Left tackle has been Carolina's Achilles heel since Jordan Gross retired after the 2013 season. The Panthers experimented a moving Byron Bell from right tackle to the left and plug and playing the right tackle spot in his absence. It was a disaster.Read More
C3 Up, Three Down is a series that identifies three key areas the Panthers succeeded and three areas they failed in their most recent contest. This week's C3 Up, Three Down weeds through the good and bad of Carolina's win over the New Orleans Saints.Read More
Yesterday after the game was over and the Carolina Panthers defeated Ron Rivera's old stomping grounds, the Chicago Bears, I had posted to social media something along the lines of "That was about as ugly a win as I've seen, but they all count the same in the end."
Nobody argued about the second half of that statement; they had plenty of ammo to throw my way at the first part.
While many agreed with my assessment, a vociferous and large minority of people took issue with it to the point of saying things like "you're not a TRUE fan" or similar comments while others just went to downright inappropriateness with name-calling.
Uh, this is the NFL, supposed to be fun. This is NOT politics, so get a freakin' grip, people!
Why was it not a "beautiful" or "pretty" win?
In my mind, lots of reasons. For one, we turned the ball over three times and played sloppy football, allowing those 3 turnovers to become 21 Bears points.
That ain't pretty!
Kelvin Benjamin had multiple dropped passes as well, including coughing up a fumble for one of those three turnovers.
That ain't pretty!
The Panthers, a supposedly power-running team playing against one of the weaker defensive units in the NFL, averaged a paltry 3.3 yards per carry over the entire game.
That ain't pretty!
Certainly, on that last part, there were extenuating circumstances, but I'm talking about the product on the field on Sunday, October 5th, 2014 at Bank of America Stadium. Under the circumstances, 3.3 YPC isn't horrible but it did help to show our deficiencies in the offensive line.
When I'm critical, it's usually for a reason. Go back and check www.carolinacatchronicles.com if you wish and look for whatever I've said about the offensive tackles.
For the learning impaired, I'll say it for an nth + 1 time....we desperately need two new offensive tackles!
That ain't pretty!
It also wasn't in the cards in the draft and Dave Gettleman tried to gloss it over saying "sometimes the answer is right there on your roster."
However, what he didn't say was "...and sometimes it's NOT!"
I think by now we ALL know the answer to that one. It's not.
Do I blame Byron Bell and Nate Chandler for continued sub-par play? Nope. Not at all. In fact, I respect them as much as I respect anyone on the team, period.
Why's that you ask?
Because they're both playing out of position, that's why. They're asked to do more than what they're really capable of doing.
When a player enters the NFL and doesn't get drafted, it's usually for a good reason. Undrafted players rarely become stars in the NFL, and just off the top of my head I think, for instance, that ex-Denver Bronco Rod Smith is the #1 undrafted wide receiver in NFL history in terms of catches, yards, and TDs, but he's probably not going to be on anyone's top-ten or top-twenty list of all-time greats at the position. I think Wes Welker just broke the receptions record in the "undrafted" category this weekend, but the point remains.
Now that the stage is set, keep in mind that we don't have a single offensive tackle taken in any draft!
That ain't pretty!
And it shows. I can't blame Byron Bell for putting in hard work, being an upstanding guy, and doing what the coaches tell him to do to the best of his ability. He simply doesn't have the lateral agility required to defeat today's athletic pass-rushers.
Nate Chandler went undrafted as a defensive tackle, was switched to offensive tackle last season, and now is the starter on the right side.
I knew for a fact that we were in trouble at both positions when talk began after the draft of moving Bell from the right side to being Cam Newton's blind-side bodyguard. The fact that some people are blaming CAM and calling for Derek Anderson to start are not so informed, I think.
Under a lot of negative circumstances - ankle and rib injuries, shaky play across the entire offensive line, and an entirely new crop of wide receivers this year, Cam is doing better than pretty much anyone could be thought of doing when the season began.
The Panthers didn't play well in the first half against Chicago, but the team hung in there, played all four quarters, and came out victorious. You learn more through adversity than you do through success, and that's why Super Bowl-winning teams have almost always faced some sort of adversity before they won The Big Game.
Seattle? They had to hunt a short QB in the draft. Baltimore? They had to get hot late in the season just to make the playoffs at 10-6. The year before that, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl with a 9-7 regular season record, so there's always some "ugliness" teams have to go through in order to win the Super Bowl, folks.
Even the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins had adversity. First of all, they lost their starting QB, Bob Griese, for most of the year to a broken leg. The previous season, they lost the Super Bowl and remain the only team in NFL history NOT to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Look it up.
The point of all this is to show with historical data that arguing over something like whether or not any given win is "pretty" or not is just lame. The manner in which the Panthers won yesterday wasn't perfect, but with guidance and rational thinking, they'll learn from the mistakes they did make, become a better team for it, and be that much better off in the long run. And when the difference in a game could be said to be a punt that was interfered with which the return man picked up after the fact and returned for a touchdown?
That ain't pretty!
It's a heads-up play, however, and one I'll take all day. It isn't something fans should count on each week - especially since it happened to be Carolina's first punt return TD in 11 years!
With 31 other teams in the NFL looking to improve every week, the Carolina Panthers have coaches and players that are well aware that if you're not getting better, you're getting worse. Ron Rivera himself said that one of the most disappointing things about the game defensively was that a couple of Chicago's big plays came as a result of missed tackles. That is something that needs to be worked on and is correctable, according to the Head Coach. He spoke about the "need for being sound in our run gaps." Offensively, he said they have to block better.
Does this mean Ron Rivera isn't a "true Panthers fan?"
COME on, fans! It counts in the "W" column at the end of the year, and that's really all that matters.
THAT is BEAUTIFUL!
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye
The victory over the Detroit Lions was hard-fought against a great offensive team. The Lions also have one of the premier defensive lines in the NFL, and unfortunately, it showed.
Some of the issues are to be expected. Right guard Trai Turner is a rookie, and he's going to miss assignments at times. It's called growing pains.
However, Nate Chandler on the right side had his share of miscues as well. Yes, he's still "learning" the position, but in his 2nd season, he should at least know whom to block. It's the actual blocking part that can give him trouble - especially in the passing game.
Same thing for LT Byron Bell, but Bell seemed to hold up better in this game. He still gives up too much ground when he's engaged and needs to be more aggressive in keeping the shape of the pocket for Cam. Bell doesn't have the lateral agility to handle a decent speed-rusher.
Everyone struggled in the running game against Detroit, but Jonathan Stewart had a great game, considering the hit-or-miss holes he was looking at. Cam won the game in the second half with his throwing while the defense had several takeaways to keep Stafford, Megatron and company on the sidelines.
Detroit's front-four aside, they have a very pedestrian defense, however. Cam did look better than I expected he would, but this is not your Seahawks defense he was up against.
With all three offensive tackles being undrafted free agents, the level of talent just isn't there on the outside. They give it 110% every down, both Byron Bell and Nate Chandler, but I've said it since Bell became a starter on the right side: He is NOT a tackle.
Perhaps the Pittsburgh game Sunday night will tell us more. In the preseason, Jarvis Jones abused and misused Byron Bell, making him look really bad on a couple of plays and forcing Bell into a false start penalty as he tried to time the snap precisely in order to get maximum time to get set while trying to block him.
However, Carolina has gotten off to a 2-0 start and looked very good in doing so. We all have to keep in mind the competition level as well. The road opener at Tampa Bay and last week's home win against Detroit. Given the 56-14 thumping the Bucs took at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons last night, I'd say they're a great candidate for finishing a distant 4th in the NFC South. 4 wins would look like a good season for them this year.
It all means we don't yet know how our makeshift tackle situation will hold up when the meat of the schedule hits, starting in week six, when we begin a brutal stretch. Games at Cincy, at Lambeau Field against the Pack, home against Seattle and New Orleans, then at Philadelphia will really test the mettle of the entire team on both sides of the ball and should expose our weak areas to look closer into during 2015's draft.
This past draft didn't "break our way" after the first few rounds, but it did early. We missed out on Pierre Desir by one pick and traded up for The Fed Chief to assure some fresh help at cornerback. Depending on Bene Benwikere's development this season, CB may be a position that by draft time next year might not be a huge need. Depth? Probably still; yes.
As for now, Bene Benwikere occupies the nickel safety position while Gettleman continues his "one-year rental" program for areas where we don't have the money to upgrade.
It's just too early to know what kind of depth might be in the draft. It's possible we could get two tackles, or none yet again, if the value isn't there, but sooner rather than later that area needs to be addressed.
Ideally, I'm looking at LT, FS/SS, WR, SS/FS, CB with our top picks in 2015. I don't think it's a secret among fans that we need to address needs in the defensive backfield with some talented, low-priced rookies and next year's draft should provide Dave Gettleman with enough carrot-and-stick routine that he should be able to resist (as he has thus far) reaching, but still find a good value or two at some point when considering those five positions.
Here's my own rapid-fire breakdown of the positions I listed and why:
Offensive tackle - as I said, we've got three UFAs on the roster and two start. When Jordan Gross unexpectedly retired, it really increased the pressure especially on Nate Chandler. He and Bell can use some help early in the draft as well as a late flier on a RT-type if nothing else, to make things competitive in 2015's training camp. 1st or 2nd round; 6th-7th round.
Free Safety - Between Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper, both safeties that were cast off from divisional opponents this past off-season, DeCoud seems to be the more consistent player. Oddly enough, that's what I'm seeing so far at least. He's serviceable at the position, but neither fellow will be a star player and free safety's a great place to get a ball hawk. 4th-5th round.
Strong Safety - Roman Harper has made some nice plays coming up to the line and making tackles in run support but has also been out of position on some plays. Remember that 54-yard run by Tampa Bay's fullback? That was Harper's fault. A thirty-something SS should be experienced enough to know that, given the situation with Tampa Bay inside their own five-yard line, the play call on offense would be a conservative one. Harper needs to learn to trust the coaches more and their defensive call and play with a bit more restraint and maintain his assignment. Gettleman tried to upgrade the SS position this year with 4th-round pick Tre Boston, but he has yet to contribute and I never liked that particular pick. Unless Boston shows us something and starting soon, his roster spot could be up for grabs by next spring. 3rd-4th round.
Cornerback - I think Benwikere is going to be just fine, and could move into one of the two starting corner spots as soon as later this season. Melvin White continues to steadily develop, but also was undrafted and has a fairly low ceiling for an NFL starter. He could develop into a solid CB2, but the team needs a very strong #1 corner that they haven't seen since Chris Gamble's departure. 1st-3rd round.
Wide Receiver - Here's my "wild card" spot. It indeed appears that Kelvin Benjamin was the steal of the first round, especially where Carolina was drafting. He is already the most dangerous WR on the team and should only improve from here. He's the Real Deal, folks, and can you just imagine a decent young WR opposite him? It would take pressure off the running game and open the playbook as wide as a dental patient's mouth. We could afford a speedster/project in the latter rounds here if one slides. Perhaps a small-school guy that would need a year to really contribute would work fine as long as Benjamin improves and Olsen's play remains steady. We really need to get younger at the position through the draft if Cam Newton is to develop to his full potential. Having a group of WRs that have zero career receptions in camp meant Cam had to "develop chemistry" with an entirely new crew, which hasn't sped things up. Depending on Breston Bersin's ability to contribute as a role-player, Gettleman might take two WRs next year....one early and one late in order to stabilize the roster at the position. 2nd-3rd round, 6th-7th round.
It's not really a huge secret where our weaker positions are. It'll be yet another thing to fill most of those positions with upgraded, value-pick rookies. The "projections" I made are based on team need and of course, Gettleman looks for value and just doesn't "reach" for a needed position. He will likely grab the best available, as usual, and hopefully will happen to be a position of need.
Just like the Kelvin Benjamin pick!
Follow me on Twitter
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!
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye
Okay folks, it's time to get "real" with a single day between the Carolina Panthers and their opening day game at Tampa Bay.
First of all, of course I'm psyched about the season starting and, as always, I'm very hopeful about the prospects for the Panthers this season. They've had a lot of change in the roster, especially at wide receiver, the offensive line, and in the defensive backfield.
However, I've never been a "homer" and always try to tell it the way I see it, and along that vein "hope and change" hasn't worked out as well as we had been led to believe in a more general sense.
So, let's take a look at specifics...and stay within the parameters of the NFL from here.
What got better:
The short answer here, ironically, is the drafting of 6'5" Kelvin Benjamin. He appears to be all we fans had hoped he would be and even more. Panthers' WR coach Ricky Proehl has worked his magic again, it would appear, and this time he's been given a big ole lump of clay to shape the way he sees fit instead of trying to revive veterans' careers while working with lots of them on one-year deals.
THAT, my friends, is one heck of a difficult task...and one that he just began anew once again but with former Jets WR Stephen Hill. However, Hill likely needs even more work than did Kelvin and probably won't be a factor at all this season as he works on the practice squad. If he does contribute, it won't be until late in the season and even then, I don't see him being anyone to scare defenses, despite his athleticism, until he is almost literally a new man.
Proehl's good, but it takes more than him snapping his fingers to do that.
Another thing that should improve is our interior defensive line. No, we've not added anyone but we didn't really need to. Last year's first two picks, both defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, played up to their ability and perhaps even beyond expectations - especially in Star's case and Kawann looks more disruptive than last year - and now they come into the NFL with a year of knowledge under their rather large belts. This helps them come into camp allowing Sean McDermott the luxury of being able to start at a higher level and go from there than he was able to last season. Star and Kawann were kindergartners in 2013's preseason, in elementary school the first month of the NFL, and finished the season well into high school if you follow the metaphor.
Instead of having to teach "ABCs," McDermott could start training camp with "college prep" courses and have those two key tackles learning college material now, while the second half of the season should see them graduating and working on their Masters degrees....as in "mastering" their positions and their assignments.
That's what experience does for you, and the front seven returns completely intact from last year. That means they'll be even better now from day one, and the best middle linebacker in the game leads them all. I see several completely dominant performances by this unit this year and if you don't have a solid offensive line across the board, our guys will certainly take advantage without having to bring extra people.
The third thing that should really improve is the interior offensive line. Injuries decimated the O-line actually the last two seasons running. If Ryan Kalil and Amini Silatolu can stay healthy and Trai Turner, projected to start at right guard pans out, the Panthers should have one of the better interior units in the NFL.
So much for the good news.
What got worse:
Oh boy, now the fun begins.
First off, Cam Newton's health is obviously worse, although the ankle has been "bothering him since college." It is uncertain how much the ankle has healed since he had surgery on it 6 months ago now, not to mention the cracked ribs in his back from preseason. Ron Rivera says his play in week one will be a "game-time decision," but I'll be quite surprised if he doesn't play. Even if he doesn't, the offense is in capable hands with Derek Anderson, who is widely considered the best back-up QB in the NFC South and one of the better ones in the entire NFL, so that's a bit of help.
However, Newton had no such issues at this time last season, so the situation is worse. This carries over into the second point....
...the yearly "rent-a-roster spot" guys collectively aren't as good as they were last year. At least, not on paper. Mike Mitchell leads the departed defensive group while Roman Harper rings in the new. Mitchell had speed, youth, and physicality on his side and used our front seven to play himself out of our price range for 2014. Good for him - it means he was a difference-maker in our secondary last year - but it leaves us with a hole. I'm rooting for Roman to do as well, but if the 31 year old safety is that good, why would he be available and for a cheaper price than Mitchell?
Harper, despite chatter, IS durable, having played in all 15 games each season save his rookie year - not surprising in and of itself there - and 9 games last year. The same year the Saints' defense shot up the charts like a rocket. Hmm. Doesn't bode so well for us.
I think at best, Harper should provide a steadying influence on a still relatively young group of corners, including rookie Bene Benwikere. "The Fed Chief" is the wild card of the secondary this year, but hasn't shown much in the preseason and may take time to develop - all while the team is ringing up wins and losses. I like Melvin White's gritty play, but the team still lacks anyone in the secondary that I'd consider an above-average player.
The "rent-a-roster" approach didn't end in the defensive backfield. Just like last year, Dave Gettleman brought in a hapless group of wide receivers on one-year contracts, hoping one or more of them can surpass their previous ceilings they had established in the NFL. Ted Ginn, Jr. was the guy who did it last year but still had inconsistent hands in the passing game although he was a great help to the return game.
We don't have an established kick returner this year, and Rivera has already cut one of the one-year WRs in Tiquan Underwood as Kelvin Benjamin has risen to the top of the depth chart as a rookie.
We also haven't seen much of Jerricho Cotchery in the preseason. We know he's a very experienced guy who had a fine season last year. While teammate Antonio Brown got the lion's share of targets, Cotchery only had 600 yards or so, but with ten TD receptions. Those TD receptions are a statistical anomaly, however, as he hasn't had but 6 TD catches in any other season since entering the NFL in 2004.
Beyond Benjamin, the Panthers once again have a roster full of "threes and fours" - in terms of talent - which means defenses will be smothering the rookie on passing downs.
Ah....passing. It's something that truly scares me this season, especially after Pro-Bowl LT Jordan Gross retired.
The Panthers have an offensive line that reminds me of one of those small-school basketball programs. They are starting a center and four guards. Please try not to giggle too much.
Yes, Byron Bell is now in his fourth NFL season so we know what he can and cannot do, but Rivera still moved him from playing out of position at right tackle to playing out of his league on the left side.
Don't get me wrong. I like Byron as a person and he seems to make a wonderful teammate. I've never heard him complain about anything at all, he stays out of trouble, and is an all-around class act. I've said it before and I'll keep ON saying it - I really do root for the kid.
That said, he's NOT a tackle. He's most DEFINITELY NOT a LEFT tackle. He doesn't have the feet for the position and if I had my way as coach, he'd be a right guard all day long and twice on Sundays. Err....well, you know what I mean.
Speed-rushers make him look bad, period. Pittsburgh Steelers' LB Jarvis Jones fell in the draft last year in part due to a slower than expected 40-yard dash time - WAY slower at 4.92 seconds - and Byron Bell made him look like an All-Pro.
One particular play had Bell fooled into thinking Jones was heading outside on the pass rush when he used a crossover move to take the inside route - which is the most direct route to the quarterback - and Bell barely even touched him.
Not much later on in the game, Bell had a false start penalty on a passing down as he tried to get a jump on the protection by timing the snap exactly right. He was wrong, early, and forced the 5-yard penalty as a result.
The same thing was happening against New England the game before. Chandler Jones abused him pretty regularly in that game as well.
Even so, it might have been possible to slide protection to that weak side to help him out, but the right tackle position isn't in any better hands. Nate Chandler is a converted defensive tackle who began learning the offensive tackle position early last year but is still very raw with his technique and doesn't have the shiftiest feet around, himself. It's probably part of why he was a defensive tackle to begin with, and also why he wasn't drafted. In fact, the entire Carolina Panthers' roster has zero offensive tackles that were drafted at any position!
That alone is hardly a ringing endorsement of the strength of the position. I know both tackles will try their best, but more and more I'm feeling it as a "square peg/round hole" type of situation. I have no doubt in my mind that they'll try their best every single snap on every single day, but they just aren't guys that God made to grow up to be offensive tackles in the NFL. They're both much, much more suited to be guards due to their sheer size (Bell is 340 pounds, for instance) and that they lack the lateral quickness and agility that tackles on BOTH sides need, frankly, in today's pass-happy NFL.
Some of this can be compensated for with using the 2TE set that has been whispered about so much by us fans. The TE can help by using a "chip" block, where they go out in their pass patterns but give the defensive end a not-so-friendly shove on the shoulder, arm, or ribcage to hopefully upset their balance before they can get started into their pass rush, but doing that would limit the depth of the route to maybe 10-15 yards at the most while allowing only 3 other eligible receivers on any given play (other than the other TE). With Chandler's rawness, Greg Olsen may be "chipping" away at the D-line too.
It also means more "max-protect" blocking schemes, again, which limits the number of receivers in the pattern because not only do all TEs stay in to block, so does the RB.
In any case, it also means more times where the "hot" receiver (the guy designated to run a very short pattern and/or break off his pattern to make a very quick target for the QB) in case of a blitz or heat on the QB, which looks to happen as often as not.
All of these issues on offense add up to Mike Shula being Mike Shula - calling a vanilla game plan, taking few chances, and hoping the defense can create a turnover or outstanding punter Brad Nortman can pin the other team inside their 20 (which he's really good at doing) and flipping the field so the offense won't have to be conducting 70- or 80-yard drives to hit paydirt.
Yes, the team has issues but don't all NFL teams?
That's true - all NFL teams have issues....some are just more glaring than others. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, have a pretty pedestrian offensive line but Russell Wilson is a brilliant young field general who makes the right reads and not only "manages" that offense, but makes plays with both his legs and with his right arm when he's asked to do so. He's also very accurate, which is something Newton has never been known for.
Specifically, the teams in the NFC South have improved overall since last season...other than the Panthers.
Carolina got a little better with the front-seven due to experience gained and added a nice, big target for Cam on the outside. That's really about all the "good news" the Panthers have this season over last.
This year, they come into opening day with the WR corps having exactly ZERO receptions with the Carolina Panthers. In likely descending order of production this year, there's Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and another guy I'm really rooting for in Breston Bersin. Bersin's got a great, hard work pays off story, but it won't make him an All-Pro.
The receivers should settle into their duties as the season progresses but the offensive tackles will not. Bell's feet won't get any quicker and neither will Chandler's.
The lowdown is that defenses will know all of these things, they'll watch as game tape piles up more and more as the season progresses and pass-rushers all around the NFL are circling Carolina on their schedule and placing "friendly wagers" with their teammates as to how many sacks they'll get. The defensive coordinators may even be thinking of playing the strong safety "in the box," knowing we want to establish the run and that Mike Shula is a magician that wears short sleeves so they won't be seeing a lot of things they haven't seen before, and with Cam's ankle still an issue, the "read/option" plays should be limited as coaches want Cam to take fewer hits and Cam likely won't be tallying the 111 rushing attempts he did last season.
It all adds up to a more predictable AND less capable offense overall than even last year's iteration. The defense will keep us in most ball games, but unless they start scoring more points themselves, it's going to be a long season in Charlotte vs. fan hopes and expectations.
What about other NFC South teams?
Atlanta's defense should be a bit better than it has been in the last couple of years due to an influx of drafted talent and a healthy offense. As long as Julio Jones and Roddy White are on the field, Atlanta has as good a duo there as anyone in the NFL. They had a breaking-down Steven Jackson last year with no good options past him, but added rookie Devonta Freeman in this year's draft. He's an improved version of Jacquizz Rogers (and if I misspelled his name I'm sorry but he's now 3rd-string at best so who cares) and looked good in the preseason. Still, I see the Falcons going 6-10 or 7-9, finishing last.
Next, we have the Tampa Bay Bucs, who actually might have the most talented 45-man roster in the division except at one critical position - quarterback. Mike Glennon showed growing pains and struggled as a rookie, but showed some flashes of ability. The Bucs improved their coach above all, trading in a college-style autocrat that players hated with Lovie Smith, a guy who got fired in Chicago because 10-6 wasn't good enough! He brought an experienced QB in Josh McCown along with him. The defense is stout but they struggled offensively last season....so they went 100% offense in this year's draft, including Mike Evans at WR and TE Jenkins (because I don't want to look up the spelling of HIS name either) and trading with New England for proven guard Logan Mankins. So the Bucs improved their situation quite a bit, too. Still, it'll take some time for them to put things together and I'm actually glad to be facing them early rather than late as an away game. I see the Bucs finishing 7-9 to 9-7 this year.
Then, we have the New Orleans Saints. They improved themselves last year when they brought in the defensive coordinator I refer to as "the rock star," Rob Ryan, who transformed a dead-last defense into a top-five unit in a single season. Yes, they let RB Darren Sproles go to Philly, but drafted Brandin Cooks so that's a wash. If Marques Colston can stay healthy, he provides a target the same size of Kelvin Benjamin, but with the pinpoint accuracy of future first-ballot Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees throwing him the ball. Kenny Stills is a second-year deep threat type of WR who had a nice 650 yards and 5 TDs as a rookie and should only improve. LT Terron Armstead has a year under his belt now too. It also appears that RB Mark Ingram is poised to finally have his breakout season (and it doesn't hurt it's his contract year) and if he doesn't, they always have Pierre Thomas to fall back on, not to mention reserve WRs Robert Meachem and Nick Toon. Oh - I forgot one other guy....some fella named Jummy Graham. I think he only got the job because he's Billy Graham's long-lost cousin, but as a tight end had a mere 1,200+ yards and sixteen touchdowns. With all of THAT in mind, I can't see the Saints finishing worse than about 11-5 and I am kinda "feelin' it" this year as far as their chances go. 11-5 is a floor, but 14-2 is their ceiling.
Even with all the issues the Panthers have internally going into tomorrow's opening day games (Thursday night not considered), I think the defense will keep them competitive and when games are close, anything can happen. I just think it's going to be difficult for the Panthers to mount the four 4th-quarter comebacks that Cam led last year to get to that 12-4 record when they would have been 8-8 without any.
Gettleman better make acquiring a serviceable pair of offensive tackles his priority for next season...just as he did with tackles on the defensive side last year.
If he can get a pair of those that turn out at their positions as well as Star and Kawann have so far, 2015 could be the Year of the Panther. For 2014 to be that, everything will have to perfectly fall into place and if there's one thing in life I've learned, things rarely go exactly as planned...and the NFC South has yet to have the same team win the division in consecutive seasons. History is not on our side.
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye
There. I said it. For the 100th time, in fact.
While I've always said he's a class act, especially while quietly enduring all the criticism on him through his young career and going out and trying his best, Bell has never been known to be an outstanding football player.
I have seen SO many discussions and comments from SO many hopeful Panthers fans, but I'm a blunt realist. Recent drafts have pushed the left tackle up the draft board specifically because of the increasing pass-rush threat from that side of the defense. Byron Bell and his biscuit feet aren't up for the task. They weren't on the right side and they certainly won't be on the left.
The fact that the Carolina Panthers don't even have an offensive tackle that was drafted in ANY capacity on their roster should be cause for concern enough. Watching Bell's game film should be even more so. He gets beaten and leans/lunges/waist-bends to try to compensate for his lack of lateral agility and that's a no-no in the NFL. Just look at the photo from last season in this piece and you'll see what I mean.
Things only get worse at left tackle.
Byron "The Turnstile" Bell got used and abused against New England lining up against Shea McLellin. He's a speed rusher, and Bell has the feet of a right guard....not those of a 21st century left tackle. A 1940's left tackle PERHAPS, but certainly not for this era.
He was exposed yet again against Pittsburgh. He could not handle Jarvis Jones. AT all.
Bell has all the typical characteristics of an interior lineman. He's pretty much the largest o-lineman on the team at around 340 pounds. He lacks lateral agility (read: very average feet). He's not the best at getting into position for run-blocking due to that limited footwork ability, which is why he is much more suited to be kicked inside as a guard. At guard, and on run AND pass blocking, the majority of plays don't force the interior three offensive linemen to be on the move and the need to kick-slide is minimized since you've got a fellow lineman on either side.
Certainly, he can be a load coming straight at you. Just on the sheer....er....weight of his weight makes his momentum climb up the physics scale in the calculation of "force," but then again he's also not one to break through to the second level and help block downfield.
In short, his physical tools are limited. Against Pittsburgh, LB Jarvis Jones got by Byron Bell both outside and inside - the inside move really made Byron look bad. On one play in particular, Jones got by Bell so quickly that even Mike Tolbert in the backfield couldn't get over to impair Jones' progress. Only a heads-up side-step by Derek Anderson kept him from getting clobbered...and even then, Brett Keisel, a 35 yr old 3-4 DE who averages 2 sacks a season got around Bell on the OUTSIDE, hitting Anderson's arm, resulting in a fluttery incomplete pass.
Bell also got called for at least one false start on a passing down when he saw Jarvis Jones ready to rush him. Byron knows he can't handle speed rushers very well, and the weak side of defenses are replete with exactly that type of guy.
The fact is that the Carolina Panthers' roster doesn't have a single offensive tackle that was actually drafted by anyone, and that should say something about the group's overall athleticism. In this day and age, tackles on offense are getting more and more athletic. Sub-5 second 40-yard dash times were pretty much unheard of ten years ago for the position. Today, every year it seems we see multiple OTs running well. Sure, pure speed isn't a big deal for OTs, but it does demonstrate some degree of athletic prowess nonetheless.
I know I may get some heat since some fans think "Thou shalt speak no evil of the homers," but I've always been someone who calls 'em as I see 'em....and from what I've seen from Bell at left tackle, this could be a long year for Cam as far as protection goes. If Bell is struggling this much in the preseason, I shudder to think how it will be when NFL defenses throw their starters at him the entire game as well as more exotic defenses and blitzes.
Look for the Panthers to target a tackle in the 2015 draft. A left tackle. And EARLY!
In fact, I wouldn't feel bad at this point if they have to trade up, giving up their organic first and second-round picks to move up high enough in the first round to snag a guy who projects to become if not a dominant LT, at least a very solid upper-tier one with "upside." Taking a RT in the 3rd or 4th wouldn't be a bad idea, either. Then, we should have both breadth and depth at the position and can really concentrate on the defensive secondary and perhaps add another wideout that has some potential, but I'm getting ahead of things a bit at this point.
Cam has taken a lot of hits in his short NFL career. A lot of it is due to his running. Some of it is due to his ignorance of the baseball slide.
He doesn't need more of it from a left tackle who can't defeat a speed-rusher.
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye
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.
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye
Super Cam’s return didn’t start off so super, completing only 1 of his first 5 passes. Newton stared down his receivers, had trouble getting through his progressions, threw a ball into triple coverage that miraculously wasn’t intercepted, and missed Kelvin Benjamin deep. It wasn’t until the second quarter that Newton rebounded after piecing together a drive sparked by Jonathan Stewart’s impressive debut and a sharp pass to new tight end, Ed Dickson. Cam looked unwilling to run, whether by coaches’ orders or personal hesitancy. He evaded a few pass rushes, but to be expected, he never pushed on the gas fully. Cam was clearly a little rusty. The worrisome part, however, is that his ankle looked squeaky also. Hopefully a few of drops of 3-1 oil will do the trick. I’m sure Jonathan Stewart has some borrow.
2) Benjamin was feisty.
Targeted early and often, Benjamin has already established himself as Carolina’s #1 receiver. Cam Newton knows it; Derek Anderson knows it; Panthers fans know it, and the country would have found out had Cam connected on that deep ball where Benjamin looked like a land speculator with all that open real estate around. Benjamin looks more than just the part, but he also acts. He works the middle confidently and showed surprising down-field speed. He also doesn’t take any flak from opposing corners, seen in his quickness to mash this guy’s face and then manhandle him in the following play. Benjamin took a little heat from the fan base today, describing his behavior as unacceptable and harmful to the team. I’m on the other side of the fence, however. I want to see this guy play with this intensity and confidence, and I certainly can’t wait to see him block like a tight end 20 yards down field.
3) Run Jonathan Stewart, run!
It has been so long, I truly forgot how much Stewart transforms Carolina’s offense. The Panthers are a completely different team when Stewart is healthy and on the field. Cam and the offense struggled until Stewart peeled off a 17-yard run that instantly breathed life into the offense. Stewart finished the game with 26 yards and 2 TDs. This was Stewarts first 2 TD game since 2009 against Atlanta. If Stewart is still healthy and reeling off two TD games when we face Atlanta in Week 10, it will be a near miracle. It would also be a catalyst for Carolina’s offense and be vital to their chances of repeating as division champs.
4) Antoine “wants some” Cason and Melvin “Breaking Bad” White got some!
After a rocky start against Buffalo, Antoine Cason came to get his tonight. Cason made back-to-back exceptional plays to stop a surging Chiefs offense. Quite the opposite of the blown coverages and missed tackles last week, Cason anticipated and finished all night.
Melvin White also broke bad last night, amassing 4 solo tackles, 2 assisted tackles, and at least 1 pass defended. It’s easy to forget that White was an undrafted rookie free agent last year after Rivera listed him as the #2 corner and asked him to play as the #1 because Captain Munnerlyn is, well, 5’-8”. White sent a Heisenberg message to opponents last night to “tread lightly.” What I liked most is White’s continued quickness to break from his assignment and make key tackles. He did last week against Sammy Watkins, and again this week in a 3rd and goal stop where he delivered a punishing tackle to rookie standout D’Anthony Thomas.
If Cason and White continue to perform as they did against the Chiefs, Carolina’s secondary should be much improved from last season.
5) Byron Photo-bomb Bell and the Offensive Line blowing dudes up.
Panther Nation has waited anxiously to see the offensive lines performance in the wake of Jordon Gross and Travelle Wharton’s retirements. Gettleman’s decision not to address the left tackle position through free agency or the draft only heightened this anxiety. Fans and analysts have droned on and on how this offensive line isn’t talented enough to prevent he edge rush. Whether it is the undrafted Byron Bell or the converted defensive tackle, Nate Chandler, the consensus has been that this offensive line will take a significant step back.
From what we’ve seen so far, it hasn’t been anywhere as bad as fans feared. The interior line looks to be stronger with the addition of Trai Turner and the return of Amini Silatolu. Leaving Chandler at right tackle looks to be the right move as Bell continues to impress on the left. What’s most encouraging about Bell’s assumption of the left tackle position is his acceptance of the leadership role that comes with such a high profile position. Bell has become more vocal and visible, photo-bombing Cam Newton rather than bombing before him.
Panther fans should be encouraged by Carolina’s preseason so far. The doom and gloom of a quiet off-season punctuated by departures instead of arrivals appears less troublesome than expected. The offense looks more potent already and the defense is only getting better. Barring injury and granting Cam’s complete recovery, the Cardiac Cats should be causing heart attacks rather than suffering from them this season.
What would you say the most encouraging aspects of the Panthers first preseason victory were?
But on Friday, August 8, there is a do-over. Bell has had a solid camp thus far. All reports are that he is growing into a team leader and has the leg up on Nate Chandler to win the starting Left Tackle spot. Is he for real or are we clinging on to hope? The do-over coming our way next week against Super Mario is one that will answer a lot of questions going forward. I'll be glued to the TV. So my words to Big Byron Bell and to Josh Norman is to Keep Pounding!
~Erin Ford, aka Mel Mayock, aka @PanthersDrafter