Chief."

The Professor here at C3 has a catchier nickname for him - "Sticky Wiki" - but that's something he'll have to earn on the field. That said, if we're calling him "Sticky Wiki" due to him picking off passes by midseason, that's going to be key for us.

Last year, our offense was pedestrian at best - I don't think anyone denies that. The Carolina Panthers were dead last in "explosive plays" - plays from scrimmage of 20 or more yards - but we STILL went 12-4.

Jonathan Stewart Stays healthy - and productive

IF - and it's a big "if" for sure but still possible - RB Jonathan Stewart stays both healthy and effective all season, we'll have a four-headed Hydra backfield for running the ball with Tolbert, D-Will, and if you include Cam in that equation. Surprise reserve RB Fozzy "Bear" Whittaker can spell any of the backs and with the o-line being built to run-block by default, if Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula can start thinking outside the box juuuuust a bit, it'll give enemy DCs FITS - just to stop the RUN!

That's what makes the play-action pass so successful. They go hand-in-hand.

On offense, seeing the running game improve is the key. I think most fans recognize that, despite great-looking rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin, we're going to be a run-first offense. The passing yards will come, but it won't be our strong suit and I don't think most fans ever thought it would be - at least for this season.

If we'll pass when we're supposed to run, run when we're supposed to pass, and sometimes just cram the run up the middle and down the other team's throat like they used to do to us a few years ago, we can keep games close with the help of the defense.

Kraken on a mission

One other thing I do want to mention about the front-seven is Greg Hardy. He's playing under the "Franchise" tag this season but had the "domestic abuse" trouble in the off-season. He has already pled guilty to one charge, but the bigger stuff won't come up until at least November and his attorneys can probably push things back into next off-season.

That said, he's in a contract year and wants to get paid. He knows he just cost himself millions of dollars due to his perceived increased risk but knows if he improves his sack totals again this year, as he's done in each year as a pro so far, he'll not only break his own franchise record for sacks in a season that he set last year with 15, but if Carolina doesn't want to pay him, 31 other teams would love to have him.

Either way, he'll be a man on a mission this year for sure, and that can only mean 110% effort from him on every play of every game - guaranteed.

With all of the above in mind, should it be able to come together just right like it did last year, the Panthers could very well repeat as division champs. Traditionally, the division winner is the team with the best defense and that makes a very strong case for Carolina repeating right there.

Having the ball bounce our way

Carolina will once again have to win all the close games and some things out of their hands will have to go their way - but that's usually the case for whatever team wins a division. There's always at least a LITTLE bit of luck (small "l") involved.

That said, the teams that should give Carolina the most trouble are those that take care of the football themselves, have a very, very stout rush defense, and have a top-10 or so passing game.

Right there, I'm eliminating two of the three NFC South foes. Atlanta doesn't even HAVE a defense, and while Tampa Bay looks to be much improved as much because of getting a new coach as anything, they certainly don't have a proven passing engine that runs on autopilot - not with Josh McCown and Mike "The Giraffe" Glennon. McCown played wonderfully for Lovie last season when called to do so, but don't quite have the experienced people on offense that Chicago has. The Bucs' O-line is so much in question they signed high-priced Logan Mankins to fill one void there and wouldn't surprise me if they sign Richie Incognito as well.

Defense is suspect in Atlanta; the O-line is still suspect in Tampa Bay. It's the Saints that should give us the most problems.

The Saints defense takes a step back

Yes, Drew Brees will once again be Drew Brees, but the team looks to be a bit more balanced than in the past. Bust RB Mark Ingram is himself in a contract year, has looked pretty good in the preseason, and has that added incentive to prove he belongs in the NFL. If he doesn't, Pierre Thomas is a very well-rounded guy who can tote the rock and catch out of the backfield. They've added blazer Brandin Cooks apparently to play the Darren Sproles/long-handoff/flare pass role to get him in space, but trying to beat our defense by going wide almost never is a good idea.

It's teams like the Saints that should give us the most trouble. They have a pretty good offensive line, and if we cannot consistently pressure Brees, he can eat any defense up if he has time. That's the key - if he has time. Since our secondary is no better than last year's was (I'm gonna whine over losing Mike Mitchell forever), the Saints are a team that can consistently use the short, quick-throw passing game to move the chains since even a defensive backfield like that of the 1984 San Francisco 49'ers (where all 4 DBs made the Pro Bowl) who stymied Dan Marino in the Super Bowl won't be able to stop WRs because of the offense-friendly rules changes on defense and the resulting flags we all saw all over the place in general this preseason. Brees is such the perfectionist at what he does, and is SO accurate in his throws, the New Orleans Saints are always going to be a tough out.

However, do the Saints REALLY have a top-five defense? Rob Ryan's scheme for the team is now archived in game film, adjustments to it will be made, and I think the Saints could slide a bit from last year's defense. That "amoeba" defense has always made me wonder why, when a QB sees that, he doesn't audible into a power, straight-ahead run. The "Amoeba" has zero down linemen and that begs the question - Since our O-line has to be all "down in stance" and therefore automatically has an advantage in getting leverage, I'm thinking Cam would just quick-snap that ball upon seeing that defense, letting all 5 linemen (center Ryan Kalil and what amounts to 4 guards in physical stature) just blast forward, mowing down everyone they can get to, while Cam weaves his way through openings to get almost a sure 5 yards or more. Perhaps that's an adjustment the offense will make.

Now I'm getting down into more nuts and bolts than I had wanted to once again, but I wanted to illustrate how we might be able to turn apparent disadvantages into strengths....but we have to play the game TO those strengths. The offense will NOT be "pretty," but rather like a 1970's style Miami Dolphins team who also had three very capable RBs....Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Eugene "Mercury" Morris. Passing rules? pshaw!

The tough times will come when the other team gets up on us by over a touchdown. No secondary is perfect, especially with 21st century passing rules, so they're all tied with a hand behind their backs so at least that part is even and will only help in our own passing game as well, when we do throw it.

So....to win any division you have to play your best over the entire season, have some breaks just fall your way (like New Orleans losing at Seattle late last season), and you have to maximize your chances by taking advantage of turnovers and turning those into points whether by defensive returns or by setting up the offense in good field position.

The biggest trouble spots once again are the offensive tackles and the secondary, none of which are unknown surprises to the Panthers coaching staff. They'll make adjustments to their schemes, as all teams have to do with their own shortcomings, and that front seven will not only negate a lot of errors, but should provide opportunities for the offense to score on a shortened field. Winning the turnover battle is key, and if we can have just one ball-hawk emerge in the defensive backfield, this team still could go far on the backs of the defense and an improved running game. After all, Drew Brees can't hurt you if he's watching from the sidelines now can he?

As far as what the Panthers can control, a fast start out of the gate is imperative. Right now, the Panthers aren't getting ANY respect, and that's something that motivates a team like nothing else can. It worked last year. Will it work again this year?

It certainly can...and it will.

NFL's "Sorriest Receivers" out to prove otherwise

Do you think every Carolina player doesn't have that "NFL's Sorriest Receivers" article taped inside their lockers? Not to mention others dissing their chances? Hell, they could have my post from yesterday taped up - not that I'm so popular or widely-read that they'd even know about it, but the point is such articles aren't hard to find. It's only lighting that much more of a fire under each and every guy in that locker room.

If Rivera insists on using the running game and the "vertical passing" game, I'm not so sure that will be as successful as it was in Cam's rookie season. If Rivera decides to establish the run, and can do so in most of the games, and THEN use the "vertical passing" game and/or the play-action pass en route to long passes, I think the team will find more success.

Difficult Schedule could still be manageable

Last year, we had a signature win at San Francisco, 10-9. Week seven this year gives us a similar chance when we play at Lambeau Field against the Packers. The key will be that 5-game stretch I mentioned because the very beginning and very end of the schedule is softer than the middle is. I think we can win at Cincy, which narrows things down to 4 games. If we can just split those and go 2-2 with a fast start, it'll carry a LOT of momentum for us going into the final stretch of the season. Of our final six games, the only really scary one is playing at New Orleans. If we lose that one and lose at home to Seattle, that's 4 losses.

With the early, "easier" schedule in September, the team could play just well enough to win those games while Cam gets healthy and more familiar with his receivers - just in time for the hardest part of the schedule. Sure, there are a couple of somewhat unlikely things that have to happen, but they're things that are within the realm of possibility so long as the team adjusts well along the trip.

Some guys will need to produce more than we think coming in, but that happened last year as well....Star and Kawann come to mind and they're a year more experienced now.

If we can somehow win all those other ball games - in other words "beat everybody we're supposed to beat," we could very well go 12-4 once again...and that, my friendly fans, should be enough to win the NFC South once again and make history in the process.

It happened last year, so it can happen again. These guys have been there before and MADE it happen. WILL it? Like yesterday's article, we won't know for sure until the end of the season, but just as we have issues, everyone else has issues someplace too. I have faith in our coaches to put the team in the best position possible to win any given game. Are the odds against us? You bet.

Then again...they were last year too!!

Let the games begin....and #KeepPounding!

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