Beating the Eagles Starts with Stopping DeMarco Murray on 1st Down

Beating the Eagles Starts with Stopping DeMarco Murray on 1st Down

Arguably the biggest free agent acquisition of the 2015 season, people expected fireworks from DeMarco Murray joining Chip Kelly’s offense.  The circumstances of Murray’s acquisition, Philadelphia’s abrupt parting with LeShaun McCoy and addition of Ryan Matthews, only intensified expectations. Through the first four weeks, the bold experiment appeared an utter failure.  The Eagles offense was hard to watch, and the running game was virtually non-existent. 

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Ranking the Panther's Top 10 Defensive Lineman

Ranking the Panther's Top 10 Defensive Lineman

The Panther’s have an embarrassment of riches in several areas of their defense, the defensive line being no exception. Our starting defensive lineman can stack up to almost any group in the league; however, it’s our depth that sets us apart. Though there is enough talent to make this list nearly twenty deep, I’ll keep it short enough to include the starters and key reserves.

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Injuries Mount as Panthers Prowl Lambeau Field This Week

Come on, fans....admit it. This season has been an insane one for the Carolina Panthers thus far.

Nobody would have thought that it would be the offense carrying a team with a struggling defense?

Were we not supposed to have a group of the "league's sorriest wide receivers?"

Those two bookend offensive tackles that weren't even drafted and couldn't pass-block?

Cam Newton was unusually well-protected last week, but what most people don't know is that the Cincinnati defense is statistically pretty bad, too. They actually are 28th in yards allowed while that of the Panthers is 26th.

Some strange things are going this season no matter how you slice it. 

It's an interesting backdrop to think about as the team heads north to play in Titletown. I have always respected the Packers organizational skill over their history as well as their legendary coach, Vince Lombardi. Now the Panthers have to play in the shadow of history as well as the bright light of the day in a hostile stadium again. 

With two teams noted for offense and scoring points lately after sluggish starts, neither team can call their defense a strength. The Packers are 19th in total yards allowed. 

It all makes the injury situation that much more concerning for Carolina. You're all probably aware of the problem with injuries to our running back corps so I looked at who has been held out of practice this week. The list is rather long:

Roman Harper, Kelvin Benjamin, Fozzy Whittaker, Bene' Benwikere, Thomas Davis, Amini Silatolu, Dwan Edwards, DeAngelo Williams, Greg Olsen and Chase Blackburn were all held out of practice. 

The good news is that Jonathan Stewart participated fully. 

While some of those not practicing can get away with it as veterans, four are new to the team this year and three of them are rookies. They especially need their reps.

Many of these guys will probably play but a key player may not be. Kelvin Benjamin is being treated for a concussion. There are entire articles I could write about that situation, being that he was obviously shaken up early in last week's game but was allowed to return. That bears investigating. 

If Benjamin can't go this weekend, the offense will be at a serious disadvantage. He has proven himself a worthy target despite having recent issues with dropping passes. He still makes more than his share of our big plays in the passing game along with Olsen with Avant making an occasional clutch catch.

Without The Kelvinator, we may be right back to using Cam Newton as the true dual-threat quarterback and competitor that he truly is. Last week, he looked more like his old young self so to speak, and just in time it looks like.

Having Stewart back to shoulder a nice bit of the load will be nice, but Cam is probably going to be off and running another double-digit number of times. With little depth at the RB position, look for more trips or "bunch" type sets with Olsen, Avant, and Cotchery perhaps likely.

Now if only our pass rush can wake up and get after AR-12 early, we could have a chance. I'm just tired of seeing us giving up all these big plays. Last week, we gave Giovanni Bernard an 89-yard TD run and his first 100-yard rushing game ever. Yep, incredible but true.

The road through Wisconsin doesn't get any easier with Eddie Lacy's presence either. Aaron Rodgers isn't lacking for talented targets and our secondary has been atrocious. At least the rush defense has been more atrocious. 

In order to win, it looks like Cam is going to have to pull off another do-it-all performance, or close to it. Stewart can finally step back in this week, it looks like. Other than that, There's a lot of banged-up talent on the list whether they play or not.

All that aside, the Panthers stand a fair chance of pulling this one off. I have seen stranger things happen, so hang on until game day and we'll have a lot clearer picture.

Above all, #KeepPonding 

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

Carolina Plays Pivotal Game Against Chicago Today

Too many times, announcers especially like to prop up the game they're calling by saying it's a "must-win game." The problem is, there ARE no "must-win games" in week TWO.
This is week five, however, and with the Panthers having given up 30+ points in consecutive losses, the third time is the charm as the saying goes.

Chicago has a potent offense both on the ground with Matt Forte and in the air with four very good skill players: QB Jay Cutler, WR Brandon Marshall, WR Alshon Jeffery, and TE Martellus Bennett.

Forte's forte - such as it is - is catching passes out of the backfield. Yes, he has 4.4 speed and when he gets the ball in space, he can be a very explosive player. With the Bears' offense, it's a case of picking your poison.

With the Panthers having vomited up 37 to a Pittsburgh offense grinding it out and 38 to a potent air attack in Baltimore, the Panthers need to get their act together this week. If you can't stop the run OR the pass, what are you doing out there?

What's particularly baffling is where they DID go. As we all know, the Panthers' defense entered the season as the strong suit of the team, finishing a close second to Seattle in most meaningful defensive categories last season and returned the strength of that part of the squad in the front seven.

We also know of Greg Hardy's legal and league issues, but I'm not so sure missing one guy turns a defense that gives up 12 points per game to one giving up 37.5 points per game. The issues are far more systemic than not having one of your top players - not even your top pass rusher.

Even Ron Rivera said he had counted fourteen different plays against Baltimore where at least two defenders were out of position....not to mention plays where "only" one was.

So what's the explanation for this "regression?"

That's a baffling question because the answers aren't very obvious at first glance. The team has the same defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, and as I've said, basically the same front seven (Hardy being the exception).

Since the safeties and some of the corners are new to the team this season, the defensive backfield is the obvious culprit, but they aren't entirely to blame, either. MLB Luke Kuechly isn't playing up to the level he had last season when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Even HE has been caught out of position on some long gains, including the 81-yarder that Le'Veon Bell ripped off on us two weeks ago.

So why would Kuechly regress? I'm not so sure that "regression" is the right term for him. With the defensive backfield being obviously confused in assignments at times, he may feel he has to do even more than he should, and therein lies the rub: when you "do too much," you become more aggressive and tend to commit yourself too early in an "all or nothing " other words, he may be thinking "If I don't make the play, nobody will."

The results are on film. He'd be better served, like the rest of the defense, to play what I call "robotic" football. That's where you don't care what your teammates are doing and only care about what YOU can do. Coach says, player does. Robotic.

This is not to say you don't play with passion - the entire team does that. I'm not questioning their desire or heart or work ethic. I'm questioning their focus and grasp of the system - at least the safeties for now - and if this is causing a ripple effect of sorts. With Roman Harper having been out of position as much or more than anyone I've seen on the defense, perhaps others feel like they have to "cover" for him so to speak, or "hide" him by trying to do a little bit more....and that's the trap the defense may be falling into.

It isn't a personnel issue. It isn't a faulty scheme. It isn't a bad coordinator.

That narrows things down considerably. What it comes down to is a matter of playing disciplined, smart defense.

People used to talk about Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, saying "Not only did he not want you to gain a yard, he didn't want you to gain an inch!"

In the run-happy days of the 1950's and 60's, that style of play often worked. Aggressive, stop the run at all costs football.

That approach simply doesn't work in an NFL when a QB can take a snap, a 3-step drop, and have the ball out of his hands in less than two seconds. At least, it won't consistently work unless you're playing against this year's version of the New England Patriots. I'm convinced it's because I drafted Tom Brady for my fantasy league, but that's an entirely different article.

I think the team would be better served to go back and look at last year's game film and this year's game film, see what the differences are, correct them, and go back to being a top-five defense again. I'm sure McDermott has been going through that very process and has been under a lot of heat from Rivera these last couple of weeks.

Even the best defensive teams have bad nights for whatever reason. Take, for instance, the 1985 Chicago Bears....regarded by many as the best single-season defense of all time.

Yes, that's Ron above and his team lost only a single game, but in the process they looked completely beatable. I remember it because I saw it live. They played against Dan Marino on Monday Night Football in the Orange Bowl and would send 8 guys after Dan.

One problem: Marino got rid of the ball more quickly than anyone ever had in NFL history - before or since. He'd take that three-step drop and actually throw fairly long passes - he'd just loft it up, let the single-covered receiver run under it, and "pull the string" on the pass, dropping it out in front of him perfectly. They scored at least two TDs using this method and won the 14 points. And it was never even that close.

However, the Panthers aren't exposing their secondary by blitzing, they're exposing it by not generating the pass rush from the D-line they used to last season. Yes, Hardy's absence doesn't help, but Charles Johnson hasn't had a good year thus far either. DE Wes Horton, starting for Hardy, hasn't had a single sack in 2014. Mario Addison is a good pass-rusher as a reserve and could well start in Horton's place perhaps, since not only does Horton not have a sack, he doesn't even have an unassisted tackle.

Gettleman's selection of Missouri DE Kony Ealy is looking better all the time, but he still needs time to grow into the position.

So, we've got a defensive backfield low on talent, rookie Ben "The Fed Chief" Benwikere notwithstanding, and many of them are first-year Panthers. The D-line isn't having the season they had last year as a whole, and Thomas Davis didn't even play against Baltimore.

I see issues at every level of the defense. Perhaps the sum of the "missing" parts is greater than the whole, but every team has injuries or key cogs gone for some time. Baltimore beat us even with the Ray Rice distraction, which is far greater than Hardy's in the public eye, for instance.

The pivotal part of today's ball game is indeed the defensive unit. If they can correct the issues they're facing and play more solid football, Carolina has enough offense, assuming they don't have to press my grandmother into service at running back, to put up enough points to win the game at home despite..."average" offensive tackles, to be kind.

If the defense continues its confused play, even the New York Jets could put up a score with a 3-handle on us....and that won't help us win against ANYONE.

A third consecutive poor showing by Carolina's defense would seem to indicate deeper systemic problems than I think may exist at this point and would be a symptom of problems that may take more time to fix than the Panthers have time to limit the numbers in the loss column.

Lastly, nobody seems to want to win the NFC South so far. Nobody is above .500. Even if the Panthers "back into" a division crown at, say, 9-7 or 10-6, from what I see, we'll have a very quick exit to the playoffs....just like last year.

And last year, we had a great defense!

Rivera & Co. need to get that bilge pump running and fast.....the ship is riding lower and lower in the water. It can still be saved, but it means focusing on doubling down on the hard work.

follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

Oh Godfrey, No Safety in Carolina's Secondary!

Oh Godfrey, Cam broke a rib. Oh Godfrey, Carolina has an entirely new receiving core. Oh Godfrey, Jordan Gross's retirement pushed Byron Bell to left tackle, and this line could be even worse than last year's. Oh Godfrey, Panther fans are in a panic. What, there’s more?  Oh Godfrey!

Byron BellYes, there’s is another weakness that hasn’t been discussed as frequently--safety. Personnel deficiencies and injuries, just like last year, could place an undue amount of pressure on a defense that is almost entirely predicated on the pass rush. Those hogmollies up front best pin their ears back and get after the quarterback, because it’s not clear Carolina could stave off a powerful air attack.

Safety wasn't Carolina's strongest attribute last season.  Mike Mitchell's punishing hits and flashy safety blitzes created a false sense of strength, one that even landed Mitchell a fat contract with Pittsburgh. Carolina’s secondary just wasn’t the best dish on the defensive buffet.  Injury and inconsistency forced Gettleman to make-over the recipe with old-journeyman and fresh, near unheard, of ingredients. Sure the dish was edible, but hardly delectable.  

Captain Munnerlyn, the fan favorite mini-sized cornerback, and Mike Mitchell’s departure temporarily highlighted the deficiency.  Dave Gettleman's acquisition of two rival NFC South safeties, Thomas DeCoud (FS) and Roman Harper (SS), helped to quell some concerns as departures of Jordon Gross and Steve Smith grabbed most’s attention.  Although to a lesser degree, the problem remained. 

DeCoud appears to be locked in at free safety, but Robert Lester's inconsistent preseason and recent ankle injury, Roman Harpers oldness, and rookie Tre Boston's absence entirely, only sours the taste of this defensive dish once again.  There are some guys, like Anderson Russell and Colin Jones, who are battling to solidify a roster spot in this depleted backfield, but according to Joe Person, the Panthers haven’t been happy with what they have seen.

Roman Harper
The secondary has been a topic of discussion at C3 for quite sometime. We’ve been particularly interested in Charles Godfrey’s move to nickel corner.  The Panthers reasoned that Godfrey, who played some corner in college, could adjust to this position a little easier after his Achilles injury.  He provided a bigger body that could match up with some of those more athletic tight-ends and slot receivers, as Bene Benwikere developed.  In our Training Camp Cuts podcast, in mid-July, we speculated that Godfrey would wind up at strong safety before the season’s end.  We originally believed this would come from Roman Harper simply not outperforming the younger guys, while expecting Benwikere to develop faster than most expected.

After a C3 interview with Bill Voth and Lester’s recent injury, our perspective may have changed slightly, but the outcome remains the same--Godfrey will end back up at safety.  Our rationale was that Harper was just too old and a little too washed up, resulting in him losing the starting position. Voth, however, articulated an additional concern, Harper may just be nicked up all season and not have a chance to lose the job. Well Harper is back on the field for the moment, but the Panthers don’t expect him to do the job alone.  Today, Joe Person reported: 

Godfrey is moving back to safety, at least in some capacity. I like Godfrey in this role better. He hasn’t adjusted particularly well to nickel corner.  He’s been beaten in practice and in the preseason repeatedly. Godfrey was in on coverage on the play where Chris Hogan broke a big reception.  Now there’s a need, and he’s about the only experienced option the Panthers have at the moment. 

Oh Godfrey, the Panthers are in a pinch right now, and the secondary is a big part of the concern.  I’m interested to see how the Panthers try to address this weakness. Counting on Tre Boston to contribute is a bit far fetched.  Some believe that Colin Jones can help. We’ll be watching to see if Gettleman tries to pick up a road warrior like he did last year. He better be a gem, or you can hold your breath on every play where the front four doesn’t get at the quarterback.  Remember that last play in the Miami game?  Well that will be the spoiled milk if Carolina can’t plate the proper defensive dish this season. 

Panther Defensive Players to Breakout in 2014

Wrapping up part two of players set to have a breakout season for the Panthers, I’ll take on the defense this time and give my opinion on the players I feel will end up having a recognizably strong 2014 season.  Considering there are at least five Pro-Bowl potential players in our front seven alone, there really are only a few defensive players who could surprise Panther fans.  Don’t be shocked if one of the players might already have a lot of “Money” to his name.

I feel like last year could have been one of our best defensive drafts ever. In 2013 when we drafted AJ Klein.  I was almost positive he would steal Chase Blackburn’s spot by the end of his rookie campaign. Not that I feel Blackburn hasn’t deserved it, Klein just truly has what it takes to go in and make a difference for an already strong linebacker core. Klein really can do it all, but most importantly he’s smart. He is the perfect complement to Kuechly and Thomas Davis; every time he was thrown into the action, he made an immediate impact. If you don’t remember, check out last year’s game against the 49ers at Candlestick. I know Gettleman is big on Blackburn through their past connections in New York, but I sense this is the year AJ busts out, letting everyone around the league know that he is the real deal and that the Panthers have the strongest LB corps in the NFL. 

2014 Predictions: 92 Tackles 5 sacks 1 Int

It seems right about when Charles Johnson got leg whipped in the Patriots game and all questions surfaced about how he would end the year, we got lost in the Greg Hardy mumbo jumbo. Hardy had a very strong year though, and we all had a right to get wrapped up in it. He tied the franchise record with Kevin Greene for sacks in a year (15), and proved to be one of the strongest links on our defensive line. Let’s be real though, Hardy is a great and integral part of our team, but the heartbeat of our line lies with Charles Johnson. He has taken all double teams away from everyone on the line, except Hardy if we’re only rushing four; his pure athleticism, great instinct for the ball and knowledge of how to smash down or set the edge is what makes him such a dominant player. That showed when he went down in the Patriot’s game, where Carolina’s defense dominated the first half. After leaving as a result as a dirty Pats play, Carolina’s defensive line didn’t know what to do with themselves, allowing the Patriots run game to hit us right in the mouth.  Greg Hardy is a great player and I love that he’s ours, for the time being, but his huge three sack games were against rookies while CJ was doing the dirty work taking on big time vets on the other side. I’ve kept up with CJ this offseason and the guy looks to be in the best shape of his career. I’ve also noticed he’s training with former Panther and current Green Bay Packer Julius Peppers, who he learned under earl in his career. I like where Big Money is right now, right under the radar. This could be his best year yet; maybe we’ll even see him in a Pro Bowl finally. 

2014 Predictions: 17 sacks (team record), 43 Tackles, 2FF, 1 FR

With questions surrounding Carolina’s defensive backfield and the repeated references to it as the “Legion of whom,”  it’s time for our young DBs to step up under the guidance of two Pro Bowl safeties and a few other vets.  I’m most excited to see if 2nd year UDFA Melvin White really can break out of his rookie shell and find the confidence he needs to elevate himself to the next tier of cornerbacks. I’ve really liked this guy from day one, and was truly ecstatic when we signed him. White is the full package; his cover skills are great, but he’s still very raw.  My favorite thing about him is his capability to lay the wood and his high level of aggressiveness.  It’s so great to have a corner who’s not afraid to get right into a receiver’s frame and have the ability to jam him at the line. Playing corner is one of the most mentally challenging positions in football, all he needs is to find some more self found confidence and we may see Gettleman signing him back soon. 

2014 Predictions: 56 Tackles, 5 Int, 1 TD, 1FF

Star Lotelelei and Kawann Short both have more pressure on them than people actually realize.  We automatically expect for the two second year players, who both had impressive rookie seasons, to hold up the most important part of our defense yet again. With Star being the dynamic run stopper he was last year, Luke Kuechly and TD were able to roam around more and worry less about the run game. Anyone who loves this team knows that we made the jump to an elite defense last year due to the fact we finally had a guy to stop the run up the middle. I know it’s really hard to forecast if a tackle slumps, but Star is potentially just as important to our defense as Kuechly.  Without him, we are left with Colin Cole and a handful of DTs who can rush the passer but may only clog the middle every now and then; let’s be honest, we need the consistency Star brings. Kawann is the sugar to Star’s tea, however. What Star lacks in pass rushing, Short makes up. He slumped mid-season, but came back towards the end of the year and really looked like to have found his groove. Look for these guys to cause match-up problems for centers and tackles all across the league. 

2014 Predictions: Star Lotelelei: 46 tackles, 3.5 sacks (huge space eater) Kawann Short: 36 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 FR

I believe that he and, surprisingly, James Dockery will have possibly their best seasons this year. Dockery truly has dynamic cover skills, mostly credited to his long arms. Barring injury, he should impress.  The front office hasn’t kept him around for nothing.  Robert Lester is the last person on my list that I feel truly has the potential to make a name for himself this year. Perhaps a guy with even greater potential, Lester is a born winner and play maker. It’s almost like God created him only to run with our style of defense because he can do what he’s best at and roam the field. His knack for going and getting the ball is what’s to love. He gets it at the highest point and will make a quarterback quickly regret a pass. Look for him to steal possibly a starting spot this year once he gains a little more confidence and has the playbook under his belt. A second year safety should know the ropes and finally be able to play their way, which is a scary thing for the intellectual Lester… 

2014 Predictions:  39 tackles, 5 Int, 1 TD

Hope you enjoyed guys, sorry it took a while to get back to you folks with the defensive version. For those maybe who feel there were some players left out, I also feel others have potential to have a big year. I have to stop my biased hand somewhere, however, and limit my list. Go Panthers!

By Gerin Honeycutt