Three Things to Watch in Carolina's Preseason Game Against Baltimore

Three Things to Watch in Carolina's Preseason Game Against Baltimore

Panthers football is back with their first preseason game set to kickoff in Baltimore tonight at 7:30 pm. Hopefully. Baltimore's field crew won't ruin our Thursday like the Hall of Fame crew did Sunday. Here are the three positions to watch on tonight.

 

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A Night Where Nothing Went Right, and Everything Seemed to Go Wrong Except the End

A Night Where Nothing Went Right, and Everything Seemed to Go Wrong Except the End

The Panthers were off Saturday night against against the Miami Dolphins. You could see it right away when Luke Kuechly missed a routine tackle during Miami's opening drive. The Panthers were off. The single missed tackle alone didn’t indicate how bad it would be, but it sure did intimate that something was wrong.

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Panthers Preseason Opener: More Questions Than Answers

Panthers Preseason Opener: More Questions Than Answers

It wasn’t the crisp start we had hoped for Carolina. Matt Cassel moved the ball effectively against the Panthers first team defense, which failed to generate any real pressure. Picking on veteran corner, Charles Tillman, who played noticeably off opposing receivers, exploiting AJ Klein at times, and running adequately against the Panthers front, Carolina started the game flat.

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Carolina's Loss to Patriots Not Nearly as Bad as it Seems

Yes, we all watched last night's "Fiasco at Foxborough," we all have our opinions on it, and many are worried about the team regressing...even some writers here perhaps.

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.


THE GOOD:


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.
 Just an aside - I like calling Benjamin “Coolness” due to the combination of his first name and the manner in which he scored his first NFL touchdown...when he tripped in the endzone and still caught the pass. Seems to fit him him well as far as I’m concerned, anyhow.


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.


THE BAD:


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.


THE SKINNY:


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


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The Only Positive of the Panther’s Preseason Game Against the Patriots

Carolina’s first two preseason games reminded me of that inevitable moment in any guy’s life where the  hot girl in class is nice, and he gets courage to ask her for her number.  She is naturally nice, and even entertains his phone call. The third game, however, was the call where she told him she just wanted to be friends.  It stings. The euphoria so quickly dashed by a swift kick to the manhood.  That’s pretty much what happened last night at Gillette Stadium, where lady Brady said to Carolina, “kitty cats, aren’t they cute?”

The offensive line played terrible, the run game was non-existent, Cam looked indecisive at times and failed to connect on some easy open looks, the secondary blew coverages and missed tackles, and New England running backs ran through gaping holes left by a gassed defensive line.  On top of that, Greg Hardy re-aggravated his shoulder, Robert Lester sprained his ankle, Cam took a knee to the back, and everyone else who didn’t get hurt played gimpy anyway.  It was a long game, one that the Panthers never looked the least bit in control.


So is there anything good that the Panthers can take away from this Patriotic Beat Down? Let’s just say it isn’t Kony Ealy’s continued love for the spin move, reminiscent of ole Everett Brown. If there is one positive takeaway from this game, it is that the guys who Carolina really need to play well, and are supposed to play well, are playing well.  Kelvin Benjamin, Jonathan Stewart, Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechley, and Star Lotulelei are the studs Carolina needs them to be.

Kelvin Benjamin: He’s so damn big for a receiver.  He’s essentially a Jimmy Graham type tight end with #1 receiver chops.  This guy just flat out plays. Benjamin has performed greater than even his strongest supporters could have wished.  He continues to work every part of the field, get behind corners, work zone coverages, and make great catches.  Benjamin will be a Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate this year, given Cam’s affinity for the big receiver and his continued impressive play.

Kelvin Benjamin

Luke Kuechly: Get ready for another Pro Bowl year!  Kuechly will be the defensive player over the next decade that assumes a leadership role and affects every play in a Ray Lewis type capacity.  He has the opportunity become one of the greatest linebackers ever.  Kuechly has been a heat seeking missile in the preseason, and as long as healthy, he’ll continue to be a destructive force for the Panthers.


Thomas Davis: It’s hard to believe that, as well as Thomas Davis is playing, he’s the second best linebacker on the team.  He’s a top 5 linebacker, and would likely be the best linebacker on about 29 other teams.  Tonight’s Panther player of the game, Thomas Davis tallied 7 violent tackles and continued to demonstrate his football instinct. One of the commentators mentioned tonight that Davis believes that the knee injury discussion is a thing of the past and that he is playing the best football of his career.  He’s certainly picked right up where he left off last season.  TD and Kuechley continue to be the strongest linebacker tandem in the league. This former Dawg is hungry….let him eat!

Thomas Davis

Star Lotulelei: Tonight’s statline may not indicate it, but Star could turn out to be a Pro-Bowler as well.  In fact, mark me down, he’s going to be one this season.  Star is simply disruptive. He’s a great run-stopper, and he gets after the quarterback more than many expected.  Although he only had one tackle tonight, it was a big one for a loss.  Add a coterie of other effective defensive tackles, bookended by great defensive ends, and backed by two of the league’s best linebackers, Star should have a dominant like season.  He nearly had one last season.  No longer a rookie, Star will shine as he continues to learn the nuances of the position.

Star Lotulelei

Jonathan Stewart: He should be the starter. I said it. I hate that I said it, but Carolina’s offense is clearly more effective when he is on the field. I’ve always been a DeAngelo Williams fan, going back to his days at Memphis.  Nevertheless, it’s too clear that the Panthers are only going to run up the middle if he’s on the field.  Stewart has a bruising run style, but he can also be an effective receiving option out of the backfield.  This is something Williams has never been. Although, Stewart has never been healthy either.  If J. Stew can stay healthy, Carolina’s offense will be substantially more dynamic.  

Jonathan Stewart

Cam Newton: He went 8-12 with no turnovers.  It’s a decent statline, but it doesn’t highlight that the 4 passes he didn’t connect, which would have been drive sustainers.  He wasn’t good, but he wasn’t bad either.  Given that he hasn’t had the many reps with his new receivers because of the ankle surgery, Cam’s play should only get better.  He’s making good decisions and continues to choose his spots when to tuck the ball and run, but he has to get through his reads faster, put more touch on the deep ball, and simply relax and have confidence in his ability.

There’s really nothing fun about the hot girl classifying you as a “friend.”  It hurts the ego and challenges an individual’s confidence. This game was a lot like being befriended by the hot girl. It hurts. The Patriots embarrassed the Panthers last night. Hopefully, the Panthers will internalize this immediate defeat and learn from it, using the embarrassment as fuel for improvement.

So do you think there was anything good we should gleam from Carolina’s performance in Foxborough? Did we miss anything or anyone?  Maybe Philly Brown? Or, did we give too much credit to anyone?

Drop a comment below and let us know.

By the Professor aka +Cat Chronicles 
Follow me on Twitter: @Cat_Chronicles

Five Takeaways from Panthers Preseason Victory Over the Chiefs

1) Cam was rusty.

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?

Did the First Preseason Game Tell the Tale of the Panthers Defense?

It’s fashionable for analysts to downplay a team’s preseason debut. They’re mostly right, teams are still early in the process. Their skepticism would be particularly true for Carolina’s first preseason game had it been against a mere random opponent. This matchup wasn’t entirely random and may offer more insight than normal.  
Early last season, Carolina suffered a demoralizing last second defeat in Buffalo. The early loss stung particularly hard, not only because it occurred in the final seconds, but because it revealed the underlying weaknesses that eventually ended in an early playoff exit: a suspect secondary, weak offensive line, and less than potent offense. 

Ron Rivera used a dominant front seven to mask deficiencies in the secondary and negate offensive weakness, producing an 8 game win streak, a division title, and Coach of the Year. Despite these successes, it was the same weaknesses displayed early against Buffalo that undermined Carolina’s final success. In some ways, it was always a matter of personnel.

Although far from perfect, the circumstances surrounding the 2013 loss may be the closest thing Rivera has to a control group to measure last year’s team, early out of camp, to this year’s team that is beginning the process.  

C3’s Erin Ford alluded to this connection when he wrote on Byron Bell’s redemption opportunity in facing Mario Williams who racked up 4.5 sacks in last year’s meeting. Although Bell had strong performance, it wasn’t offensive line play that was most revealing or easily comparative to last year’s control group.  Surprisingly, it was the defensive side of the ball where the parallels were most striking--all which can be seen in the first 10 defensive plays. 

Buffalo's 79 yard drive, ended by a 4th and inches goal line stand, could tell the tale of Carolina’s defense, much like the 2013 loss told the tale of last year’s Panthers team.

Play 1

1-10-BUF 20 (15:00) 28-C.Spiller left tackle to BUF 34 for 14 yards (21-T.DeCoud; 59-L.Kuechly).

4-3 Defense Corner Blitz--TD showed blitz

Panthers generally play tough against the run, but when a team does rush the ball well, it’s generally a gasher. The Bills caught the Panthers during a strongside corner blitz, allowing CJ Spiller to kick  it outside for a 14 yard run. Frank Alexander, in for Big Money, nearly ran down the play from behind. Thomas DeCoud showed nice tackling form on the stop without giving up any additional “truck” yardage.

Observations: During a recent C3 podcast, Falcons writer Scott Karasik, lamented over DeCoud’s tackling inability.  DeCoud made a couple of good tackles early, but fans should hope that DeCoud isn’t charged with this task too often.  

Play 2

1-10-BUF 34 (15:00) 28-C.Spiller right guard to BUF 36 for 2 yards (91-C.Cole; 98-S.Lotulelei).

3-4 Combination Coverage

3-4 with Hardy playing WILL-backer blitzing from up on the line and well outside of the LT. Weak-side blitz; weakside CB apparently in press or press-bail, strongside CB in off-coverage. Again, the interior DL collapsed down on where the hole was supposed to be; Spiller cut back but Star swallowed him for a 2-yard gain.

Observations: Panthers run-stop should be improved with the continued development of Star and Short.  Look for teams to try and work the flats.

Play 3:

2-8-BUF 36 (15:00) 3-E.Manuel pass short right to 14-S.Watkins to 50 for 14 yards (38-R.Lester).



Base 4-3 Tampa-2 Defense (Cover 2 )

LBs bit on a play-action fake to Spiller, leaving Watkins able to work the zone. Antoine Cason would have had good position on the play had it been man-coverage, but stopped halfway through Watkins’ route because of the defensive call. Robert Lester at safety made a nice 21st-century rules low tackle on the play.

Observations: Lack of secondary talent forces Carolina to run a lot of zone coverage, which is susceptible to these types of gains.  C3 caught up with BBR’s Bill Voth at training camp where he described Carolina’s secondary, aside from Benwikere, as band-aids.  Well Sammy Watkins peeled the band-aid here.  Let’s hope Cason can answer the call before a more experienced quarterback-receiver tandem rips it off.

Play 4:

1-10- (15:00) 3-E.Manuel pass short left to 28-C.Spiller pushed ob at CAR 47 for 3 yards (23-M.White).



Cover 3, zone-blitz

Hardy faked a pass rush and dropped into zone on the weakside while Thomas Davis blitzed from the strong side. Offensive play call was a weakside swing pass to Spiller. Cason whiffed on the a tackle. Melvin White forced Spiller of bounds.

Observations: Buffalo responded well to this play, but Carolina responded better.  Play demonstrates Carolina’s relentless pressure on the quarterback.  Had Cason made this tackle, the play would have illustrated Carolina’s defensive capabilities. Instead a blown tackle, led to well….still a strong defensive play.  If this is what Carolina can do when they miss tackles, offensive opponents are now getting antsy thinking of what Carolina can do when they do make those plays. 

Play 5:

2-7-CAR 47 (15:00) 3-E.Manuel pass short left to 14-S.Watkins to CAR 43 for 4 yards (23-M.White).

Cover 3

Another zone-blitz with Robert Lester playing SS, showing blitz VERY early, creeping up to the line on the strong side. Melvin White was barely starting to get moving toward his post-snap zone when the quick-slant to Watkins was thrown and completed. White read the play quickly, broke off his assignment, and made a textbook tackle for a small gain.

Observations: Melvin White continues to show up. Rivera has praised Cason throughout camp, but been a little more measured when discussing White.  As an UDFA, this guy has done nothing but show up and impress.  Last season, Carolina asked White to do the near impossible.  Wet behind the ears, he was required to defend the biggest, fastest wide receivers.  If White can be tasked with the #2 corner responsibilities, as he is on paper, this guy should outperform expectations.  Hopefully Cason lives up to Rivera’s praise, allowing White to prove himself on a more reasonable stage. 

Play 6

3-3-CAR 43 (15:00) (Shotgun) 3-E.Manuel pass deep right to 15-C.Hogan to CAR 11 for 32 yards (21-T.DeCoud).


Man Coverage:

Panthers show all-out blitz pre-snap with 10 defenders at the line and a single deep safety. DL in a strong-side shift. Offensive play call was a rub-route to Hogan in the slot with Charles Godfrey in man-coverage. Godfrey got caught up in traffic as the outside WR went inside while the slot WR went outside (the “rub” route), allowing Chris “7-11” Hogan a wide-open look down the right sideline in an “out-and-up” pattern. BTW Hogan got the nickname “7-11” from Reggie Bush when both were with the Miami Dolphins and the subject of “Hard Knocks” that season because, in Bush’s words, Hogan was “open 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week.” Thomas DeCoud, the lone deep man, clotheslined him on the right sideline for the tackle.

Observations: The routes created a natural pick that exposed the secondary’s individual ability. Once the pick occurred, Hogan separated easily from the cornerbacks and boogied up the sideline.  If anything this play, not only exposed Carolina’s ineffectiveness at man coverage, but it also highlights the forced necessity of playing zone coverage.  There are ways to work the zone, and this will continue to hurt Carolina as opposing offenses dink and dunk their way down the field.  

Play 7

1-10-CAR 11 (15:00) (Shotgun) 22-F.Jackson right guard to CAR 7 for 4 yards (59-L.Kuechly).


Nickel

Free Safety Robert Lester lined up like a WILL backer, but was blocked completely out of the play by an O-lineman. Buffalo in the shotgun, handed off to Jackson on a “slice” run-right, who cut back to the middle. Kuechly came off a block by Buffalo’s center to make the stop.

Observations: Run away from Luke, not towards him!

Play 8

2-6-CAR 7 (15:00) (Shotgun) 22-F.Jackson up the middle to CAR 2 for 5 yards (38-R.Lester).

Nickel

With Lester playing SS, DeCoud the FS, rotating his coverage to the weakside even more at the snap as two Buffalo WRs were wide left leaving Sammy Watkins alone on the strong side with Cason in tight man-coverage in an apparently failed attempt at press-bail coverage since he didn’t get much of a push on Watkins’ route on this running play. Clearly, the defense was expecting a pass here. NOTE: Kawann Short was in this package, double-teamed as the nose tackle, and moved aside by the O-line and he didn’t hold up at the point of attack as a result.

Observations: This play wasn’t easy to watch. Carolina gets tough as the field shortens, but we're worried this shows that the secondary’s struggles affect the defensive line and linebacker core because these units are required to do so much. 

Play 9

3-1-CAR 2 (15:00) (Shotgun) 22-F.Jackson up the middle to CAR 2 for no gain (76-G.Hardy; 38-R.Lester).

Nickel defense, 4-2-5, man-coverage

Buffalo in 11 package tried to ram it up the gut. No movement of defensive front by Bills’ O-line while Hardy sidestepped the lunging LT and came across the middle to make a diving grab on Jackson’s legs to get him hung up until help arrived. Hardy made the key play here.

Observations: Carolina will be even stronger in the middle this year. With Star and Short entering their second season, in addition to Cole and Edwards, the Panthers are tough in the middle.  If Carolina can stack the box, watch out!  You better hope you can shed a tackle and head to the pylon. 

Play 10

4-1-CAR 2 (15:00) 22-F.Jackson left guard to CAR 2 for no gain (93-C.Blackburn). #60 Kraig Urbik reports as eligible 


Goal-line D, straight-up

Buffalo lined up in 23 package (2 RBs, 3 TEs, 0 WRs) with the LEFT side being the strong side as it had a TE and the other TE as an H-back on the left. Very heavy run-look with the possibility of a play-fake/rollout to a crossing TE still in play. D-Line got some surge but mostly in the wrong spots initially as the play indeed was a run-left behind that strong LEFT side. After Jackson got the ball and committed himself, the FB blocked a penetrating Chase Blackburn rather poorly at the two yard line, and four Carolina defenders converged on Jackson either blocking his path or helping in the tackle. Blackburn had read the play early and came charging at the line, followed closely by Charles Godfrey, likely throwing off the timing of the FB’s block which in turn helped the Carolina D-line disrupt and penetrate, not allowing Jackson much of a chance at all to get the first down at the 1-yard line...let alone get into the endzone. This swarming defense is exactly what defensive coaches want to see in goal-line defenses. Short, Lotulelei, and Hardy were the others in the immediate swarm. It was truly a gang-tackle.

Observations: As the field shortens, the Panthers can line up and punch you in the mouth. Simply put, the Panthers defense improves as teams enter the red zone and approach the goal line. 

So what tale does this tell?  First and foremost, Carolina’s front seven is boss, perhaps more so than last year. The Panthers can and will beat offenses at the line of scrimmage, allowing the linebackers some serious flexibility.  As long as the players make the right reads and McDermott schemes properly, the defense will continue to be the driving engine of this team.  If there is a defect, however, it is the secondary--just as it was last season. Carolina will have to run a lot of zone coverages and continue to rely on a pass rush, that without a lot of blitzing, continuously gets after the quarterback. Without this push, the secondary will have to cover….and that’s something they can’t do for very long. Additionally, as the Panthers continue to be handcuffed primarily to zone coverages, teams will be able to find holes and work the zone.  Like the game winning drive by Buffalo in 2013 and in the opening drive of this game, teams can move the ball on this defense when the quarterback has time. Sprinkle in a few effective running plays, and Carolina becomes a little more timid. This ultimately puts more pressure on a secondary to handle their guys on their own. But unlike last year’s finish in Buffalo, this Panther defense gets stingier and stingier the closer they are backed up to the goal line.  With this underlying weakness in the secondary, look for the Panthers defense to continue to bend, but not break. 

By C3 Crew